Never mess with forces beyond our understanding. That warning is usually on the first signpost leading to a certain twilit zone and all points south of its borders.
And like many good horror stories, Pet Sematary shows just how awful things can get when the best of intentions (the kind often used to pave the road to h-e-double-hockeysticks) lead sensible folk to do senseless things with such forces.
I refer more to the 1983 Stephen King novel (one of the author’s darkest and most unsettling) and the 1989 film adaptation by Mary Lambert, both of which told their cautionary fable a lot better than this present-day remake.
Lambert’s film was just plain nasty and really challenged horror fans’ sensibilities with a final third that was abhorrent, yet difficult to look away from.
This remake is not a bad film; it hits the right visceral notes and dares to make some sharp departures from King’s original story. However, despite some flashes of fright-flick brilliance, filmmakers Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have not done enough to bind their efforts together as a satisfying film.
First, Pet Sematary could have made better use of its time developing the central family into more than just stick figures around which to wrap plot threads.
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jete Lawrence) and son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) make up that family, and they have just moved to a nice house in a small New England town so they can enjoy a peaceful change of pace.
When the family cat gets run over by a speeding truck, well-meaning neighbour Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) suggests that Louis bury it in a remote section of the woods once used as a very special burial ground by the Native Americans who used to occupy the land. After doing so, Louis finds himself on a long, dark spiral into despair and nightmare.
But there’s not much that gets us to care for the Creeds; what’s missing is the deliberate, measured character definition/development that is a King hallmark – and also of the better adaptations of his work.
Instead, we get a lot of foreshadowing and guilt over bad things done in the past but the Creeds largely remain your basic movie building-block family.
The other entity that could have done with more exploration is the burial ground itself, to inform us ahead of the unfolding nightmare just how tainted (or “sour”) the land has become.
Both the book and original film had a narrative about a slain young soldier coming back “different” after he was buried there. It served as an effective illustration of just how bad an idea it is to mess with the burial ground, and here it is reduced to a fleeting headline in an online search.
Call me old school, but I figure such exposition works a lot better than just shrouding a movie set in shadow and rolling fog, and name-dropping an ancient evil spirit towards the end.
Finally, there’s Jud Crandall himself. In the book, his motivation for showing Louis the burial ground had more breathing space – and therefore, room to make some sense.
However, it was not really convincing in the first movie adaptation, and the same goes for this one. In fact, if Kolsch and Widmyer had really wanted to make an effective change, they should have focused on coming up with an entirely different reason for Jud being in the story, and for Louis to discover the place.
Having grumbled about all the above, I should still point out that the Pet Sematary remake has jump scares, creepy moments, disturbing notions and sickening realisations in abundance – more than enough to partly satisfy horror buffs.
But we live in more fortunate times nowadays with filmmakers like Jordan Peele reminding us that a gut-punch is way more effective when you’ve engaged the viewer’s mind as well – so why can’t more people in the genre try and do the same?
Or, given how much our brains have been numbed by the deluge of lazy and apathetic horror entries over the past few decades, would such an endeavour just be treading on hollowed ground?
Directors: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
Cast: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jete Lawrence