Review: Pet Sematary

A slightly empty, rushed Stephen King adaptation, Pet Sematary suffers from a lack of depth (and an awful marketing campaign), feeling a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his family away from Boston to the Maine countryside, and everything initially seems idyllic for him, wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and children Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage. However, Ellie and Rachel stumble upon a pet cemetery in the woods behind the house, and despite the best intentions of neighbour Judd (John Lithgow), everything goes predictably, horrendously wrong.

I was aware of the story (and want to read the King book), but this film was immediately failed by its marketing campaign, which could only be filed under “SPOIL EVERYTHING”. The trailer gave away the main events and one main poster foregrounds one of the bigger shocks – it’s really disappointing that a movie that should pack a punch is deflated by shoddy marketing.

As it is, dual directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t appear to have a particularly strong vision, and it’s surprising there were two of them given there is nothing distinctive about the way the film unspools, or looks. There are attempts at a visual style with cinematographer Laurie Rose, but this just transpires to be clever use of the wooded setting and that primal human fear of darkness, mist and death – it’s nothing new. In addition, very obvious and disappointing greenscreen chips away at even this.

Christopher Young’s soundtrack is effectively grim and suspenseful when it needs to be, but what hamstrung the film was the rushed, almost studio edited feeling of what I saw onscreen, perhaps starting with the screenplay by Jeff Bugler and story (interesting to see this distinction) by Matt Greenberg.

Stephen King is widely held to be one of the best modern authors, and one of the kings of horror fiction (some of his writing remains the most horrific and grim I’ve read). So taking his excellent prose and distilling that horror, atmosphere and character into a two hour film is a challenge, though we’ve had recent evidence via It of just how excellently this can be achieved.

What appears to have happened is that the nuance usually found in King’s novels – underlying character depth and conversations, creeping dread and evocatively written horror – have been lost in favour of predictable jump scares. The central theme – maybe leaving the dead dead is better – is hugely diminished by the conclusion, made to feel like a hackneyed horror as opposed to the primal, earthy grime King’s stories leave behind.

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As I said, I can’t critique it on an adaptation level because I haven’t read the book, but I’d be very interested to see what was chopped and changed. There are hints at character depth and weighty themes, including grief and repressed guilt, but these end up not having time to breathe and are instead underexplored – a focus on them, aiming less at the blockbuster crowd, might have made it truly special.

Instead, beyond some excellently disgusting gore and practical make up (both are quite vile and serve a point, early on particularly), a lot of the “horror” is poor and not particularly scary. I will say that the very end does pack a bit of a punch – though it would have been better had the film before it met that standard.

Clarke’s characterful acting abilities are on show here. If he’d just been able to have some more time to establish Louis a little more as a character, and spend some time on why he makes the choices he does, it could have been a great lead performance, though he does well to paint both a devoted, loving family man before shifting as all hell breaks loose to a less controlled performance.

Previously unknown (to me at least), Amy Seimetz plays Rachel with an emotional depth that the film probably doesn’t deserve. She ably depicts repressed guilt that poisons Rachel’s life, and is let down by where the film heads later – but like Clarke she’s clearly a good actor, whose strong attempts at characterisation are simply wasted here.

John Lithgow’s considered, pathetic performance as Judd, the family’s neighbour, makes you pity this kindly, lonely man also haunted by grief, who does his best to help the family through some stressful times, but realises the impact of his ostensibly kind acts. Again, some more character depth would have only improved Lithgow’s work, with Judd instead forgotten for large parts until the plot needs him again.

Jete Laurence plays Ellie, and is very good in what becomes a complex role as a young girl struggling to understand death, and facing up to it in all its horror. She makes perhaps the biggest impression, and her hard and challenging work is let down by the truncated plot and some questionable choices later on. Other notable appearances come from Obssa Ahmed as the unfortunate, disturbingly depicted Victor Pascow, one of Louis’ patients, and a hauntingly memorable Alyssa Brooke Levine, as Rachel’s ill sister Zelda.

We should be grateful that Stephen King’s books are receiving such high profile adaptations, but I felt Pet Sematary was a misstep and a missed opportunity, especially given the promise of its cast.

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