Review: ‘Pet Sematary’ is a Creepy, But Lifeless Cadaver
Having accepted a new position at a university hospital, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has moved his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and their cat, Church, to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. At first glance, their new abode seems peaceful, but when their new neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), finds Church dead on the road, he shows Louis the dark, twisted secret lurking in his own backyard: a mysterious burial ground that has the power to bring your loved ones back.
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, Pet Sematary is the third film based on Stephen King’s iconic novel, following 1988’s Pet Sematary and its less-adored 1992 sequel, Pet Sematary Two — and it’s aware of that. To keep things fresh, Kölsch and Widmyer subvert expectations based on what the audience has already seen and/or read. In some cases, it is a simple change, such as a derivative scene building towards a scare that once happened in an earlier version, only to have it pop out moments later in another place entirely, if at all. But there are also a few major departures from the source material, such as the entire final act of the film, making this adaption feel even less like a simple retread.
Pet Sematary is merely serviceable in the majority of its acting (Lithgow standing out as the major exception) and the handling of its story, but whenever there is a scare, the film really comes to life. Deep ventures into the forest bring the appropriate levels of gothic atmosphere while recurring terrors involving Rachel’s sister, Zelda (Ayssa Brooke Levine), send chills down your spine. However, its best moment is its strangest, an offbeat scene that doesn’t involve a jump scare, but a pair of disoriented eyes, a moment that allows the audience to really sit with the peculiarity of it all.
While Pet Sematary gives us enough space to soak in its weirdness, it rushes the audience through the tragedy and grief that made King’s story effective in the first place. King let time pass without characters, allowed us to occupy rooms while they mourned their loved ones, and we mourned with them, which further intensified Louis’ position in the story. For the enemy of Pet Sematary wasn’t just the Micmac burial ground and its supernatural pull, but grief itself and its power over us. All of that gets lost in this mix and ultimately, we are neither given the time to miss characters nor consider what we would do in Louis’ shoes.
Any resemblance of verisimilitude is lost in Pet Sematary’s final moments. Without giving anything away, it ends on one of those “so downbeat, it’s upbeat” notes; a fun, nihilistic smirk to the audience, but one that isn’t earned. The ending of the book is universal, maybe even poetic, as it touches upon the endless cycle and self-fulfilled ruin of making mistakes, seeing the error in your ways and putting things right, only to make those same mistakes again. While I can’t argue there isn’t a bit of poetic justice in the new ending, it is little more than a cool, yet soulless ending that ultimately has nothing to say.
At its best, Pet Sematary is satisfyingly strange. At its worst, it is about as lifeless as a reanimated corpse. But most of the time, it is functional enough to be entertaining. Audiences seeking casual frights will leave the theater feeling content, but those looking for a more articulate, potent dive into its story and central themes might want to head to their local bookstore.