Horror remakes generally fall into two broad categories; when they work, we get The Crazies and, when they don’t, it’s Suspiria. Which one Pet Sematary, the 2019 re-imagining of the Stephen King novel already immortalised on film 30 years ago, falls into is difficult to ascertain. It isn’t a barnstorming reboot like the former, nor is it a spectacularly misjudged failure like the latter. The film is deadeningly dull, and it’s impossible for a piece of art to either triumph or fail when there’s nothing memorable about it in the first place.
Jason Clarke, who gets highest billing here (the great John Lithgow is, correctly, gifted the highly sought after “and” credit) is doctor and family man Louis (his second time playing a Louis this year following war-era weepie The Aftermath, opposite Keira Knightley). The picture begins with the whole clan — Dad, mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz, sidelined to an exasperating degree), and kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence, who played Young Chelsea in punk slasher The Ranger) and Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) — relocating to the countryside for a bit of peace.
Their spacious pile is miles from anything, but the titular graveyard looms just beyond the trees and a massive road sends loud trucks barrelling past practically every hour. The only other house within walking distance belongs to Lithgow’s Jud, a grumpy yet kindly widower who meets Ellie when she’s out exploring. He also, helpfully, explains what the Pet Sematary is, why it’s there, and where it came from right down to the backstory involving a local tribe. So, when Ellie’s cat (the most handsome kitty I’ve seen on film in quite some time) dies, Louis knows exactly what to do.
Pet Sematary actually begins at the end of the story, with an abandoned home, blood on the door handles, ominously looming camera angles, etc. before looping back around again. This is something more and more movies are doing nowadays and it needs to stop, like, right this second. Filmmakers, this ain’t Memento. Starting your story at the end and then rewinding back to fill in the gaps isn’t clever. Particularly in horror, where doing so robs the film of much of its scare appeal (even if the audience has the most basic idea of what’s going to happen, it’s an issue).
In the case of this particular movie, it arguably doesn’t matter that much because the thing has precisely zero intrigue or sense of foreboding. Everybody involved clearly tried very hard, and the movie certainly looks good — richly textured, very green and earthy, especially in the forest-set sequences — but Pet Sematary 2019 never engages fully with its premise. There’s no tactility to it, and much of the action feels like it was captured on a sound-stage. So much dry ice abounds the family might as well live on the bloody moors.
The script, credited to Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, is clunky (Louis quite literally says at one point, “It was a mistake we moved here”) and exposition-heavy. When it comes to Rachel’s deceased sister Zelda, one of the scariest elements of both King’s source novel and the 1989 film, her story is told via exposition with only the quickest flashbacks to flesh it out as Seimetz weeps incessantly. A disturbing photo of Zelda, glimpsed early on, is actually scarier than any of the bone-breaking, “Racheeeeeeeeel” whispering nonsense, which is a real shame.
All of Zelda’s big scares are spoiled by the film’s many trailers, too, a problem across the board — so if you’ve watched anything, prepare to recognise everything onscreen. The film is insanely predictable, right down to the moment. It has the musty feeling of a T.V. movie, overwritten and yet underdeveloped at the same time. Character motivations make no sense, Jud smokes a cigarette out of nowhere, as though nobody noticed that hadn’t been established previously and, later, another character has the tiniest smudge of blood on one just hand after handling a corpse.
At least Lithgow is reliably brilliant here, as always. He brings warmth and nuance to a grizzled would-be archetype so Jud never feels like just an exposition dump (though that is his chief function in the story, unfortunately). Lithgow’s weathered features and searching, kind eyes suggest years of inner torment. Although grief is the theme of the piece, it’s only properly felt via his character. And, considering the story focuses on an entirely different family, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Happy Death Day 2U was recently singled out in a universally panned article for being the first horror movie to present grief accurately, but the point the writer was making about that film in particular stood and, in comparison to Pet Sematary, the depth of emotion on show in what was otherwise a silly, throwaway slasher is even more impressive. The grief was earned in Tree’s case, but here it never feels real. Clarke does the single tear thing, his face crumpling more and more as the movie goes on, but he doesn’t convince as a father driven to the edge. If anything, he digs up his kid a bit too enthusiastically.
The Aussie actor, so impressive in the likes of Everest or even the fluffy Aftermath, where his stiff upper lip served him well as a leader of a doomed mountain expedition and a PTSD-saddled officer (who had also lost a young child!), is objectively terrible here. Just plain bad. His accent is super weird, like Sean Connery-level almost, as though Clarke did every line read with chewy toffee in his mouth. His family are apparently from Boston but nobody sounds even remotely east coast, never mind like they just parked the car in the yard.
Clarke’s lacking performance in the lead role wouldn’t be as obvious if anything else about the movie worked. True, there is some divertingly fun, spooky stuff with the reanimated cat (who everybody is already obsessed with following his stunning red carpet debut) and youngster Laurence has a great time playing her zombified, murderous second self (she’s the only actor not treating this like Shakespeare, to be fair). But the scares are annoyingly rushed throughout, and there’s no sense of encroaching menace.
The most egregious kill (which everybody is expecting, but I shan’t spoil here just in case) happens off-screen and is strangely bloodless, which calls the movie’s R rating into question. Is it a hard R for…swearing? I’d rather be scared by a horror movie than hear Jason Clarke say the F word a couple times, but maybe that’s just me. As it stands, there’s very little blood or gore. The movie could’ve stood to be an intense PG-13 with actual frights rather than a lame duck R with a few innocuous swear words thrown in.
The key issue with Pet Sematary is that it quite clearly thinks it’s better than it is, and better than horror in general. Much has been made of the term “elevated horror” and co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (giving the remake to two dudes when a woman, the great Mary Lambert, helmed the original is a whole other issue) had that idea in mind when conceiving this dull, plodding, and completely uninspired take on King’s most terrifying novel. But Pet Sematary is incredibly by the book, from the dream sequences to the haunting presence of a bloodied man Louis couldn’t save.
That this is their follow up to the genre-bending Starry Eyes is even more confounding, so stripped is this film of any nuance, style, or wit. Their Pet Sematary so risk-averse it spells out everything in advance and then simply repeats itself over and over. In the shadow of 2017’s brilliant IT, Kölsch and Widmyer’s attempt to adapt King is even less impressive. That highly entertaining film gave us great characters, a real sense of place, and a story we were fully engaged in right from the outset. It was also really effing scary.
Pet Sematary is so engrossed in its own self importance and supposed deeper meaning it forgets to frighten us, or even give us a reason to care in the first place. This film also sports, and I don’t say this lightly, one of the dumbest and most try-hard endings I’ve seen in quite some time. I just watched it a few hours ago and I’m struggling to remember anything about it, aside from the cat (seriously, the cat is so great). Luckily we’ve got the second part of IT coming later this year to look forward to because, on this evidence, Steven King adaptations may not be the safest option going forward.
WICKED RATING: 4/10
Director(s): Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Writer(s): Matt Greenberg, Jeff Buhler
Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Studio/ Production Co: Paramount Pictures
Length: 101 minutes