Sometimes dead is better.
That iconic line, which some would say single-handedly represents the legacy of Stephen King’s haunting novel Pet Sematary, is a warning which is both literal and metaphorical in nature. In the context of King’s story, it’s a fruitless plea not to give into the worst inclinations of grief and despair, to let the dead stay that way or face the unspeakable consequences. Beyond that, it’s the words of an author who knows there’s little joy in bringing back what’s already in the past.
It’s a pity that lesson didn’t resonate with the filmmakers behind the newest adaptation of King’s arguably darkest novel, as they’ve unearthed the story for a pointless, gutless re-imagining that was better off left in the ground. Both an re-interpretation of the novel and a remake of the 1989 film of the same name, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new Pet Sematary tries to differentiate itself by making asinine changes to the story, hoping the alterations alone are a compelling enough reason to return to the cursed woods of Ludlow, Maine. Countless King-inspired films have made wide-sweeping tweaks to his stories, from Stanley Kubrick’s masterful work in The Shining to recent smash hit It, but those far better movies knew you can’t get by on new story beats alone. You have to capture the twisted heart and soul of King’s prose to make a film adaptation worth it, and few of them fail as flippantly as this one.
The bare bones of the story are all present and accounted for: the Creeds, a picture-perfect family from Boston, moves to the remote Ludlow, Maine so ER surgeon Louis (Jason Clarke), can start a more stress-free job as the head of a local college’s clinic. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie and Gage (Jeté Laurence and twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), aren’t as thrilled about their new home. Rachel is suddenly plagued by flashbacks to a traumatic childhood spent caring for her sister Zelda, whose suffering from spinal meningitis led to a resentment of her healthier sister. Ellie is haunted by the discovery of the titular graveyard, an animal resting place in the woods that elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains has existed for centuries.
When Ellie’s cat, Church, is hit by one of the speeding trucks that constantly roar past the house, Jud brings Louis to a burial ground beyond the pet cemetery that supposedly brings the dead back to life. Sure enough, Church comes back, but the once loving feline isn’t the same, lashing out at the Creeds and harboring a newfound fondness for hunting. His newly violent nature is a warning sign of the nightmare that’s to come, and soon enough the movie barrels into the cavalcade of horror that made King’s novel so infamous.
There’s a few inherent problems when it comes to bringing Pet Sematary to the screen, and it seems each of them is too tall of a hill for Kölsch and Widmyer to overcome. One lies in creating tension, as a fault of the novel’s now legendary status means you largely already know how the story plays out. When the audience already has an idea of where the story is going, especially in terms of a horror film, it’s key that you be innovative in the build-up to the release of the script’s waiting dread. Kölsch and Widmyer answer that call for novelty with increasingly obvious choices, from opening the film with a slow pan over the aftermath of the climax to a seriously ridiculous overuse of fog machines. There’s just no real sense of atmosphere here, with the film relying on decades-old horror tropes to go through the motions of getting to the more set-piece driven portions of the story.
The changes made to the source material, while meant to breathe new life into this tale of the dead, don’t feel like anything but workarounds for the tricky ugliness of King’s novel. By King’s own admission, this is a bleak, hopeless tale that he was surprised resonated with so many readers. The new elements of the script only cheapen that darkness instead of keying into what made it so successful in the first place, feeling almost like borderline cowardly choices that have the markings of filmmakers too scared of the work they’re bringing to life. Even worse is the fact that the primary change leads to some unintentionally comical bits of poorly directed child acting in a film meant to be deadly serious.
The ground here isn’t entirely sour, as the film at least pulls some great performances out of Clarke and Lithgow. Clarke, an increasingly employed actor who nevertheless can’t seem to find material worthy of his talents, is suitably twitchy here as the increasingly tortured Louis, giving him an emotional core that only bolsters your sympathy for his predicament. Lithgow still manages to conjure up a rousing performance playing a role we’ve seen a thousand times before, serving the story well as the well-intentioned outsider who arguably spurns the nightmare into reality. However, there’s again disappointment in how the relationships between the characters never really go anywhere beyond some routine dialogue.
Pet Sematary is ultimately an exercise in a futility, a needless return to already well-worn material that brings nothing fresh to the table despite the illusion it represents a shocking new take on King’s nastiest piece of work. In a time where original horror continues to thrive, the stale nature of this adaptation makes a case for letting the past stay buried.