The Creed family (unfortunately, not the Creech family) needs a change of pace. Boston is just too busy, so they’ve decided to move to an isolated house in Ludlow, Maine. There, Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie & Lucas Lovie), plus their cat Church, can slow down and take some time to smell the roses. But the discovery of a local pet cemetery in the vast forest on their property puts the family on edge, as does the death of Church. If only there was some way to bring their cat back from the dead. If only neighbor Jud Crandell (John Lithgow) knew of some spot where dead things could be buried and then come back to life. If only that spot could bring Church back to life and start a series of tragic events for the family surrounding an inability to cope with death. Oh if only…
Pet Sematary is an all-around disappointing affair but it’s especially underwhelming when it comes to being particularly scary. The premise of a family whose individual members have differing relationships with the concept of death (Rachel wants to shield Ellie from the notion of death while Louis is more casual about it) seems like it should be the perfect groundwork for character-driven horror. Perhaps it is in the original Stephen King novel or Mary Lambert’s original feature film adaptation but as told by directors Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer and screenwriter Jeff Buhler in this new version of Pet Sematary, all of that ripe potential goes right out the window for a multitude of reasons.
For one thing, Buhler’s script is an oddly messy creation, the characters are especially an erratic bunch that don’t have much of a concrete personality to latch onto. Rachel, for instance, only gets a tragic backstory involving a sibling with a physical deformity that ends up having no impact on the plot while Louis is just a disposable suburban dad before the third act sees him turn into the atheist who is also angry at God ala Kevin Sorbo in God’s Not Dead. Poor John Lithgow (always a delight to see in any project), meanwhile, is saddled with a character that constantly alternates between being a stern curmudgeon and a more heartfelt creation.
Because the small cast of lead characters is so poorly defined, it’s hard to get invested in the character when they’re trying to survive all kinds of undead drama which leaves a lot of the scares feeling underwhelming. Of course, the horror in this film has bigger problems than just the lead characters being underwritten. Eerie tone and harrowing suspense are traded out here for way too many predictable jump scares, only one of which, involving a bathroom medicine cabinet, managed to actually make me jump. The core concept in Pet Sematary is such a tantalizing one that could really play on our fear of losing loved ones, so why is so much of the horror here of the most generic kind imaginable?
Speaking of generic, the worse part of Pet Sematary, easily, is how the movies visual aesthetic is totally lacking in personality. The direction and editing especially are so choppy that they frequently zap any potential terror in a given scene. For instance, there’s an early scene in Pet Sematary where Rachel & Ellie watch a group of kids in old-timey animal masks carry an animal to the local pet cemetery, a sight that should be terrifying. However, the shots of the kids in their animal masks are filmed in a manner that robs them of any potential scariness while Rachel & Ellie are, amusingly, never captured in the same shot as the procession of creepy youngsters, not even in a wide shot to establish that these two newcomers now share their land with some odd children. Instead, these two lead characters are just watching something happening off-screen while delivering stilted expository dialogue about what they’re watching like they’re in that one scene in Wet Hot American Summer. As Alfred Hitchcock can attest, nothing makes a scary scene scarier than having characters intricately explain what’s happening on-screen.
There are all kinds of examples throughout Pet Semetary of how its amateurish visual elements keep undercutting its potential for horror. What a pity this incarnation of this Stephen King story had to be told through clunky means given that the cast, particularly John Lithgow and Amy Seimitz) is still trying their best with the subpar material they’ve been given. Meanwhile, the makeup team does the most creative work in the entire project in realizing what creatures coming back from the dead could actually look like. Their efforts show flashes of imagination, an element in far too short of supply in Pet Sematary, a movie whose scariest quality is all the potential it wastes.