Stephen King’s scariest novel “Pet Sematary” is a sickening inversion of the familiar and good into the horrifying. Parental love is warped into subservience to a malicious and unknowable force. Kindness becomes weakness and a grim inevitability settles over the story like a dense fog.
The novel’s 2019 film adaptation has none of this power. Like those interred in soured earth above the titular cemetery, this adaptation is superficially similar, but awkwardly shambles around missing what made the original so impactful. It turns one of the boldest and darkest stories in horror into a dull, by the numbers, bore.
Adapting the over 600 page novel to film couldn’t have been easy. Most of the plot progression happens in characters’ mental states, and the horror comes from watching them fall apart. This isn’t something that is easy to translate to film. The existence of the similarly poor 1989 version of the film is a testament to that.
The film centers around the Creeds, a hapless nuclear family unit that has recently moved to rural Maine. Their new property includes a sinister pet cemetery, as well as several acres of dark forest.
Slowly but surely, ghastly dreams begin to penetrate the waking world, and it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong.
The original’s themes of grappling with morality, familial breakdown, madness and the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane are replaced with a first half that is a bad haunted house movie, followed by a second that is a boring and predictable creepy kids movie.
Everything in the film has been done before, and done better, but its greatest sin is in how dreadfully boring it is.
That is not to say that every element is totally abysmal. John Lithgow’s performance as lovable neighbor Jud is great, adding some much needed levity and charm to a bland film. Amy Seimetz is believable as traumatized Rachel Creed and Jeté Laurence gives it her all in a dynamic role.
Some makeup effects are great: bloody corpses are rendered realistically and almost tastefully grounding scenes that could have been gratuitous.
Add to this some legitimately sweet scenes between characters, and there is at least the foundations of a great movie in here somewhere.
All of this good will is lost, however, in the film’s attempts to radically change the ending to make an already dark story even more bleak. It instead jettisons any tonal consistency and undercuts its themes in the worst climax to a horror film I have seen in years.
Unfortunately, decent acting and a few good moments cannot hope to salvage a script this poor, and these bright points of quality only make the mediocrity surrounding them more apparent.
Much of the escalating ghastliness comes across as unintentionally silly: Rachel Creed’s memory of her sister with spinal meningitis and the trauma associated with watching someone die is rendered laughable by the cheesy dialogue and goofy resolution that is more “Looney Tunes” than lunatic.
Plot threads are mentioned and dropped with no bearing on the plot. A brief mention of a creature called the wendigo could be removed from the film entirely.
These loose plot threads permeate the film, dragging down what is already a sluggish experience.
The film isn’t even pretty to look at, with color gradients and shot composition looking amateurish at best. One scene is distractingly green tinted in a way that feels more like a mistake than an artistic statement.
Another scene features slow motion that looks more like something out of a YouTube video than a major motion picture, ruining a pivotal scene.
The true tragedy of this adaptation is in what it could have been. The source material is one of the greatest horror novels ever written and has lost none of its power. None of this comes across in the film.
“Pet Sematary” is slow and deliberate without being profound. It’s morbid without being frightening, and it is unintentionally cheesy without being fun.
There is no reason to see this film, the adaptation brings nothing to the table. Reading the book, hell, even glancing at its Wikipedia page is better than sitting through this mess.