Stephen King has penned several stories during his career as an author, many of which inspired film adaptions. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, an adaption of the identically named 1977 King novel, endures as a pinnacle of horror, a defining work in its medium that eclipsed its source material in cultural significance. Twelve years after King’s Shining was published came Pet Sematary (the misspelling’s intentional), which saw him return to the horror genre. It in turn received two cinematic adaptions, one of which was released this year. It was directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer while Jeff Buhler wrote the script. 


Pet Sematary begins as so many works before it had, with a picturesque, all-American family moving to a new home. We meet loving parents Dr. Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz), precocious children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and their cat Church. As luck would have it, the Creeds purchased property that houses a supernatural burial ground, an area of significance to local kids and the family’s new neighbor, the stern Jud (John Lithgow). Out of a misguided sense of duty and love, our patriarch ignores the warnings he had been given to avoid the landmark. He first uses it unwittingly to resurrect Church after its death, and then intentionally beacons it to revive Ellie following her passing. Those familiar with the book or the 1989 film should know liberties were taken here to freshen the experience, but it still leads to a chilling outcome. 

The cinematography, while far from equaling Halloween, did enhance the atmosphere, emphasizing the sensation of isolation. There was a palpable sense of dread that permeated the 100-minute picture (though the green screen effects did occasionally let that down). Reminiscent of the slower, more intimate pacing of The Ring and The Shining, Pet Sematary takes a lot of time to establish its rules and players (the first hour or so features an overabundance of exposition). Its sedated pacing won’t appeal to everyone, but I found it helped further the grim atmosphere. The strongest asset here, however, is the acting; Clarke, Seimetz and Laurence in particular provided phenomenal performances, especially the latter two. It was reportedly difficult finding a child actress who can portray a sweet, innocent kid and a commanding, wicked presence, but Laurence played both roles admirably. Seimetz’s range, meanwhile, elevated the film’s best scene, where Rachel was emotionally trying to make sense of Ellie’s rebirth. Regrettably, while Clarke is no less talented than his peers, Louis is the most wooden character and the hardest to root for, a problem considering he’s the focal character.

However, Pet Sematary struggles to stand out among other works in its vein. Visually, two of the ghouls — the resurrected Ellie and Rachel’s deceased sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) — channel two villainesses of yore; the former’s facade recalls Ring’s cyanotic Samara while the disorienting way the latter slithers around is reminiscent of Ju-on’s Kayako. The sematary is stated to adversely influence those who visit it, a form of manipulation other settings, from Shining’s Overlook Hotel to Corpse Party’s Heavenly Host Elementary School, weaved into their narratives. While there’s nothing wrong with allusions or coincidental similarities to other titles, it deflates Pet Sematary how many of its ideas have been seen, and were executed better, in other works. 

In the impressive, hour-long making-of documentary, the crew behind Pet Sematary discuss the challenges that came with modernizing King’s tale while maintaining its spirit. Buhler, in his initial pitch, described the feelings of loss and grief as the core antagonists. The movie compounds this, expressing the sentiments that the dead’s best left dead, and that death is an inevitability people must accept (the film, deleted scenes and alternate ending outright spell this all out several times). They’re fascinating concepts, but they’re regrettably buried by unimaginative jump scares and elements that recall other, stronger works.


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