Stephen King adaptations are notoriously hit or miss. For every decent one (the It miniseries from the ’90s or the It movie from 2017), there are at least two bad ones (nearly every other Stephen King miniseries, The Dark Tower, and the Carrie remake from a few years ago). It seems that what often works for King in his prose work doesn’t work very well in visual mediums. And that, unfortunately, is the case for this remake of Pet Sematary. Based on his original novel, and the 1989 film of the same name, Pet Sematary is a perfect example of all the reasons a lot of Stephen King stories don’t work in film. The first half of the movie is dreadfully boring, filled with characters who go undeveloped and are uninteresting, leading to a climax that, while often scary, isn’t particularly dramatically satisfying because the film has never made you care for the characters. King’s novels do a better job at establishing the characters and making them likable as he threads the spookier elements into the story. This film tries to do that but ultimately fails. (Spoilers ahead!)
Pet Sematary (written by Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg; directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer)
Based on the seminal horror novel by Stephen King, Pet Sematary follows Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), who, after relocating with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two young children from Boston to rural Maine, discovers a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near the family’s new home. When tragedy strikes, Louis turns to his unusual neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unfathomable evil with horrific consequences.
Stephen King writes the kind of horror stories that work best in a medium where the audience can be placed directly in the mindset of a character. Prose does this beautifully as most novels are written in a format that is tied to the perspective of a specific character (or characters, depending on if the point of view shifts at all). In a novel, prose can be used to show readers what a character is thinking and describe how they are feeling. In a film, all of that needs to be effectively communicated visually – and that’s incredibly difficult. Stephen King’s stories aren’t scary because of whatever spooky thing is explicitly happening, they’re scary because of how that spooky thing impacts the characters who are experiencing it. His stories are scary because of the ways they explore how characters internally react to horrific things. Showing internal reactions to horrific things is something that most films are bad at doing and Pet Sematary is a chief example of this. The previously dead cat and child coming back to life after being buried in a magic cemetery aren’t what make this story scary. What makes the story scary is how they interact with the characters who are still alive and the trauma that arises in the wake of their resurrections.
And it’s the exploration of those reactions that this film struggles with. The undead cat and the undead daughter are all suitably creepy, but the film never spends enough time with how the various family members react to the trauma of a loved one coming back from the dead. The family experiences a touch of the initial shock when the cat returns to life, but then it’s onto the next creepy thing instead of truly focusing on showing these characters dealing with that trauma. It’s even worse when Ellie returns from the dead as the only person there to react to it is Louis, but he’s written and performed (by Jason Clarke) in such a wooden way that he has next to no emotion about this. This lack of any real exploration of this trauma stems both from the writing of the characters and from the actors’ performances. The movie does a poor job at establishing these characters as people the audience might want to root for. They’re just so blandly written and performed that it’s hard to connect with them at all before the spooky stuff starts happening, so once that stuff does start happening, it’s hard to care what they’re going through. And since the movie doesn’t spend any time trying to get the audience to understand what these characters are experiencing, it all falls flat.
A half-hearted attempt at characterization is given to Rachel, the mother, as we see her continuing to struggle with the death of her sister that she may or may not have caused. Had this plotline actually gone anywhere interesting or really tied back into what was happening in the main part of the film, it might have been impactful, but as executed, it just felt like a way of delivering a few more jump-scares. Rachel has trouble talking about death, because of her past trauma, but the film doesn’t explore that trauma any deeper than those jump-scare heavy flashbacks and a few lines about her not liking to talk about death. And then, the mother is basically written out of the movie as the daughter is brought back to life, so we never really get a chance to see how she reacts to that because she doesn’t come back into the film until after the daughter has clearly become an unhinged killer. So, in light of this utter lack of characterization for any of these characters, it’s hard to care about them at all as the climax of the film happens. You don’t really care if they all die or if they all live happily ever after; you just want the film to be over.
I can see how this story would have worked on the page. Stephen King is great at spending a lot of time delving into the trauma his characters experience as weird things happen to them. But screenwriters Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg and directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer bring none of that to this film. Combine their lack of focus on the trauma with some super wooden performances from all of the actors – save for John Lithgow, who tries his hardest to keep this film afloat but even he can’t save this from being a total snoozefest – and you’ve got a recipe for a deeply uninteresting film. It’s a shame because the visuals are nice and the trailers looked promising and the premise is spooky. But when you already know what the twist is – because this is a 30+-year-old story that was already made into a film that had a sequel – it’s hard to maintain any kind of suspense. Since you can’t rely on the suspense of what’s going to happen to keep the audience interested, you have to develop the characters and focus on how they react to everything. And this film didn’t do that. And it suffered deeply for it. I can’t recommend this movie. It’s an ineffectual horror movie as it’s never particularly scary or unsettling and it’s a bad adaptation of what I presume is a better story than it is a movie.
2 out of 5 wands.