Review: “Pet Sematary” (2019)

2 out of 5 stars.

Buried somewhere within “Pet Sematary,” there’s an interesting commentary on dealing with death and the fear of dying.  But the film, which is based on the classic Stephen King novel and was adapted once before for film in 1989, doesn’t begin to unleash its full potential until the last 25 minutes, and by then it’s too little too late.

“Pet Sematary,” which is co-directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, centers around the Creed family, who move from Boston to the small town of Ludlow, Maine.  Dad Louis (Jason Clarke) has taken a new position at the local college’s hospital, and hopes that small town life will give him more time to spend with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and children Ellie (Jéte Laurence) and Gage.  But after Ellie stumbles across a graveyard in the woods behind their new home dubbed the Pet Sematary, and Louis has strange visions after failing to save a student who got hit by a car, a sense of foreboding begins to creep up on the whole family.  This isn’t helped by their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) who shows Louis a place far back in the woods that may have the power to bring the dead back to life—only they don’t come back quite the same.

Louis (Jason Clarke) is forced to confront his beliefs about death in “Pet Sematary”

Most audiences are likely going to come into “Pet Sematary” already knowing at least some of what happens, whether they read the book, watched the original film, or saw the trailer for this movie, which gives away most of the plot anyway.  Even so, the film moves at a snail’s pace for the first hour or so, failing to generate enough interest about the strange goings-on and relying instead on heavy foreshadowing and random jump scares to occasionally shake up the audience.  We are fed some info about the each family member and their past trauma: Louis is the logical doctor, while Rachel believes there must be an afterlife, and they argue how best to talk about death to their young daughter.  As events do escalate, they sort of switch roles, and that is interesting to see; it’s just too bad that we aren’t given enough to be emotionally invested in them earlier in the film.

It is after a pivotal moment later in the film that the creepiness factor is cranked all the way up.  The characters, and by extension the audience, are forced to deal with what they would do if confronted with unbearable grief.  I wouldn’t say that this film provides the opportunity for any of the adult actors to work at the top of their game (although both Clark and Seimetz have a few gut-wrenching moments toward the end), but Laurence makes a stunning turn from charming and innocent to downright terrifying in no time flat, cementing her place forever in the creepy movie children hall of fame.  But despite a couple of sinister moments in the climax, the film ends quickly and with little resolution, leaving the audience feeling more confused than unsettled.

The Creed family’s creepy cat, Church

The film’s atmosphere is appropriately creepy.  The sequences shot in the woods at night are especially interesting, as they have a sort of campy, old-school horror vibe about them.  The Creed family home is also old and creaky, with the appearance of their cat Church constantly signaling the mayhem that is just down the road.  But any attempts at campiness are negated by the fact that the film is so deadly bleak and serious, making the almost darkly humorous note that the movie ends on feel all the more inappropriate.

Maybe bigger fans of horror and King’s body of work will find more to enjoy in “Pet Sematary” than I did.  But it isn’t fun or surprising, it isn’t particularly tense or scary until the end, and it drives home its delicate message in a rather heavy-handed way.  At one point in the movie, Jud tells Louis that “sometimes dead is better,” but this movie could have benefited from a little bit more life.

Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated R.

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