Pet Sematary
The creepy children's masks call back to Kolsch and Widmyer's "Holidays." (Illustration by James O’Toole, Grand Valley State University)

‘Pet Sematary’ Is Mediocre at Best, Problematic at Worst

Sometimes, dead really is better.

Despite being the newest installment in a world ripe with Stephen King adaptations, “Pet Sematary” failed to live up to expectations. Didn’t watch it? Be warned: Spoilers lie ahead.

Following the massive commercial and critical success of “It,” it was only a matter of time before another King novel found its way into theaters. The most recent of these, “Pet Sematary” lacked any of the vivacity of Andres Muschietti’s film.

The movie is very much a tag-team effort, with both Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer wearing the mantle of director and Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler receiving writing credits. Kolsch and Widmyer have a history of directing so-so horror films together, such as “Holidays” and “Starry Eyes.” Curiously enough, “Holidays” uses some startling animal imagery that might have influenced the children’s masks in the King adaptation.

The story centers around Dr. Louis Creed — a doctor who has taken a position at the University of Maine — and his family, who move to a new home on the edge of Maine’s wilderness. When the Creeds’ cat, named Church, is mowed down by a tractor-trailer on the unusually busy road beside the house, Louis and his elderly neighbor, Jud, bury the cat a ways into the woods beyond the local pet burial ground, misspelled “Pet Sematary.” Unbeknownst to Louis and the rest of the Creed family, things buried in the cemetery find a way to come back.

“Pet Sematary” has received middling reviews, with a 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 57 percent on Metacritic and a 6.2 on IMDb. With two almost full viewings under my belt (I fell asleep for a portion my second time around), I can faithfully assert that it isn’t hard to see why most critics christened the film with a resounding “eh.”

One of most disappointing aspects of the film is its subpar acting. Louis, portrayed by Jason Clarke, is a static character that fails to tap into the hearts of viewers. Rather disconcertingly, Clarke’s eyes don a somewhat unstable, feral look in the early goings of the film, when everything is serene. As his family literally begins to collapse around him, his eyes keep the same manic expression, making it difficult for the audience to see when exactly his devolution began.

Amy Seimetz’s Rachel is marginally better, but is held back by stale dialogue options. Jete Laurence’s Ellie is borderline passable. Perhaps the best fit for any of the major roles is John Lithgow as Jud, but the seemingly sinister light the film casts him in for his introduction is misplaced, awkward and altogether unnecessary. Overall, the biggest impression the acting left on me was that the reemerged dead each come back with a lazy eye. Why? I couldn’t tell you.

Moreover, the pacing is horrendous. King calls “Pet Sematary” his scariest novel, saying, “All I know is that ‘Pet Sematary’ is the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had finally gone too far.” The book relies on its steady decline into the chaotic nature of man to emphasize its horror.

In fact, the first 100 pages or so of the novel are quite beautiful. Yet, the film disregards King’s formula, glazing over almost a third of the novel in the first 20 minutes before dramatically slowing down. From then on, “Pet Sematary” unmercifully rides short and intermittent jump scares, removing any sense of tension from the narrative. For a full list of creative liberties the new installment takes from is novel and film predecessors, check out this helpful compilation from Screen Rant.

However, sound is the principle weapon the film wields to sever connections with its source material. While most horror movies succumb to the allures of non-diegetic sound (sound originating off screen) for jump scares, the newest “Pet Sematary” capitalizes upon it with alarming alacrity. In and of itself, employing off-screen noises might not be that heinous of a cinematic crime, but when the movie’s use of sound constantly contradicts itself, problems arise.

“Pet Sematary” propagates a universe in which trucks quite literally roar while driving down the road, and people’s footsteps make absolutely no noise. The rather infantile approach the film takes toward providing scares through non-diegetic sound suffocates what little sound the piece used fashionably, such as the shutting slider doors of the shaft Zelda (Rachel’s sister, portrayed by Alyssa Levine) died in. In particular, this sound seems to represent Rachel’s inability to comprehend the nature of death.

Beyond the acting and composition of the film, however, fester even more issues. Zelda’s depiction in the movie is especially problematic. A person living with spinal meningitis, Zelda is a particularly malignant character who embodies a dark, twisted soul. In the newest film adaption, Zelda’s horror is rooted in her condition, not in her malicious attitude towards Rachel, a supposition supported by the several close-up shots of Zelda’s misshapen back and teeth. Her hair is matted with grime, and her skin bears an almost translucent quality. The viewer, then, naturally finds her character frightful because of her appearance, which feels very much like a slight against those living with the condition.

The camerawork is uneventful at best, with only two sweeping aerial shots of the tree line and chaotic remains of the houses standing out. While most horror fans do not purchase tickets in the hope of being wowed by impressive cinematography, the overall lack of cinematic quality could have been buoyed with a variation from the film’s overuse of hard cuts between shots.

All in all, “Pet Sematary” is a forgettable film that captivates the audience only until the end credits roll. On my way out, I found myself thinking of where to grab food, a sign the movie fails to provide the audience with any lasting terror. If you do watch it and enjoy the film, more power to you. But for me and many film critics, “Pet Sematary” is the perfect example of novel-to-film adaptations’ weaknesses. Sometimes, there are simply elements to written stories that do not translate well to the big screen.

Be careful where you bury this film.

You’d rather not have it come back to life.

Leave a Reply