Directors: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Stars: John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jason Clarke
A few years back Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer set the horror scene temporarily ablaze with their dark and beautiful debut Starry Eyes, a lo-fi body horror transformation of the American Dream into the Hollywood Nightmare. How unfortunately prescient Starry Eyes now seems, as the filmmaking duo themselves seem to have been swallowed whole by the monster studios.
Their names gave this remake of Pet Sematary some heft, along with a neat trailer that promised some seriously bone-shaking chills. The final film – mortifyingly – is a bungled mess; a flailing thing that steals desperately from any hoary old horror trope going. This version is so confused it even wanders so far off course as to turn into a completely different Stephen King novel. Should you decide to part with your hard-earned cash to watch this enterprising disaster, you may well find yourself five minutes from the end, scratching your head and legitimately asking, “Isn’t this bit from The Shining?”
Jason Clarke is Louis, moving his family out into the sticks, where they have purchased an unfeasibly large house on a massive plot of land; an especially bold move for, essentially, a school nurse and a… what does his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) do again…? Doesn’t matter! Soon after they’ve arrived, daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is lured to the creepy ‘Pet Sematary’ in the woods by an inexplicable troupe of masked children (these kids are just waiting for The Purge). John Lithgow’s friendly old neighbour Judd is on hand to explain away this grim and decrepit find. When Ellie’s precious pet cat buys it on the main road, Judd takes Louis out to a place beyond the Pet Sematary where the dead don’t stay dead for long…
All of this will be faithfully familiar to those who have seen Mary Lambert’s superior 1989 film version, although those with sharp memories or fans of King’s novel will already notice sharp detours happening along the way. Tellingly, Pet Sematary carries a rarely seen writing credit. Screenplay duties are performed by Jeff Buhler, but Matt Greenberg takes responsibility for the ‘screen story’. Presumably he is the one to blame, then, for the tsunami of wrong-headed additions piled on top of the skeletal story.
Pet Sematary circa 2019 doubles as a laundry list of complaints one could levy at popular horror cinema of this decade. It is far, far too enamoured with the quiet-loud-quiet-loud banging found in hit films like The Conjuring. It’s also quite content to demonise those with mental or physical weaknesses. On the one hand it’s nice that additional layers are added to Rachel’s character, giving her more of a role in the film… Unfortunately these manifest as totally unnecessary ghost story nicknacks, all built around a scare stolen from Candyman. These moves feel both tired and invasive. They also cast the Louis character in an even less forgiving light. He does what he does even though he is well-aware of his wife’s trauma surrounding death?
Clarke’s Louis is pure Jack Torrance; a possessed man, coerced by supernatural forces to annihilate his family from the inside. It’s a marginally more graded turn than Nicholson’s, but by the last half hour they’re essentially the same. Lithgow does okay (with his dirty beard that looks like he’s just been eating mustard right out of the jar), but the bludgeoning score can’t decide whether he’s to be painted as a harmless fuddyduddy or a potential child molestor. One minute he’s sweetness and light, the next he’s evoking stranger danger. Instead of ambiguous, it’s just confused.
Much of the opening hour is paint-by-numbers. Even when Pet Sematary tries to shock during this time, it fails due to the been-there-done-that safety rails of the script. Its not a spoiler to say it (again, you’ll appreciate why if you go) but even the sole black guy dies first in this movie (and oh how it suffers appearing so soon after Jordan Peele’s imaginative Us).
By the unintentionally funny final act anything is fair game, and the tweaks to the story expose their shameless motives. Pet Sematary becomes, of all things, a J-horror rip off. Just another muddled American movie under the thrall of long lank hair and bad posture. By this point it seems fruitless caring that so many of the film’s token moments (the masked kids, the pictures of demons) amount to clutter and nothing more. Pay-offs or further explorations aren’t in the offering here.
Which is a real shame. Clarke has an everyman quality similar to that of James Wan favourite Patrick Wilson, so could have been a strong bet. Amy Seimetz is renowned in indie circles as both a fine actor and a credible producer. Lithgow is Lithgow. Yet none of them seem able to salvage this. As for Kölsch and Widmeyer? Occasional flourishes kindle faint memories of the twisted magic seen at the end of Starry Eyes, but otherwise nothing about the film makes it feel like theirs. It has more in common with processed meat. An idea fed through a grinder, then shrink-wrapped. The end product feels like a horror film made by a studio that doesn’t really understand the genre at all; but it’s seen enough clips from well-known titles to have a rough idea of what people probably expect. There are no concessions to the idea that these disparate elements might fail to tesselate.
If 2017’s smash IT rekindled the romantic notion of bringing King to the big screen again, Pet Sematary might just see it buried once more.