Sometimes dead is better.
Film adaptations of Stephen King‘s books have been, shall we say, uneven. For every Stand by Me there’s a Children of the Corn, for every Shining a 1408. At this stage what audiences are often getting is second efforts from previously adapted works, such as 2017’s IT, which was a ’90s TV miniseries. In that same vein the latest King story to make its way to theatres is Pet Sematary, which saw its first adaptation in 1989.
Tired of the hustle and bustle of city life, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke; Serenity) moves his family to a small town in Maine. Along with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz; Alien Covenant) and two young children, Louis takes up residence in an old house on a large plot of land. Soon after arriving, his daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) follows an odd procession and discovers a cemetery out in the woods.
It’s here that Ellie meets Jud (John Lithgow), their neighbor and longtime resident, who warns her off as she starts to climb a strange barrier at the back of the cemetery. Odd things start to happen after Louis is unable to save a victim of a hit and run at the local hospital, and he begins to see the dead man, hear warnings and have dark visions that may be more than nightmares. It gets worse when Church, Ellie’s beloved cat, is found dead.
Jud, having grown fond of Ellie, leads Louis to a burial ground beyond the barrier, telling him to bury the cat there. The next morning when he and his wife go to inform Ellie that Church ran away they find he has returned. Church looks disheveled now, however, and isn’t the sweet, loving cat he’d been before. Knowing the power that dwells in the woods, Louis is soon faced with a difficult decision when his child is struck and killed by a truck.
Armed with a very unsettling premise, Pet Sematary gets most of its horror elements from exposition and sharp editing rather than a bunch of jump scares. If you prefer the latter in your scary movies you may find it underwhelming. It’s more of a pervasive mood, though there’s ample amounts of blood and gore with the aftermath of the car accident and a severed Achilles’ standing out as particularly gruesome.
There aren’t many characters here, so it’s a good thing that all of the performances are at least solid. Lithgow is instantly likable as Jud, offering up many of the movie’s better lines and sporting a funky looking beard. Laurence does probably the best work, though, and whoever cast her deserves a lot of credit. Rachel’s flashbacks to her sister Zelda are carried by some impressive physical work from Alyssa Brooke Levine.
Coming in at just over 90 minutes, this is a pretty streamlined version of the story. In rushing things, there’s no time to build the relationship between Jud and the Creeds — they literally have dinner together once — so it feels forced when Jud sets everything in motion since ostensibly it’s his emotional connection to Ellie that overrides his good sense. It also seems crazy that Louis would just follow Jud deep into the woods to bury his cat without any explanation since they’re little more than acquaintances.
There is a number of significant changes from the source material, some of which work out better than others. One of the smallest and yet most frustrating ones is Jud talking about resurrecting his dog as a boy. Here, the dog came back mean and had to be put down, which begs the question: why would you bury the cat then!? (His one-liner to address this is weak.) The film also drops Timmy Bateman — his story appears as a short featurette in the extras — who served as a cautionary tale.
THE BONUS FEATURES
An alternate ending and about 20 minutes of deleted or extended scenes can be found in the extras, though the “alternate” ending isn’t a massive departure from what made the final cut (it’s basically one significant change that ultimately leads to roughly the same place). The deleted scenes are decent, adding a few creepy moments and confirming some details that were heavily implied in the final cut. A lengthy “making of” feature rounds out a strong selection of extras.
Pet Sematary is a solid effort buoyed by some quality performances and creepy imagery. It could’ve benefited from more character development, however, and some of the changes that were made were questionable.