We’ve seen a surge in cinematic Stephen King adaptations over the past couple years. Now added to the procession is Pet Sematary, an intermittently eerie but ultimately forgettable retelling of King’s 1983 novel.
As someone who has neither read the book nor seen the previous film adaptation from 30 years ago, I went into this new iteration with an open mind but came out oddly unmoved by a tale that’s almost oppressively bleak. While there are some well-earned scares that meet the minimum requirements for modern horror, it feels like the source material was stripped of most of its emotional heft for a more broadly commercial appeal.
Jason Clarke stars as Louis Creed, a doctor who relocates from Boston to a rural town in Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two young children Ellie and Gage, and the family cat Church. While wandering through the woods one day, Ellie stumbles upon a creepy pet cemetery where their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) fills her in on some of the town’s mysterious past. After a pair of tragedies subsequently befall the Creed family, Louis and Jud take matters into their own hands and conjure the powerful mystical forces of a sinister burial ground behind the cemetery.
Co-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch lay some nice foundational work with foreboding musings on death and the afterlife. But once the plot kicks in, the pacing begins to resemble a headlong rush toward the conclusion.
Although it has some properly macabre touches, the main storyline also has more than a few contrivances and inconsistencies that screenwriter Jeff Buhler isn’t able to fully iron out. More successful is a subplot involving Rachel’s guilt stemming from a conflict with her dead sister, which manifests itself in a pair of chilling setpieces that give the film a terrifying jolt of energy.
The effectiveness of these scenes is mainly due to the excellent work from Seimetz, who carries an authentic anxiety in her performance that makes her the most sympathetic character in the story.
Although Lithgow brings a sweltering severity to the film’s most ostentatious role, his Jud often feels like more of a ever-present plot device than a fully realized person.
On the other end of the quality spectrum is Clarke, who is never fully convincing as Louis in the quieter scenes toward the beginning but strains credulity even further in the ghoulishly over-the-top material that dominates the film’s second half.
A quarrel that I have not with the film itself but the marketing of the film is just how many plot details are ruined by the theatrical trailer, which is a trend that is becoming disturbingly common these days. There are at least three crucial plot points, including two that I would consider major spoilers for those unfamiliar with the source material, that are present in the footage that has played in the months leading up to the film’s release.
Perhaps going in fresh would have yielded better results. But with its secrets already out in the open, Pet Sematary digs itself into a shallow grave.
Coming to theaters this weekend
The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini and Raymond Cruz, continues the supernatural chills of the Conjuring Universe by introducing a motherly ghost who preys on children.
Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas, tells the harrowing true story of a teenager who enters a coma after falling through ice and the family that prays for his full recovery.
Penguins, narrated by Ed Helms, is a Disneynature documentary about a penguin who joins millions of fellow males on a quest to build a suitable nest, find a life partner, and start a family.
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