"Pet Sematary" 2019 Arrives Dead And Buried

Recent years have gifted film fans one good Stephen King adaptation and a handful of bad ones. This is par for the course, of course. King’s mercurial writing career has arguably meant more trick than treat for cinephiles. It’s in this spirit that the latest King adaptation, “Pet Sematary,” hobbles into theaters, a largely disappointing goodie bag that’s regrettably a perfect analog for King-on-film.

The author’s shocking 1983 novel of the same name was made into a movie once before. The only shocking thing this time around is how pedestrian it is, recalling mid-2000s pap like “Secret Window.” Only “Secret Window” was, at least contemporaneously, carried by newly minted superstar Johnny Depp. With all due respect to John Lithgow, “Pet Sematary” has no such intriguing screen presence or star power – only sparse thrills distributed at a robotic clip.

Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz play Louis and Rachel Creed. The couple and their young children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) have just relocated from Boston to rural Maine because this is a Stephen King story. Louis, a doctor, is haunted the by the spirit of a college-aged student he couldn’t save; Rachel is haunted by her long-dead sister.

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and screenwriter Jeff Buhler fail to meaningfully connect these dots to the pet cemetery that lies on the family’s new property. Save for the story’s big moral conundrum, which admittedly still packs a punch, there’s little insight to any of these character’s trauma. Things just happen – like a parade of children in animal masks that signals the presence of the cemetery – and the characters react dutifully, scarcely scraping the surface of the complexity inherent in King’s always-wordy text.

Lithgow’s Jud Crandall is the only exception. Having featured in two horror-adjacent 80s films (the brilliant “Blow Out” and the infamous “Twilight Zone: The Movie”) the actor’s fit as the mysterious old neighbor is at once familiar and new. As Jud shepherds Louis to a misty ancient burial ground to bury the Creed family’s pet cat, Church, Lithgow wields the sequence’s inevitability with an almost-there smile. There’s a wryness to his performance required of rehashing decades-old material, and a better film would tap into that sense of humor.

By the time the otherwise deadly serious film spins into its climax, moments of levity nearly poke through. But by this point, it’s too late. The movie wraps up with a shrug of a twist.

Far more disappointing than what “Pet Sematary” 2019 does is what it doesn’t do. It’s a wasted opportunity to kick up some dirt on a well traveled but fruitful horror playground. Instead it plays out like so many neutered genre films before it. Its deviations from the source material are neither here nor there. Its greatest sin is its neglect of the spirit of King’s writing. Or any spirit at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 5, 2019
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Screenwriter: Jeff Buhler
Starring: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie
MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence, bloody images, and some language)