Film Review: “Pet Sematary” Misses the Mark

Film poster: “Pet Sematary”

Pet Sematary (Kevin Kölsch/Dennis Widmyer, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.

I have neither read Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary, nor seen, in full, its first, 1989 movie adaptation. Since the latter is currently available to watch for free on Amazon Prime, I gave it a brief look last weekend to do my due diligence before watching the second version now opening. Sadly, I only got 20 minutes in before I had to stop; it was bad, especially the acting. What with that attempt and the new movie’s trailers, I nonetheless had the general idea, and though not a particular fan of horror (I do love certain works by King, however), I was somewhat excited to see “Pet Sematary 2.0,” given the fact that its three adult leads – Jason Clarke (Mudbound), John Lithgow (Beatriz at Dinner) and Amy Seimetz (Ma) – are all actors of proven quality. Who better to see scream than performers who can really sell it?

Unfortunately, even if the 2019 Pet Sematary is a masterpiece compared to its predecessor, it all the same falls short of anything but cheap thrills, despite the occasional flash of cinematic inspiration. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) take the underlying poignant tale of parental grief and transform it into a mostly bloody mess. Then again, that’s what the genre is expected to deliver, so I expect that aficionados may enjoy the film more than did I. Still, haven’t we seen countless riffs on jump scares and prescient dreams and ominous flashbacks and/or premonitions to want something more? The beauty of King’s writing is how often the horror can disappear into the background for a while; it’s the internal demons that frighten us even more. Here, a strong set-up simply paves the way for gore.

John Lithgow in PET SEMATARY ©Paramount Pictures

The plot follows Dr. Louis Creed (Clarke), wife Rachel (Seimetz) and children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (played by both Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), as they leave their busy lifestyle in Boston behind for a simpler country existence in Maine. Wouldn’t you know it, though? The road right in front of their house is a main thoroughfare for massive trucks, and if that weren’t bad enough, there’s a creepy pet cemetery (spelled “sematary” by the children of generations past who created it) on their property. This being King, there is sure to be an old Indian burial ground somewhere, leading to supernatural shenanigans. The Creeds’ neighbor, an old local named Jud (Lithgow) shows them the area, and explains, later, after a beloved cat is killed (those damn trucks!), just how the cemetery works. Cut to the resurrection, and the trouble begins.

So far, so good, but the more the film progresses the more it loses narrative vitality. Just as the emotional stakes should be rising with further deaths beyond the cat’s, we descend, instead, into boring clichés. To make matters worse, the one character of color appears, over and over, as a haunting, decaying corpse, chasing the white people into madness. Scary black ghosts and supernatural Native Americans? In 2019? Can’t we do better? Maybe next time.

One mean, resurrected cat in PET SEMATARY ©Paramount Pictures

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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