‘Pet Sematary’ (2019) Review: An Uninspired Atmosphere and Lazy Characterization Rots It To The Core

By Steve Pulaski

Just when I struggle-bussed my way through trying to label Tim Burton’s Dumbo a remake, a reboot, or a vague “reimagining” (I settled on the latter), I am met with another classification quandary with the new, Pet Sematary. While not quite a remake, due to it abandoning some pretty key plot-points from the 1989 film and the respective Stephen King novel, I suppose you can bill it as another adaptation of King’s work and call it a day. I might as well stop there. That alone is reflective of the ostensible effort put into such a shoddy project.

The end result of a property resurrected only because a comparative title went gangbusters upon the same treatment (It, in case you forgot), this new Pet Sematary‘s failure to capitalize on the story’s compelling existential themes and complicated look at grief is frustrating enough. But it’s the uninspired atmosphere and lazy characterization that rots it to the core. A few weeks ago, I opined on Twitter that the 2015 Poltergeist may indeed be the most forgettable remake/update this decade, right up (or down) there with the Colin Farrell-led Total Recall. Ask me again in a couple years, and I might say Pet Sematary. If I can remember it.

The film, again, follows the Creed family as they move from Boston to the sleepy town of Ludlow, Maine, mainly because Louis (Jason Clarke) is looking to advance his career as a doctor. His wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and two children, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and much younger Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), are essentially along for the ride. Unbeknownst to the family until it’s too late, the Creed’s have just moved near a plot of land dedicated to being a graveyard for animals, and just beyond that, is an even spookier sector with a macabre history. Not long after their move, the family meets Jud (John Lithgow), a kind elder who takes a liking to young Ellie, as he initially meets her and admires her affection for her kitty, Church.

When Church is found dead near his home, Louis takes Jud up on his advice as to where to bury him — in the “pet sematary.” Church then reappears the following evening before Ellie can even tell anything is out of the ordinary. But Church is smellier and more hostile than he was before, and a horrific accident leads to more of the supernatural elements of the graveyard and the cursed land that lies beyond rising to the surface.

Pet Sematary gets off to a wobbly start, annoyingly foreshadowing its conclusion in the opening minutes before plunging us into the move of Louis and his family. It never regains its traction with pacing, going through the plot like a “checklist,” either filling in the blanks by oddly rushed interpersonal dialog or Louis hastily Google-searching to uncover answers, which inevitably lead to more questions. The whole thing just feels off-base, and more of a bullet-pointed outline of the picture committed to film as opposed to an actual screenplay. This unevenness leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to building characters. Jason Clarke has shown he can be a capable performer (he was solid in Chappaquiddick), but he can’t do much with the thinly written, and consequently, slight Louis, who never becomes the ardent family-man we remember from the first adaptation nor the novel. Amy Seimetz is miserably shortchanged as Rachel, stripped down to a woman who never moved past the death of her sister, and has since become a teary ball of instability. It’s no surprise the film takes a modicum of life when the focus is on Jeté Laurence’s Ellie or John Lithgow’s Jud, who is much more of a caregiver and empathetic than in the past.

One of the striking details about Pet Sematary in general was its ability to take two of the most sacred characters in horror movies (kids and animals) and make them the vehicles for torment. Kids have become victims more in contemporary horror films, particularly supernatural ones, but there’s something about seeing animals killed or in distress that touches the most tender nerve in most people, myself not excluded. Yet screenwriter Jeff Buhler doesn’t parlay this subversion of perceived innocence into anything other than a plot device, so rather than squirming when we see Ellie or Church’s resurrected selves, we simply nod along, or worse, shrug or groan it off as an obligation. The tone and pacing of the film practically regards it as such.

Cinematographer Laurie Rose (whose work I enjoyed in Stan & Ollie) might’ve been the saving grace in some way, but even her efforts are ultimately diluted in a broth of recognizable genre hallmarks. Pet Sematary is a banal collage of the commonalities of ambiance we’ve come to expect in horror films, right down to the remote locales and excessive fog. It looks derivative and as unimaginative as it ever has. Nothing visually enhances the looming sense of dread we should feel, and because so little time is made of the cemetery, the less-inclined we are to see it reshaped in such a way void of all personality over time.

Pet Sematary is a pathetic retread of cliches, further emphasizing why people are so quick (if misguided) to bill movies like Jordan Peele’s Us as horror “rebirthed” in such a way. When you have an abundance of interchangeable supernatural films or impotent remakes of well-known properties, it’s no wonder why a culture fed on a steady diet of the same, regurgitated dreck winds up praising films that appear even the least bit daring. If you consumed nothing but fast food, and then stumbled into a Texas Roadhouse, or maybe something as surprising and flavorful as Five Guys, wouldn’t you, too, feel compelled to wax poetic, if heap a little overpraise on something? Moral of the story: go see Us instead, even if it’ll be your second or third time around. Time is of the essence and, in the end, you vote with your wallet.

Grade: D