Director: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Screenplay: Jeff Buhler
Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Runtime: 101 Minutes
Even for a talent such as his, Pet Sematary is often regarded as one of author Stephen King’s most unsettling works. In that it deals so directly with concepts of death, guilt and grief through its narrative that sees the Creed family confronting an evil in the woods outside their new home in Ludlow, Maine, stemming from the pet cemetery located on their property and the realms with on that wherein creatures that are buried can come back to life.
It’s a deeply morbid conception that this latest adaptation wants to ply for all its worth in terms of atmosphere and the slow encroaching feeling of dread once death comes to claim one of their own. It’s just a shame that the depth of the impression that emanates from it doesn’t extend to the storytelling.
Much like 2017’s IT, this fast-tracked adaptation to feed on some of the residual profit surrounding that monster hit chooses to simplify and cut down on the more sprawling facets of the text and it’s world in favour of streamlining it into something more efficient and digestible. It’s not a bad idea, in theory, but what Jeff Buhler’s screenplay ends up sacrificing is an awful lot of the complexity and strangeness of the book while not finding much else new to fill in its place.
The opening stretch uses its clipped storytelling pace to shorten character backgrounds and dynamics to single dialogues and conversations, which initially works until you realise that by the time the third act has rolled around and proceedings have devolved into more conventional slasher territory that it has very little intention of carrying many of its more extraneous plot elements through to a satisfying conclusion.
For example, an entire subplot detailing mother Rachel Creed’s (Amy Seimetz) traumatising childhood, and guilt at the fact that she may have inadvertently murdered her sister at a young age, is brought up time and again as a means to generate spooky daydream and nightmare sequences, but never actually resolves itself other than a single dialogue exchange near the end. Same goes for neighbour Jud Crandall’s (John Lithgow) deceased wife which is mentioned in passing once and then remerges without the requisite information to justify it.
It’s a film that feels like it would have benefited being longer in order to unpack more of its narrative baggage, which certainly would have gone a long way toward making the emotions more investing or the story more exceptional in execution. There are also a handful of distinct changes from the book including one major detail change concerning which characters end up making it to the end of act two, but unless you’re already familiar with the book it probably doesn’t bring a great deal more depth to proceedings.
What does pick up much of the narrative slack is the sheer amount of atmospheric anxiety that the film exudes on a purely technical level. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer bring much of the same chops for scares and dark ambience that they did in the excellent Starry Eyes. The aesthetic is gorgeously murky and earthy thanks to Laurie Rose’s cinematography, with some brilliant sound design to match the naturalism of the withered and creaking sets, and they know how the balance a carefully placed jump scare without it feeling loud or cheap.
The other success is in the casting. Jason Clarke leads the pack as father Louis, whose gradual slip from reality and sanity is carefully measured in the distance of his stare as his previously concrete conceptions of the scientifically possible and finite nature of existence are so thoroughly destroyed by the existential implications of the power emanating from the soured ground.
Amy Seimetz gets the most she can out of her relatively short-lived role as Rachel. Newcomer Jeté Laurence does some good work as the young Ellie Creed, especially given the gears she is asked to shift in later on. But the heavyweight is John Lithgow as the weary yet knowledgeable neighbour Jud Crandall, who harbours the heart and humanity at the film’s centre while nailing every single line read, delivering many of the book’s strongest lines with grizzled and vindicated perfection.
Pet Sematary is a solidly put together horror that doesn’t quite reach the greatness of memorability that it's aiming for, but as a King story hits the beats and nods that it needs too with some confidence. It gets by on the dedication of its performances and the technical abilities of its makers, more so than its short-changed and choppy screenplay.