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‘Pet Sematary’ is a hum-drum a horror movie that leaves a talented cast with very little to do

April 16, 2019

After the overwhelming success of the most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” as well as the Kingian nostalgia brought on by the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things,” it was only inevitable that we’d see more adaptations and remakes of the horror author’s work. 1989’s “Pet Sematary” movie is notable because King himself adapted his own novel, yet the film is largely seen as a letdown by his devoted readers. Since then, then it’s found a home video audience among schlock jocks and horror hounds, but the possibility of a better and darker take on the material was something fans have long awaited.

With notable departures from the source material, this version of the King’s 1983 novel tells the story of a small family who moves from the hustle and bustle of Boston to the rural woods of Maine to start their lives over. The family’s patriarch, Louis (Jason Clarke) is a doctor who considers himself rational and science-minded when it comes to ideas like the finality of death and the possibility of an afterlife. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is still recovering from a traumatic childhood and struggles with these very concepts, clinging to hope for something more after we pass away. Together they raise their young daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) and their toddler son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie).

Things start to get strange when Louis and his family realize that the woods behind their house doubles as the location of a pet cemetery where children bury their beloved animals. Not far behind that exists an ancient Indian burial ground that’s rumored to possess mystical properties that revive the dead.

The novel by which this film is inspired is arguably one of King’s most emotionally wrought and morally complex stories. The overarching themes of death, the afterlife, guilt and grief weigh heavy on the characters, and to see these natural discomforts tear a family apart should easily be a source of effective horror. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer waste the potential of this narrative on stock haunted house gimmicks and TV-movie level psychological drama. Roughly 60 percent of the film is devoted to tired sequences in which characters are left alone in a room to investigate a strange sound coming from a closet or window. After they see something freaky, along with a loud punch from the background audio, they shut their eyelids tight, only to find the strange sighting gone once they reopen their eyes.

John Lithgow as their kindly old neighbor Jud helps to sand the edges off of the screenplay’s exposition-heavy dialogue, and Clarke and Seimetz can go to difficult places if the scene calls for it. These actors’ performances are cut and pasted within a surface-level take on the material that glosses over their character’s motives. Whether it be Rachel’s disturbing history of taking care of her sick older sister as a child or the recent loss of a patient that Louis experiences at the hospital he works, their interior traumas are treated as plot mechanisms to get the next jolty boo scare.

As a conventional pop horror movie, this version of “Pet Sematary” is skating by on the bare minimums of what the genre requires. As such, audiences unfamiliar with this story may find fleeting enjoyment in its familiarities. The 1989 film, while campy and dated in its own way, honestly had more directorial vision and re-watch value as a silly campfire tale. For this adaptation, I can only mourn what is yet another missed opportunity for this classic Stephen King chiller.

Grade C-

Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He freelances for both print and online outlets.