By Alex Bird
Pet Sematary (2019), the second film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel of the same name, is a bit of a throwback in the current horror landscape. It aims for a place its hard to remember existed, in between the ultra-cheap franchise-driven B level, and the indie prestige horror from filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. Much like its fellow King adaptation, 2017’s It, Pet Sematary is plot-heavy and character driven (though not particularly self-serious). Unfortunately the breakdown in this formula is that Pet Sematary often prioritizes plot over characters in a way It skillfully avoided.
The film follows Louis (Jason Clark) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) Creed, a couple from Boston who move out to rural Maine with their children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and Ellie’s beloved cat Church. Soon after moving in to their new house, they discover the titular “sematary” in the woods behind their property. This prompts Ellie to ask some uncomfortable questions about death, and the different perspective of the parents is quickly established as a major theme of the film. Rachel is haunted by guilt over the accidental death of her disabled sister as a child, and wants to shield Ellie from potentially traumatic harsh realities. Louis, a former emergency room doctor, used to dealing with the dead and dying, is more frank and argues with Rachel over her belief in the afterlife.
These perspectives are put to the test again when Church is struck and killed by one of the trucks that habitually speed past the Creed residence. After some debate, it’s agreed that Louis will tell Ellie that Church simply ran away. This appears to be the end of it until their friendly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) guides Louis to a mysterious spot in the woods far beyond the pet cemetery and instructs him to bury the cat there. The next morning Church is back and seemingly alive and well, but the family soon notices his behavior has turned sinister. He now acts hostile and threatening to everyone except Louis, culminating in the resurrected Church seemingly leading Ellie to her death by truck in a similar fashion. With Rachel and Gage off visiting relatives in Boston, a heartbroken Louis decides to try to bring back Ellie in the same fashion, and she too appears intact, but different, with things spiraling into mayhem when the rest of the family returns.
The problem with Pet Sematary is its script. The first act is plagued with bizarre pacing, boring dialogue, and implausibilities. The first few horror scenes are thrown in more or less at random without any time taken to build up suspense, and don’t leave much impact as a result. It often feels like it’s just going through the motions to get from one beat to the next without caring much for the details (for example, when we’re given a vague, rambling explanation of the supernatural properties of the land that amounts to little more than a dressed up version of the “Indian burial ground” trope). The movie finds its footing somewhat in the second half when the exposition is out of the way and it can focus both on Louis’s grief over Ellie and the horror of her unholy resurrection. Despite this, the characters are too thinly sketched for this to feel like a real tragedy, and at times it’s hard not to be reminded of last year’s far superior Hereditary, which tracked similar beats with far more weight and empathy.
On the upside, the movie is visually impressive, even touching on some bold, well-executed style choices, especially when Louis and Rachel begin to have surreal, ominous waking nightmares. The performances are good, with Lithgow’s supporting part as the melancholy but good-hearted Jud standing out especially. There’s also something to be said for the film’s relatively sparse use of special effects, notably using several real live well-trained cats for almost every scene involving Church.
All of this elevates it at least a bit over the standard B-horror fare, but otherwise almost everything successful about the film comes from King’s novel. The plot, largely lifted straight from the book, is the main thing holding the script together (although it departs quite a bit at the ending, in significant and divisive ways). Some of the most interesting ideas in the story, such as the way Ellie’s return from the dead inverts and parodies the Christian resurrection story, are only hinted at and largely under-explored.
Ultimately the film feels like a mostly-unsuccessful attempt to cash in on the success of It in the hopes of a mini-Stephen King revival. But Pet Sematary fails to realize it’s missing the interest in and love for its characters that made that movie work. Nevertheless, it’s a movie that at least bothers to have themes, even if it ultimately doesn’t prioritize exploring them, and includes great acting and solid direction that might have made something really good if only it had a better script to work from.