‘Pet Sematary’ may be Stephen King’s darkest novel, which is saying something considering some of the stories and characters in his body of work. Written with great sincerity and unflinching brutality, it’s a reading experience that leaves you emotionally exhausted, pummelled by one of the most uncompromising explorations of grief in popular fiction. It’s also a book filled with memorable iconography, both thanks to the book and the popular 1989 film adaptation. With the recent resurgence of King adaptations to film and television (particularly the surprise success of the first film chapter of ‘It’), a new crack at ‘Pet Sematary’ was inevitable, and I must admit, as someone who adores the novel, I had high hopes that we might finally see its darkness, its heartbreak and its deep horror properly brought to the screen.
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke, ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, ‘Upstream Color’) and their two young children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie) move to a property in rural Maine to escape the stresses of the city. They are informed by their new neighbour Jud Crandall (John Lithgow, ‘Beatriz at Dinner’) that their property includes a pet cemetery, where for generations the local children have buried their beloved pets. When the family cat Church meets an unexpected end, Jud introduces Louis to a dark power that lies beyond the cemetery - one that bridges the gap between life and death, and when a devastating tragedy strikes the family, Louis takes his new knowledge to impossible extremes.
You can look at this new ‘Pet Sematary’ from directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in two ways, one as an adaptation of the novel and the other as a film in its own right. Either way, it’s such an all-consuming failure that either perspective doesn’t matter. To put it simply, this is one of the most inept horror films of the past few years and one of the worst Stephen King adaptations. It begins assuredly enough, quickly establishing the Creed family, but within minutes, as soon as it begins to establish itself as a horror film, it becomes clear what a daft and idiotic one it’s going to be, with Kölsch and Widmyer, along with screenwriter Jeff Buhler, peddling in the most tired and obvious of horror clichés (kids in creepy masks, whispering voices, creaking roofs, an endless supply of mist). Even removed from the novel, Buhler’s screenplay is a textureless succession of exposition-ladened dialogue scenes that somehow seem to leave endless plot holes in its wake. There’s a certain degree to which you have to suspend disbelief in a horror film, but the logic leaps this film asks for in character, narrative and tone are often baffling and frequently infuriating. We are never given the space or reason to care about the Creed family, and the film seems more concerned with getting from plot point to plot point without explaining how we got there or showing any growth in the characters.
This isn’t a horror film attempting any level of depth, only one that wants to scare you as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, with at least 60% of the film involving people walking quietly around houses and peeking around doors, and so as the film entered its final act, I found myself so thoroughly bored, able to predict every move it made before it made them and annoyed with it for being so lazy. It also doesn’t help that it seems determined to make cheap and shitty horror icons out of nothing at all (like the idiotic animal masks they add for the pet burials and turning Church into essentially the Annabelle of the film - some evil-looking creature who just sits there and looks pissed off a lot of the time). The actions of the characters are often shockingly idiotic, only adding to its absurdity. They insist on resurrecting those they’ve lost despite the fact it’s very clear it doesn’t work in their favour, something the novel explains at length but the film never does, and as a consequence of this and how poor the writing is, none of the performances bar Amy Seimetz come out unscathed. It’s also poorly made, with sloppy cinematography, an inconsistent visual style, terrible visual effects, a thoroughly predictable score, and no sense of rhythm or drive. Nothing is earned in this film - not a character or an emotional beat or a piece of mythology or a scare - so that even if it wasn’t adapted from preexisting material to compare it to, it would still be an utterly inadequate, maddeningly dumb horror film with no discernible purpose.
As an adaptation of King’s novel though, it’s basically imbecilic. What is so remarkable about the best of King’s work is how, regardless of the supernatural elements he throws into play, his focus is firmly on the characters, their journeys and their inner life. He places the most ordinary of people in the most extreme and extraordinary of circumstances, and allows them to respond based on their human nature. In the case of ‘Pet Sematary’, he explores the intense trauma of grief and loss, and the supernatural aspect of ritual and resurrection is there to serve that theme and allow us to see the extreme lengths we may be capable of in dealing with that grief. The film doesn’t seem at all interested in this, instead removing much of the character detail and just leaving the scary bits, which on their own and without emotional context just seem really stupid. Kölsch, Widmyer and Buhler have completely neutered the novel, stripped it of everything that makes it special and left it an empty pointless husk. It’s more like a Reader’s Digest version of the book, condensed for ease and throughly inadequate. The issue isn’t so much what is changed (the more publicly known change pre-release actually makes a certain degree of sense), but how frivolously it ignores what lies at the heart of the novel.
To put it simply, this is one of the most inept horror films of the past few years and one of the worst Stephen King adaptations.
The finale is almost indiscernible from the novel. That’s fine, great adaptations have come about from these kinds of alterations - especially in King adaptations - but what they’ve replaced the harrowing ending of the novel with is something that makes no sense whatsoever. It’s one thing to end your film in a way that does nothing for your theme or tone or character arcs. It’s another when there’s a perfectly good ending right there that does all that for you. I don’t like to be that person who compares a film to its source material; it should ultimately be judged on its own terms. In this instance though, I found its idiotic reduction of everything that made its source material so special so thoroughly baffling and so thoroughly infuriating.
I couldn’t stand this version of ‘Pet Sematary’. I couldn’t stand it as a horror film, one that, in the wake of popular horror like ‘Get Out’ or ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, still manages to be so idiotic and poorly executed. I couldn’t stand it as a Stephen King adaptation, one that, in the wake of great ones like ‘It’ or ‘Gerald’s Game’, cares more about the creepy shit than the carefully crafted characters and underlying human subtext. Most of all though, I couldn’t stand ‘Pet Sematary’ because it was boring. It assumes so little of its audience's intelligence, goes for the cheapest scares, and doesn’t care whether it makes any sense or not. It’s pure horror confection, but the kind that has melted and reset itself, sickly and stale and ugly. I’d really hoped we were in for another great King adaptation celebrating everything that makes his work so memorable and so affecting. Instead, we just have our first proper contender for the worst film of the year. Sometimes dead really is better.