Last year, Ari Aster’s Hereditary burst onto the horror scene, quickly establishing itself as not only as an instant classic, but also a remarkably intelligent movie about loss and grief. Pet Sematary, an adaptation of a novel from Stephen King and a remake of the 1989 film both of the same name, is not that movie. That’s fine, there aren’t many movies that handle grief as well as Hereditary does. However, even if taken on face value as the generic, mediocre, not very intelligent horror movie that it is, Pet Sematary is deeply, deeply frustrating. At its best, it’s baseline acceptable; at its worst, it’s boring and unpleasant.
Pet Sematary begins, as a lot of horror movies do nowadays, with a white, upper-middle class family moving into a new house in the country. Specifically, rural Maine (it’s Stephen King, after all). The patriarch of the family, Louis, played by Jason Clarke, is a doctor at a university hospital. In his first few weeks at work, a student is killed by a passing truck and proceeds to haunt Louis and his son, Gage, for the rest of the movie. Things don’t really get crazy though until Church, the family cat, is killed by a speeding truck. The family’s neighbor, Jud, played by John Lithgow, shows Louis a spot far behind his house where, if he buries the cat, it will come back to life by morning. Naturally, there’s a catch though: whatever spirit raises the bodies from the dead changes them.
Admittedly, the trailer reveals a lot more than this – in my opinion, too much. Not that it’s that difficult to guess what’s revealed, but I’d rather have gone into this blind. Obviously, that’s not possible for anyone who knows literally anything about the original movie going in. I did not. It may be silly to try to avoid spoilers in reviewing a remake of a thirty-year-old film that was already spoiled by the trailer, but forgive me if I err on the cautious. Besides, if you somehow have avoided the mega advertising for this film, maybe this warning will steer you clear if you’re seeing the movie.
For the first half, at least, it’s not that bad. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz, who plays his wife Rachel, do perfectly acceptable jobs in their roles if your definition of acceptable is that they avoid embarrassingly flubbing their lines. Seimetz gives the slightly better performance of the two, partly because her character has something closer to development. Rachel is haunted by the memory of her sister, who died when she was young. This informs how her character acts; she’s squeamish about the topic of death, and she doesn’t want to have to explain it to her children. She sells this reasonably well, though not exceptionally. I believe what she says, but I don’t really feel it.
Clarke struggles more in his role almost like he’s phoning it in: he’s not very emotive and he doesn’t seem that invested in what he’s doing. He has good chemistry with his daughter at least. This is all relatively acceptable for the hour of the movie, as his character doesn’t call for anything particularly demanding. It becomes more of a problem as the tension ramps up and more is being asked of him.
The only real stars here are Jete Laurence, who plays Ellie, their daughter, and John Lithgow, who plays their neighbor Jud. Of the two, only the latter is giving a consistently strong performance. Jete is charming has surprisingly good chemistry with Lithgow and Clarke. It’s a more demanding performance for a child, which makes it all the more impressive. Again, though, as the movie goes on, and the expectations change, she doesn’t quite hold up.
This first hour is the stronger section, and not just in performance. I like how it looks: while at times that Conjuring-esque gray can be overwhelming, and I like of use of fog around the cemetery, and how tall Clarke looks next to the tombstones. The film at times has good visual ideas: they’re low key, they don’t call attention to themselves, but they add to the overall creepiness of the movie.
Sadly, it’s hard to get invested in the movie even at the best of times. For the first hour, there doesn’t seem to be any stakes: anyone who has read any portion of a plot synopsis of either of the movies or the book knows that the family is not in any danger so long as they don’t bury anything in the backyard. Even if you didn’t know that the audience is never given any reason to believe that these visions are dangerous, nor are we given any reason why the characters are seeing them. They play very little role in the actual narrative, and they’re not scary. So, in effect, they’re a complete of waste of time – pure padding.
The movie gets even worse as the stakes are introduced. Everyone’s performance, except for Lithgow’s, gets worse. Or, rather, the quality of the performance stays the same but becomes more noticeably poor as expectations increase. In the meantime, we’ve gone from a not-very-interesting haunted house movie to what feels like a bad home invasion movie. Gone is any of atmosphere the movie was trying to create, in favor of silly, standard, well below average by the numbers summer horror flick. It’s, frankly, kind of boring. And seeing characters who haven’t really been developed fighting for their lives is difficult to get into.
At a minimum, the film is mostly competent but the last 45 minutes somehow feels both overstuffed yet underdeveloped. There are too many running threads that the movie is shoehorning to a close: personal issues with the neighbor, Rachel’s sister, the lore of the cemetery. At the same time, there not enough new ideas especially true visually with an overwhelming color scheme that interests less and less as the film goes on.
It’s here that I start to get the most frustrated. I want this film to work: it’s a good idea, at least on paper. I like this child actor. But it doesn’t come together to make something really coherent, and from my understanding about what the original story is supposed to be, it seems like the changes they make just make it more generic. There’s no real reason to watch it: it’s not a particularly interesting failure, it’s not scary, it’s not dramatically engaging, and there are two other versions of the story that you can try if you just have to see how this concept can work. So, my advice, let it rest. There’s no reason to try this again.