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‘Pet Sematary’ Review: Sometimes, the original is better

Pet Sematary
 
 

It’s easy to forget that, amidst the current Stephen King renaissance, plenty of awful clunkers have come out in the past few years, especially when you have a backlog of titles as deep and thorough as King does. For every Gerald’s Game, there’s a 1922; for every It, there’s a Dark Tower. There are four movies based on the author’s work hitting theaters this year, and I’m really sad to say that most of these movies are likely to be better than the newest Pet Sematary, which is as bad a King adaptation as you’re likely to find, and it is a substantial downgrade from Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of King’s book. Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, the directors of the weirdly-acclaimed Hollywood horror Starry Eyes, which hit screens back in 2014, it seemed to have everything going for it: A great cast, uncredited rewrites by David Kajganich (who penned the 2018 Suspiria remake), and an audience that was hungry for it. But it all falls apart, in a memorably terrible fashion. 

Things feel a bit off right as the film starts, as we survey the chaotic, blood-streaked aftermath of some unknown unpleasantness at a rural house in Maine. A house is on fire, a car lies abandoned, and a door is covered in blood. Spooky, and full of teasers for fans of the book that will inevitably disappoint them once the film gets to the end. We flash back to when the Creed family — father Louis (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Upstream Color’s Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), baby Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church — as they move to rural main so that Louis can take a position at the University of Maine’s health center. Louis used to be an ER doctor, so he’s happy to be taking something a little less stressful, and the family’s generally glad to be settling in. But one day, Rachel and Ellie notice a procession of animal-masked children carrying a dead dog in a wheelbarrow into the woods behind their house, and they think that it’s, well, pretty damn weird. Ellie’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she walks into the woods and discovers a Pet Sematary, surrounded by a giant wall of branches and downed trees. It’s there that she meets her neighbor, Jud, a widower who’s lived in the town his whole life, and the two instantly form one of those cross-generational family friendships that we love in these kinds of movies. 

It’s on Halloween when Jud discovers that Church has been hit by a truck, and he tells Louis that they need bury it as soon as possible, on that night. Louis just wants to go ahead and tell his daughter that her beloved cat has died, but Rachel stops him from doing so, as she was traumatized at an early age by her sister’s death. So the two agree to lie to her about what happened to the cat so that she can avoid the misery, and Louis and Jud set out that night to bury the cat. Right before they’re about to dig a grave in the Pet Sematary, the old man tells Louis to stop, and the two scale the wall surrounding the cemetery to head into the mountains above. It’s up there that Louis discovers a second cemetery, an ancient Micmac burial ground that Jud has led him to, and it’s there that they cover the cat in the soiled dirt. The next morning, as the Creed parents try to explain to their daughter what happened to Church, Ellie tells them that the cat’s still alive, and, sure enough, Church is chilling in the closet. But the cat’s developed an odd mean streak, and he lashes out at his owners, as if he’s been possessed by an evil spirit. When confronted with this news, Jud apologies for taking him up there, explaining to Louis that he once did the same thing, with similar results, for his dog when he was a boy. But then tragedy strikes, and Louis is pushed to do an unimaginable thing by the circumstance. 

Lambert was wise enough to temper her Pet Sematary with some measure of lurid comedy, from the iconic casting of Fred Gwynne as Jud all the way down to the film’s ending, which is as silly as it is iconic, especially with the dope transition to the Ramones’ song of the same name as the credits roll. Kölsch and Widmyer aren’t that savvy with the tone, which results in this adaptation feeling like an absolute slog in between the few and far-between moments of tension. There are some solidly effective sequences scattered throughout, such as the gory, early appearance of Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), who is one of Creed’s first patients at the University, a jogger struck by a car and wounded so badly that one of the attendants is shocked at the sight of brains pulsating through his cracked skull. His apparition haunts Creed and his family for the rest of the film, pulling them and prodding them to their final destinations, though it occasionally offers what seems to be contradictory advice to the characters — his motivations remain unknowable, but the effect is odd enough to be compelling. 

Likewise, Clarke, Seimetz and Lithgow aren’t bad in their roles, with each getting a few interesting moments of conflict or color (Seimetz also gets the film’s best, and to be honest, only, one-liner, after she sees the newly-resurrected Church chilling in her daughter’s closet), but they’re underwritten, especially with how hurried the filmmakers are in getting to their third act. It’s an odd thing to suggest that a film is too short and too long at the same time, but the things that this Pet Sematary emphasizes keeps us at a remove from the underdeveloped characters (too short), while its attempts to be “creepy” drag down the pace (too long). There are occasional moments where Kölsch and Widmyer feel like they’re gearing up to say something, especially with how we handle the subject of death with our children or how the traditionally masculine father figure’s preoccupation with the control of his family unit will ultimately lead to their destruction, but the pair can’t decide exactly what they want to, nor can they do it any differently than Lambert or King did it. And all of the changes add very little, aside from, perhaps, the gore, and are more just difference for difference’s sake or to place the new film more in line with modern trends.  

But again, the fast pace and the changes are in service of the third act, which would have to be absolutely filled with the darkest mayhem possible to make the 75 minutes that preceded it worth the wait, and Kölsch and Widmyer drop the ball in spectacular fashion, causing my audience to basically riot against the film. Seriously, every idea in the last half-hour is so spectacularly mishandled that it made an audience of King fans laugh derisively at every line of dialogue and every shot transition. This has a lot to do with the twist that the second trailer for the film so miserably spoiled for everyone, involving a specific character’s fate, where every aspect of the twist — from the direction of the actor all the way down to the way that they do their kills — feels like it was ripped straight from a mid-aughts slasher, back when studios were busy letting good horror die on the vine in favor of pursuing the rights to whatever Japanese genre classic was in favor with the online elite that week. It’s among the most depressing finales to a hotly anticipated horror film in recent memory, befitting an adaptation of a Stephen King classic whose story was adapted by the man who wrote Seventh Son. Honestly, this film seemed impossible to fuck up — the original wasn’t particularly beloved by horror fans (even though it  most definitely should be, especially after this bullshit), and the novel is widely acclaimed as being King’s strongest (hell, even the author himself says so!) — but it’s a testament to the fallibility of human beings and how we can absolutely ruin a good thing if we commit hard enough to it. At least this Pet Sematary commits to its badness all the way through the credits, with a Ramones cover so poorly done and lifeless that it almost feels like someone buried the original song itself in the Micmac graveyard.