Following the success of 2017’s It, movies based on the novels of Stephen King seem to be in vogue again. Pet Sematary is the latest such offering from the master of horror’s back catalogue, based on the author’s popular 1983 novel (a book which famously even scared King himself).
Thematically, it’s understandable why. As a story, Pet Sematary plays on basic human fears surrounding death and what lies beyond the veil. Centering on an everyday family rocked by unspeakable tragedy, the story explores what would one do if given the chance to resurrect the dead to disturbing, chilling effect whilst also weaving in engaging themes that explore the impact of death and grief.
Unfortunately, this new adaptation of Pet Sematary fails to utilise said-themes in any satisfactory shape or form, the filmmakers instead content to merely focus on the horror elements in isolation. The relatable themes, creeping sense of dread and foreboding atmosphere all get lost in the mix, as the filmmakers plump for cheap jump scares so generic, it’s almost boring. The writing is lacking in nuance, the direction competent but never daring or inventive.
The worst offence here though is the ending, which differs massively from that in the book. Visually, it’s chilling and certainly shocking. But whereas the original conclusion had a logical end point for the narrative driven by character and motifs, this new ending feels incredibly separate from everything that goes before it, it can’t help but feel unsatisfying and jarring.
To its credit, the film gets the casting spot-on. Jason Clarke, king of the Hollywood every-men, is perfectly sympathetic and likeable as Louis Creed, whilst Amy Seimetz is equally engaging as Louis’ wife Rachel. Both are incredibly likeable from the start, as is John Lithgow as the fateful neighbour Jud. It’s these natural, affable performances that elevate proceedings and give the horror elements that extra sense of jeopardy once they start to come thick and fast.
The real star here though is newcomer Jeté Laurence as the Creed’s ill-fated daughter Ellie. Immensely engaging from the beginning and her sudden transformation into something inhuman, unsettling showcases a young actor with genuine talent and a fine grasp of subtlety. Providing chills with a mere glance or the tiniest of gestures, her performance provides both the heart and the horror of the film.
Pet Sematary is competent enough as ‘junk-food’ horror movies go – it has some stand-out moments that deliver a jump scare or two, some spooky imagery and a few sublime moments that truly capture the creepiness of King’s original novel. But bereft of the meatier subtext and thematic weight that pervades throughout the source material, there’s nothing here to really justify a second viewing.
Much like the cadavers buried in the sour ground, Pet Semetary has returned – but something’s not quite right about it.