Updated: Feb 8, 2020
The books of Stephen King are very popular, both among readers and movie/tv studio executives. They have been adapting his work for over forty years and now it has gotten to the point where we are getting remakes of those adaptations. Following the tremendous success of It, we get a new Pet Sematary, released thirty years to the month after its first adaptation. This is a well-made horror movie that does not lean completely on jump-scares. Even at its relatively short run-time (97 minutes, without the end credits), it gets a bit repetitive in the middle and it seems like some important story details are missing. But it maintains dread pretty consistently and will likely please fans of the genre well enough.
The Creed family (Dad Louis, Mom Rachel, young Ellie and baby Gage) moves to a new home in a small town in Maine. Ellie soon finds a Pet Cemetery in the woods on their property. When Ellie’s cat dies, friendly neighbor Jud helps Louis bury it in a special area in the woods. The next morning, the cat is back, but something is different about it. Things only get more disturbing from there.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer do a good job creating and maintaining their tone. It is creepy almost from the start with ominous shots of the woods and the sound of things going bump in the night. Plus, a lot of close-ups of the resurrected cat. The pacing could have been sped-up a little, though the early slowness makes things feel extra chaotic when it goes off the rails toward the end. It is a horror movie that is kind of horrifying. I just wish its story were clearer.
It is difficult to be freaked out when you do not understand why things are happening. There are a couple of lines of dialogue that make a weak effort to explain the goings-on, but it sounds like it is easier to follow character motivations if you read the book first. I have not read it, so there were several things involving the pet cemetery and the evil therein that did not come together for me. Specifics would have been welcome and made the plot feel less like a loosely connected series of events.
Besides the atmosphere and location, Pet Sematary works as well as it does thanks to understated-until-it’s-time-to-go-crazy performances from its cast. Jason Clarke is low-energy as Louis, exactly what the character called for. We have to believe this logical man of science would make the decisions he does. Amy Seimetz does good work as the grief-stricken Rachel, even if her story seems half-written. John Lithgow pops up as the knowledgeable neighbor. He is a sympathetic lonely old man. However, the show is stolen by Jeté Laurence as Ellie. She is a sweet, innocent, inquisitive little girl, but the plot twists rest on her and she moves convincingly with them. Child performances are getting better every year and this is another really strong one.
Pet Sematary is a good production of an underdeveloped screenplay. Most of the other pieces were at least mildly successful, but I thought “Huh?” to myself far too much to truly enjoy this. As I understand it, King’s novel deals with grief and guilt in a hauntingly scary fashion. This version does not do much with its themes. They are not used to enhance the scares. It sounds like the book is quite intense. This adaptation is mainly useful for tiding King fans over with something decent while they wait for It: Chapter 2 to come out in September.
2½ out of 5
Jason Clarke as Louis
Amy Seimetz as Rachel
Jeté Laurence as Ellie
John Lithgow as Jud
Hugo and Lucas Lavoie as Gage
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Screenplay by Jeff Buhler