Pet Sematary is pretty much just okay. It has some things going for it, mostly that it has a better ending than the original story and quite a lot of the cinematography is genuinely pretty. It’s clear that they put a lot of thought into specific elements of the adaption, and people familiar with the story will see some genuinely clever surprises.
But while I was sitting in the theater, I kept comparing it to the recent adaption of Stephen King’s It and trying to figure out why It worked so much better for me than this film. When you’re making those kind of comparisons in a movie theater, that doesn’t bode well. Pet Sematary isn’t particularly scary and it doesn’t really get innovative until the very end, but it’s a perfectly pleasant take on the story.
Ugh, you know what? I’m not articulating my thoughts on this very well, so I’m going to bring in my co-reviewer Lazy Skeletor to help me out on this.
Lazy Skeletor: Who summons me! I was in the middle of my down time, so you better being paying my hourly rate.
Me: I did. Sorry LS, but I’m having a hell of a time trying to articulate my feelings around my disappointment with Pet Sematary.
Lazy Skeletor: You pulled me off my binge for the new season of Santa Clarita Diet for this? You cretinous critic, how hard is it to say that you were bored?
Me: Because that seems a bit dismissive.
Lazy Skeletor: Some things are meant to be dismissed. Look, it’s not hard at all. The two leads had no chemistry, their accents kept slipping every few seconds, there was no real attempt to build the world or the characters into anything that we would care about, and the little girl that they hinged the entire film on was badly utilized. There. Was that so hard?
Me: No. This is actually good stuff. You’re right, I tend to treat every horror movie I see like I’m the director’s mom and just showing blind support for everything. But there were a LOT of problems with Pet Sematary .
Lazy Skeletor: I liked the cat.
Me: I mean, it’s impossible NOT to like a nasty undead zombie asshole cat. But it’s, like, okay, Pet Sematary is one of the heavier books in Stephen King’s library. It’s got a lot of nasty stuff on how we deal with death, which is at the heart of the horror genre. So there’s a ton of thematic foundation for any adaptors to play with. And it seems like the best this movie could do were a few half-hearted jump scares and some dirty long haired girl monster. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before.
Lazy Skeletor: It did look pretty good, though. All those shots of the cemetery and the fog and the deep, dark forest.
Me: I thought I was supposed to be the one offering up the weak defense of the film.
Lazy Skeletor: Critique isn’t a binary, fool! It’s not an either-or situation. A movie can be both pretty and boring. And for the record, I’m pretty and you’re boring.
Me: Kinda reaching for that one, huh?
Lazy Skeletor: You brought me on this, remember?
Lazy Skeletor: Speaking of, didn’t you think that this whole procession thing would be a bigger part of the story?
Me: Honestly, when I was watching it, I really thought the procession was going to turn out to be other children who’d been resurrected by the sematary and then became a part of whatever evil force was lurking in the woods.
Lazy Skeletor: The Wendigo, right?
Lazy Skeletor: He’s been a big thing in horror lately, hasn’t he?
Me: Seems like it, or at least I’m noticing it more. I do love Hannibal’s take on the idea. In this, the Wendigo seems like an unknowable spirit in the forest who sours the earth and all who live near there, but when it speaks through the body of Ellie Creed then it’s just another taunting Exorcist-style demon. I personally prefer my supernatural to be more alien.
Lazy Skeletor: You didn’t say that about Pennywise.
Me: Yeah but Pennywise is ultimately unknowable. He knows enough about humans to tempt or scare them, but after that he’s something the children can’t understand.
Lazy Skeletor: So, what, you wanted Ellie to come out of the grave with a bunch of soliloquies about grief and the meaning of mortality?
Me: Actually, you know what, the best bits of the movie were the conversations between the parents about how best to talk to kids about death, with both questions of the afterlife and the mother’s fears stemming back from her childhood.
Lazy Skeletor: Boy her whole thing was very similar to Eleanor’s backstory in The Haunting of Hill House, huh?
Me: Big time. But that was interesting too. The notion that she feels guilty for wishing her sister was dead and that having a big impact on her. I kind of wanted the story to be about her rather than Louis Creed. He’s a doctor, he deals with death every day, and he’s pretty rock solid in his belief about the finality of death. Rachel Creed has more room for emotional growth. She would have also been a better counterpoint for Jud, who also had grief in his backstory.
Lazy Skeletor: That movie really wasted John Lithgow, didn’t it?
Me: I mean, it’s not like Jud Crandell is the hero. He’s the misbegotten shaman stock character. All he had to do was be old and sad. John Lithgow just did it way better than most people could have.
Lazy Skeletor: Alright, this is growing long and I want to get back to my show. Let’s skip to the ending.
Me: It seems like everyone in the cast got better by the end of the movie. The little girl playing Ellie Creed didn’t have to hide her maturity or intelligence, Louis Creed felt stubborn and almost dangerous, and there’s an escalation of suspense that makes things happen. It basically turns into a stalk-and-slash situation, but the choice to end with the entire family becoming resurrected abominations feels like the most natural and correct way to end the story.
Lazy Skeletor: There’s something about King adaptions that just seems to smooth out plot holes and make other ideas better. The Mist is a much better story with that dark ending than the original vague ending.
Me: Well, and I say this as a fan, King has some specific ideas and writing quirks that sometimes get in the way.
Lazy Skeletor: The whole distorted, evil versions of resurrected people reminded me of the Tethered from Jordan Peele’s Us. How far do you distort someone before they’re absolutely different from their original?
Me: Getting deep, aren’t you?
Lazy Skeletor: Insolent whelp! You’re basically just talking to yourself at this point. Time to wrap this up anyway.
Me: Fair enough. It’s kind of a happy ending, in its way. The family is back together again.
Lazy Skeletor: Well, it’s a happy ending for everyone but Gage.
Okay, just me.
Stephen King once said something to the effect that even the worst horror movie he’s seen was still pretty damned good. It’s a sentiment that I can mostly sympathize with. While I’ve seen some actual abominable stinkers in my time, my love of the horror genre makes me a pretty bad objective critic of any individual work.
Overall, I’d say this is a C-movie that with a B+ ending.