Recently, we have been getting some very good Stephen King film adaptations. From the nostalgic, no-holds-barred terror of IT (2017) to the nightmarish, introspective Gerald’s Game on Netflix, these films see talented filmmakers finding a way to take King’s material and trim them down to compelling two-hour fright-fests, all while retaining a strong sense of character and story. The latest studio offering based on Stephen King’s work, Pet Sematary, makes strides to modernize and adapt to today’s horror audiences, but loses sight of character and story in the process. This results in a consistently creepy film that has the conviction to go to dark places, thematically and narratively, but not enough character depth or nuance to give it a lasting impression.
Both an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and a remake of the 1989 film, this new iteration stars Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz as Louis and Rachel Creed, the parents of young Ellie (Jete Laurence) and younger Gage. The Creed family (which includes Church, the family cat) moves into a home in rural Maine, with a particularly loud street in the frontyard and an equally ominous forest in the back. While out exploring the forest, Ellie comes across a makeshift graveyard, with a sign designating the area as a “pet sematary.” Here, Ellie runs into their new neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), an old man with a closely tied history to the cemetery and what lies beyond it. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Jud shows Louis a way to make the family whole again, but the consequences may not be worth it in the end.
From its opening scenes, Pet Sematary plays out in stilted and awkward fashion, undercutting much of the atmospheric tone that the directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) are attempting to set up. There’s a particular lack of subtlety in some of the dialogue. In numerous instances, characters tell us what they are feeling instead of actually showing it. At one point, Louis tells Rachel exactly what she’s feeling in that moment, even after we were given enough visual cues previously to infer what she’s going through. Another scene sees Jud revealing that Ellie has opened up his heart in a way nobody has before. But with only two previous scenes of these two characters interacting, the statement feels unearned and becomes a stand-in for actual character development.
It’s in this lack of depth where it becomes clear that the film is more interested in what happens to the characters (and the thematic implications of their fates), rather than the characters themselves. There are many ruminations from our protagonists about death and what comes after. The theme of death is imbedded in King’s story, and as a thematic piece, Pet Sematary (2019) gets across its ideas well enough amidst a plot-heavy, often logic-free narrative.
On a purely audiovisual level, Kolsch and Widmyer are able to craft some effectively chilling moments. The use of fog machines and practical sets and effects happily reminded me of the tangibility of ’70s and ’80s horror films (although there is some unconvincing CGI in one pivotal scene). I especially liked how they staged the more surreal elements of the story, particularly when it comes to Rachel and her guilt over an earlier death in her immediate family. The use of sound in these scenes is key to their effectiveness, with the directors visually showing us just enough initially to haunt our imagination once we begin to hear some questionable sounds. And I will say that the third act, albeit a bit rushed, does not hold anything back.
As far as Stephen King adaptations go, you could do a lot worse than Pet Sematary. The film has its moments of tension and terror, like the recent Us, and there’s a commitment to the inherently sinister and ruthless nature of the material. As a mechanism engineered to induce shrieks and screams, it just about does its job. Just don’t expect much in the character department.
Rated R, Pet Sematary is now playing in theaters.