Movie Review: Pet Sematary
By Ben Gruchow
April 18, 2019
For approximately two and a half scenes, Pet Sematary possesses an unsettling nerve and emotional charge, one that’s just about equal to the overwhelming sense of dread and wrongness that pervades Stephen King’s 1983 source novel. It’s a pity that most of the rest of the movie is so rote, because in these scenes we get a sense of what could have been. As it stands: there is some fairly chilling imagery that isn’t soon forgotten, some moments of visceral emoting, and a generally defensible decision to twist the source material into a new direction for the final act. Counteracting these, and more successful at undermining them than they are at standing on their own strengths, is a screenplay that doesn’t appear to understand most of what worked on the page in terms of character development and building tension.
The origin of that source novel is one of the more intriguing and disturbing from the author’s history: as a young writer, King and his family found themselves living in a rural Maine house next to a busy highway. Trucks regularly blasted down this road at high speed, and claimed the lives of several area pets. King’s daughter’s cat met this fate one day, and the genesis of the novel came about when he had to explain death to her. In the foreword to one of the novel’s reprints, King recalls the agony and fury of his daughter as she wrestles with her grief, and utters a line that makes it all the way into this film, in a different form: “Let God have his own cat”. What would happen, the author wondered, if the animal didn’t stay buried? And if the animal came back fundamentally wrong?
In the annals of his writing history, there isn’t much that lands as close to home as Pet Sematary did for King (who also had a toddler son at the time) when he finished writing it, and the author is plainspoken about how much the end result terrified him. He initially trunk-noveled the manuscript, considering it too extreme to release, and Pet Sematary only saw the light of day because his publisher required a fifth novel to complete his contract, and he had that one on hand. His attachment to the material was evident, not least by his decision to author the screenplay for the 1989 Mary Lambert adaptation. That movie received mixed reviews, but garnered considerable commercial success and after-the-fact admiration. Watching it, it’s not difficult to see why: it’s occasional goofiness aside, it gets the bleak tone right. So, for that matter, does this film.
The outline of the story remains mostly the same: Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves to a house in the town of Ludlow, Maine, with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). The house is on a huge plot of wooded land by a busy highway, and it isn’t too long into their arrival before Ellie discovers one of the secrets of their property: a little cemetery in the woods with the sign misspelled (hence the title) and dozens of makeshift grave markers for area pets. There is another secret of their property that’s glimpsed in that first visit: an area of massive deadfall that seems to look more like a barrier than anything natural. Ellie has a run-in with the Creeds’ kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), who before long is explaining the nature of the Pet Sematary—and then, after Ellie’s cat Church is killed by a speeding truck, the nature of what lies beyond the deadfall. Suffice to say that Church makes a reappearance in the story, but he has changed in fundamentally wrong ways.
It’s a shivery achievement as a campfire story, an extended riff on The Monkey’s Paw and it’s careful-what-you-wish-for moral (articulated here as, “Sometimes, dead is better”). Going back to the novel and rereading it, there’s something else it has that the 1989 film gets right and the 2019 film does not: a coiling sense of inevitability and determinism. It’s easy to see why it unsettled its own author: so much of the story is grounded and even mundane, with the foreboding tendrils of implication provided by the Pet Sematary only showing a little at the edges here and there, until the novel reaches the final fifty pages or so and descends fully into nightmare. That early grounding, coupled with the sense of foreboding, gives us the overwhelming sensation that what eventually happens was ordained to happen by the dark forces behind the Pet Sematary, with the Creed family helpless to avoid it and us helpless to do anything but watch.
This film maintains that foreboding element for its first half-hour or so, although I could be overstating or understating it by a few minutes or so. Its strongest moments as character narrative (which aren’t terrifically strong) generally reside here, as the new location and old house prey not just on a parent’s desire to avoid talking about death to their young children, but on past trauma of the parents themselves. Rachel, in particular, is haunted by the long-ago death of her older sister Zelda, as the sister succumbed to spinal meningitis and was reduced to a shrieking husk of her former self. Rachel plays a role in her sister’s death in a way that is not, I don’t believe, an element of the source novel; it lends her character’s mindset more relevance in the back half of this film, and Rachel is arguably the only adult character in the movie with something approximating a fully-formed arc (the flashbacks with Zelda also contain some of the movie’s more grotesque imagery, especially a traumatic encounter with a dumbwaiter).
The half-hour mark is also about where we learn the secrets of the Pet Sematary; Jud leads Louis past the deadfall and through a swamp and up a hilltop to an occult burial ground to inter Church. Not long after, the cat makes his reappearance: hissing instead of friendly, fur matted and still evincing the wounds from his fatal accident. Louis recognizes the error of his judgment, and there is a scene where he decides to euthanize the animal. Were I Louis, I like to think I would have realized the error in judgment about at the point when I’m ankle-deep in a swamp coated in fog at night after climbing an unnatural barrier and I hear the cry of something colossal moving through the dark woods around me, but I perhaps lack the right sense of adventure. It is at this moment, when he’s about to administer a lethal injection, that the cat seems to consciously shift demeanor to something that appears more innocent. In the process, the movie loses most of its sense of inevitability and determinism; Church is not euthanized, and this decision leads directly to the movie’s most shocking and tragic sequence—or would be, at least, if the movie’s first trailer hadn’t happily spoiled it months ago.
It’s strange what this twist does to the material—it simultaneously elevating the level the movie is able to operate on, while also setting the stage for it to ultimately fail on that level and most of the ones below it. In the novel and the first adaptation, little Gage becomes the next victim of a speeding truck, and this sets in motion about what you’d expect from a story that’s set this type of table. In this version, it is the older Ellie who meets her end, and the events which occupy a relatively small portion of the book are stretched out and given more incident here. Complexity and nuance don’t increase along with it—although the first couple of scenes in the final act hint toward that possibility, they’re not given the breathing room they need to develop by the screenplay, which is more interested in fitting the twist into the framework of the original chain of climactic events. Other isolated moments possess some of the distressing ambiguity as the source novel, and a long shot that tracks backward from its subject along a country road is a self-contained masterpiece (it hits notes of menace and poignancy that the rest of the film doesn’t conceive of). Pet Sematary is blandly competent in other areas of its production, and it’s ultimately less bad than pointless. It takes time to develop germs of compelling ideas, but not the time to follow through on them; what’s left is a retread lacking in texture or urgency.