Pet Sematary is a soulless return from the franchise grave
Pet Sematary tells the story of a magical place where, if you bury a pet, it will come back from the dead. The catch is this: when it comes back, it won’t be the same. Sure, it’ll have the same body as your deceased companion, but their soul will be gone. Their personality will have been stripped from them, and their desires will fall more in line with primitiveness than civility. In Stephen King’s source novel and in Mary Lambert’s original cinematic adaptation of the text, this concept is used to explore the chameleonic nature of grief, suggesting that a well-preserved memory will always trump a soulless replacement. To sum it up using King’s textual refrain: Sometimes, dead is better.
After seeing Pet Sematary, the middling rehash of a story done oh so much better in the past, I can’t agree with this notion more. Sometimes, dead is better.
Brought to the screen by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch (Starry Eyes), Pet Sematary uses the same basic premise to tell a slightly different tale. Kudos to writers (Matt Greenberg, Jeff Buhler) for attempting to go somewhere new with the story, even if it isn’t nearly as compelling as previous iterations. If you’re going to rehash an old standard, avoiding simple recreation is certainly the way to go, but unfortunately for this version, the chosen angle cooks off the thematic resonance which makes the classic tale so terrifying, replacing it with basic horror nasties.
The bare bones plot is this: Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke & Amy Seimetz) have moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Ludlow, Maine in an effort to escape the professional life and spend more time developing their young family. Their son Gage is still a toddler, and their daughter Ellie is on the cusp of her ninth birthday. When the family arrives at their new house they find that it sits at the edge of a busy road — one which frequently finds big rig trucks speeding away from the nearby Orinco oil company. Their new neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) is a chain-smoking, beer drinking widower who becomes fast friends with the Creeds. He warns that the road claims the lives of plenty a pet, which is why a nearby pet cemetery frequently sees morbid processions from children in mourning.
When one of these trucks claims the life of Winston “Church” Churchill, the Creed family cat, Jud, in an effort to help Louis avoid talking to young Ellie about death, shows Louis an ancient. burial ground beyond the cemetery proper — a place that has the power to bring Church back from the dead. It works, but now Church is a bit different, and a chain of tragic events has begun.
This is where the newest iteration of the tale takes off in a new direction. This is also where the film loses steam. The main plot beats have changed, and a lot of the longform tension which can only be built through the text of a novel is traded for loud, shrieky horror tropes. All are well done, of course, but the guttural fear evoked by King and Lambert is gone. This is not a meditation on grief or familial responsibility. Nope, this is about dead things that are mean. Fans of the original already know of one big change to the story, as it was spoiled in the trailers. Within the movie, the way this change is presented makes it clear that it was supposed to be a surprise for anyone not a Sematary noob, and it’s a shame that it’s been ruined. Then again, if you want to announce to the world that this “yet-another-reboot” is worth checking out, advertising your biggest plot alteration is a great way to go about it.
I should also note that, having avoided the trailers myself, this change was spoiled for me by everyone bitching about the early reveal on Film Twitter — bastion of reasoned takes and grown up behavior if there ever was one.
So who is this movie for? Hard to tell. As someone who only recently saw the original films, and literally finished the book just a few days ago, this film plays like an inferior companion piece, somehow simultaneously rushed and bloated. For someone unfamiliar with the material, this will probably play like any old multiplex horror flick. And to that end, it gets the job done. But where a handful of jump scares and and a decent sense of moment-to-moment suspense are satisfying in the short term, the true power of King’s story lies in the way it sticks with you — the way it makes you question if you’re as corruptible as Louis Creed. That’s all gone now, and it’s a shame.
This isn’t to say that the film is bad. Overall, I liked it, and as a calling card for Widmyer and Kölsch, it’s a goodun. These guys clearly know how to piece together functional frights (seriously, watch Starry Eyes if you haven’t already), all with the added panache of gut-wrenching gore. The FX makeup is on point. From Rachel’s spinal meningitis-afflicted sister Zelda, to the undead things brought back by the cemetery, it’s all quite chilling. If the film had the strength of characterization to back up the grimy effects work, this sleek update could really sing.
The film’s earlier cinematography dissolves as the film moves along. When it began, I noted how good it looks. It downright pops. By the end, the visuals are bland, gray, and increasingly flat. Fog is a great effect when it’s used to highlight a scary location. By the time the third act was in full swing, fog becomes the scary location.
Both the novel and the earlier film embrace a bit of camp. They’re not cheesy per se, but the distance from cold realism allows more room for the magical elements to breathe. It makes the characters’ resistance/acceptance of the supernatural that much easier to swallow. It invites an empathy that the new film lacks. When the neo-Creeds are confronted with the supernatural, they just go with it. It’s hard to go with them.
Perhaps my favorite element of King’s novel is the idea that the magic of the cemetery (sorry, Sematary) is sentient in a way. It needs to be fed to stay alive, and it’s using its malevolent grasp to draw anyone and everyone into its clutches. The Creeds are just next in a long line of hapless passengers on an invisible route to ruin. This fits with the characterization of Louis Creed as intended. Namely, he’s a bit hapless himself. He’s struggling to find control in a life that he is not quite master of. He has doubts. He lacks conviction. His choice to use the cemetery, at least as he sees it, is one borne of fear. He’s putting a band-aid on a broken arm, and it ultimately catches up to him. Not so for Clarke’s version of the character. This guy seems to have made his choices out of ego. In his mind, he deserves the powers of a deity. He’s operating minimally out of fear and mostly out of pride. There’s certainly an interesting narrative route to traverse here, but it’s just not that movie. This character shift has a ripple effect of making all of his decisions seem kind of dumb. Louis moves forward like a humanoid plot device, doing things only because that’s what he’s here to do.
Still, there’s fun to be had here. I am very open to the idea that I may have overloaded myself with Pet Sematary material by cramming the novel into my brain in the weeks before the film’s release, and I will certainly be seeking a second viewing at some point. But the key to effective horror is making you care about the people before you start tearing them to pieces. I don’t care about any of these people.
Note: The United Artists Riverview Theater has fallen off in a big way over the past few weeks. The last three films I saw there had some of the worst projection I’ve ever seen in a professional setting. Poor projection can make or break a film, and at a time where movie tickets can cost upwards of $15, it’s offensive and unacceptable.
Pet Sematary opens in Philly theaters tonight.