With movie studios scrambling to produce (and re-produce) recognizable intellectual property, famed author Stephen King and his work are in high demand. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were brought on to adapt Pet Sematary, a 1983 King novel of the same name. The novel’s second adaptation in 30 years, the studio should’ve followed the book’s choice wisdom: sometimes dead is better.
The Creed family, Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gabe (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move from busy Boston to tranquil Ludlow, Maine for a quieter life in rural America. The family has only just begun to explore their new house and property when they spot a group of children wearing animal masks and towing a wheelbarrow with a dead dog in it to the back of the family’s property. Their new neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), tells them of the pet cemetery hidden in the woods behind their house.
Louis, a doctor working at the local university clinic, begins his new job with an unexpected, gruesome accident. Student Victor Pascow is the victim of a gory hit-and-run. He arrives at the university clinic in dire condition before dying a few minutes after his arrival. That night, Pascow visits Louis in his dreams, warning him not to break the mystical barrier behind the pet cemetery. Later, Church, the Creed family cat, is found dead, and Jud helps Louis bury the cat in the pet cemetery. The next morning, Church makes a macabre and menacing return to the Creed household.
Unlike Pet Sematary’s 1989 counterpart, the 2019 rendition introduces changes aplenty to King’s story, scares, and themes. Book readers will strain to understand why central plot points, characters, and events were pulled from a movie that clocks in at just 101 minutes. In the novel, Jud’s wife Norma and Rachel’s parents each have roles that influence character development, and perhaps more impactfully, deliver lasting trauma for readers. In the 2019 adaptation, they are names mentioned in passing.
Pet Sematary feels like a production split between two diverging paths; with two directors pulling the strings, or re-animating the cat, as it were, Pet Semetary never decides whether it is a faithful adaptation or, like Church, a different being trapped in the same furry body. This brings to bear bigger ideas about King, the difficulties that come with adapting his work, and what it means to successfully bring his work to the screen, but when The Shining is integral to your legacy, accuracy be damned. Pet Sematary, meanwhile, straddles the middle ground between its source material and originality and fades away like the howl of a wendigo in the night.
As a horror genre devotee, I’m more or less immune to horror-induced fear, but Pet Sematary left me wanting. Relying on pitiable jump scares, even at the film’s climax, my heart rate never increased a beat. The film’s best-executed scare is a series of interactions between young Rachel and her diseased sister, Zelda. Rachel’s exaggerated childhood experience informs her relationship with death, and the image of her mangled sister caught in a cramped dumbwaiter is the film’s lone enduring piece of imagery.
Despite working with a relatively sizable budget, Pet Sematary is ineffective and unremarkable. While “bring in occult children in animal masks” is an idea, it isn’t one that should have seen the light of day. Pet Sematary, like those buried outside of its title plot, is doomed to be forgotten.