Film Review: ‘Pet Sematary’ Is as Bleak and Murky as a Maine Swamp

PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures

“Sometimes dead is better.” That iconic refrain has been part of every phase of marketing for the new adaptation of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” And the film itself, ironically, proves the statement true.

There are things to applaud about this updated and modernized take on the horror tale, but as a whole, it succumbs to the same trap that befalls most remakes. “Pet Sematary” waters down the original story, turning it into a shell of what it once was.

That’s not to say the original film – or Stephen King’s novel, for that matter – are perfect. Both have their flaws. But at their heart, they tell a story that is just as heartbreaking as it is horrific. Sadly, this new version squanders its potential, contenting itself to be little more than a gross-out slasher flick of the paranormal kind.

First published by Stephen King in 1983, “Pet Sematary” is the story of Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a big city doctor who takes a job in a university clinic in rural Maine. Louis and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), look forward to raising their children in safe and comfortable happiness. They soon become friends with their kindly old neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), but it isn’t long before tragedy finds them. First in the death of the family cat, Winston Churchill, and then in the death of the Creeds’ 9-year-old daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence). The Creeds soon learn, though, that their property is the site of an ancient and mysterious power that can return the dead to life.

Things are bland almost from the start as the Creeds arrive at their new home and Ellie befriends Jud practically as soon as they’re out of the car. Relationships are formed a bit too quickly, which is the first sign of the troubled script. There are some lovely moments between Louis and Rachel, and between the parents and their daughter. But most of what unfolds seems in a hurry to get to the scary parts. And through all of this, young son Gage, a staple character of the novel, becomes little more than a prop as the focus shifts almost entirely to Ellie.

Jeté Laurence as Ellie in PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

One of the main issues is that the rush to get to the “good parts” sacrifices essential character development. We accept the Creeds as a loving family because we’re told to, because of course these are good parents who love their children. But we don’t get the opportunity to understand much about their personalities or their motivations. We don’t get the sense of who they are as people, beyond a few spare details. Everything is left off to the side as they race through the setup. Considering the entire film is only an hour and forty minutes, this is especially frustrating.

The story of “Pet Sematary” is one of death and grief. Ellie asks very thoughtful questions about the afterlife. Questions that are quickly brushed off by her mother, who wants to protect her little girl from the realities of death for just a bit longer. This conversation could and should have been a powerful moment. After all, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer explained that their reason for shifting the attention from 2-year-old Gage to 9-year-old Ellie was because she was old enough to understand death. Which is interesting in theory, but does little in service of the story that we ultimately receive. To go further on this would be to venture into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, they could have and should have done more with this divergent plot line.

Jason Clarke as Louis in PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

In addition to diluting the story, Kölsch and Widmyer turn this into a horror film more concerned with jump scares and the grotesque than with a growing sense of dread. There are occasional startling moments, but most viewers are unlikely to find this truly scary. Yes, horror is subjective and we are all scared by different things. But the setup here isn’t about getting under the skin. The directors concern themselves more with in-the-moment frights. This isn’t always a bad thing. But in a story that deals with ideas like dead and resurrected children, it is a disservice to the audience.

One such moment involves Rachel’s long-deceased sister, Zelda (Alyssa Levine). Rachel has always harbored a lot of guilt over her older sister’s death after a prolonged illness. But this Zelda’s monstrous, sickly, twisted child becomes a literal monster with bluish, slimy skin and yellowed eyes. Her actual death is used to gross out the audience, rather than to provide insight into Rachel’s fears. Further, the relationship between the two sisters is not given room to explain things that come later.

Amy Seimetz earns all the praise for her performance as Rachel. One of the things Kölsch and Widmyer and screenwriter Jeff Buhler get right is in expanding Rachel’s role. She is a much more equal partner with Louis, and Seimetz is by far the most interesting to watch. Her version of Rachel is smart, intuitive, and appropriately terrified and Seimetz never overplays any of it.

Jason Clarke is perfectly cast because the character of Louis Creed is, and has always been, pretty generic. Clarke has demonstrated his abilities in certain projects like “Mudbound,” so he is a decent actor. But he is usually the go-to guy when a script calls for a sort of boring every man, and he fills that role well enough. We can only hope that another director will come along soon and tap into his underutilized talents. He is sufficient here, but not special.

John Lithgow has moments throughout “Pet Sematary” that delve into interesting territory. With two Oscar nominations, plus Tony and Emmy Awards, he has had a long career of great work. He continues the trend here, even though the script is unworthy of him and he isn’t given sufficient space to demonstrate his capability.

Is “Pet Sematary” a watchable horror movie? Sure. In some (mostly superficial) ways it is better than Mary Lambert’s low-budget 1989 film. Yet, where she understood and got to the heart of the story, this entry is more concerned with being gross than being interesting. It is a disappointing experience and thoroughly unworthy of the overused descriptor, “elevated horror.”

“Pet Sematary” is distributed by Paramount and is now in theaters.

GRADE: (★★)