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Sometimes Bad Horror Movies Don't Stay Dead

Jason Clarke
Jason Clarke
Paramount Pictures
 101 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer    
Pet Sematary

One of my more well-received recent tweets suggested an idea for a new horror movie: Celluloid Sematary. It’s a place where they bury bad films, only to have them come back as even worse remakes. Although by now, the “sematary” would undoubtedly be bursting at the seams with film mediocrities, there’s no doubt which one would be its centerpiece. That honor would have to go to its namesake, the current remake of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, a completely unnecessary and unremarkable remake of a relatively unremarkable original.


The basic formula for the new Pet Sematary is the same as in the original (or, for that matter, in the King novel), but screenwriter Jeff Buhler has thrown in some twist variations. One of these, the identity of a dead child, might have been a shocking bit of directorial misdirection had it not been spoiled in every single trailer for the movie. As in the other versions, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) move from the big city to the small town of Ludlow, ME, where he plans to run the university clinic. As soon as the family arrives, they discover that part of their extensive property has been used as a “pet sematary” by local children to bury their departed animal companions. As if having an animal burying ground in his backyard wasn’t creepy enough, Louis soon has visions of a dead patient warning him that the ground behind his house is “sour.”


On a happier note, Louis does make friends with his only living neighbor, widower Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). Jud befriends Louis’ nine-year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence). When Ellie’s beloved cat Church dies, and Louis goes to bury Church in the pet sematary, Jud talks him into going deeper into the woods, past a natural barrier, to bury the cat instead. Soon afterward, Church reappears, looking much the worse for wear, and with a nasty temper to boot. Eventually, Jud tells Louis that the area where they buried Louis was an ancient Indian burial ground that had been cursed, and that bodies buried there would come back to life. But, as Jud had learned decades earlier when he reburied his own pet dog, they were not the same.


Church’s reunion with his human family doesn’t go well, resulting in Louis leaving the cat back in the woods. But Church picks a most inopportune time to reappear, during Ellie’s birthday party. Church appears at the side of the busy highway, and toddler son Gage wanders out to play with the cat just as a giant 18-wheeler barrels down the road. In the film’s best-edited sequence, Louis manages to pull Gage out of the way, but the truck overturns and skids directly into Ellie, killing her. Not having learned his lesson about the hidden graveyard from his experience with Church, Louis digs up Ellie’s body after her funeral and reburies her in that very same burial ground. And, as the old saying goes, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”


That last sentence, which highlights a truism that every horror movie fan knows, even if they are unfamiliar with any version of Pet Sematary, is at the heart of the King novel. Various characters keep burying people or animals in the cursed burial ground, even though they know full well what is going to happen. They do so because they are so grief-stricken that they are willing to risk the overwhelming likelihood of what’s going to happen. That’s especially apparent in the final image from the book, which also occurred in the original film. The screenplay for the earlier version of the film was one of the few written by King himself (he also has a cameo as the minister at a funeral), so it’s not surprising that he captured the essence of his novel in that finish. Of course, King can’t be blamed for the overwhelming mediocrity of the rest of the movie.


In the new version of Pet Sematary, directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer merely pay lip service to the concept of overwhelming grief as a motivation for the poor decisions in the movie. Instead, Jud and Louis rebury bodies for the most basic of horror movie reasons, namely, because, if they hadn’t done so, then there wouldn’t be a second half of the movie. Indeed, that last half of the film is where the directors pack most of the creepy moments in the new Pet Sematary. But all of those frights turn out to be just variations on the familiar scary movie theme of the bad seed. Ellie may be demonically possessed, but she follows the same script that horror movie youngsters have since the days of Patty McCormack in the original Bad Seed. In that regard, having Ellie as the reanimated child is a good move on the filmmakers’ part, since an actress playing a nine-year-old is capable of displaying a greater emotional range, including maliciousness and deception, than a toddler could.


The best sequence in the movie occurs when Ellie turns on Rachel when the latter arrives to see what her husband has done. The scene is creepy and shocking, achieving some of the few moments of horror in the film. For the most part, however, most of the rest of the attempts at horror wind up being more bizarre than anything else. The initial attempt at horror, showing children wearing animal masks as they go to the pet sematary seems almost silly, as are some of the scenes between Louis and Ellie. Jason Clarke, never the most emotional actor around, can’t seem to find the right degree of intensity. The only actor who really distinguishes himself is John Lithgow. The script reduces his character from a surrogate father for Louis to merely a source for whatever exposition is needed to advance the movie. But instead of just being a dry, talking information dump, Lithgow says his lines as if he were telling ghost stories around a campfire. It’s overacting like crazy, but it also provides Pet Sematary with a badly needed energy boost.


Comparing the new Pet Sematary to the original is a case of six of one, a half dozen of the other. The production values and overall acting level in the more recent movie are better, but it misses the entire point of Stephen King’s novel about the cause of the horror, and it winds up being almost unintentionally funny at times. The movie is never dull, thanks to Lithgow and a handful of creepy moments, but it’s not sufficiently scary or suspenseful to recommend. The final word is that the original Pet Sematary should have stayed buried. Or, as Jud Crandall remarks in both films (and the book): “Sometimes dead is better.” 

In this clip, Jason Clarke reintroduces his dead daughter to Amy Seimetz.

Read other reviews of Pet Sematary: 

Pet Sematary (2019) on IMDb