Pet Sematary: Sometimes un-resurrected is better

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C-minus

This is one of those times wherein I part with a substantial number of colleagues. But as a fan of Stephen King, and especially of his sleek occult-thriller novel Pet Sematary, I feel like there’s a new candidate for worst movie adaptation of his books.

More than that, I feel the bar has been lowered to world-class limbo dancing levels.

Pet Sematary (the 1989 original of which remains a guilty pleasure for me), has been remade without much in the way of ideas, but with extra kids, one of the tweaks to the plot that seems the cheapest. Twice the kids in peril, twice the intended creepiness of a dead kid coming back with a little something extra.

John Lithgow and Jeté Laurence in Pet Sematary. Something just doesn’t feel right about this place.

John Lithgow and Jeté Laurence in Pet Sematary. Something just doesn’t feel right about this place.

For those who’ve neither read the book nor seen the original movie, the essential elements will probably still work (although the last act feels as if the scripters realized they didn’t have an ending and decided to get high and see what they came up with). The preview audience I was with seemed to be King fans, and there were more sarcastic laughs than scared reactions.

It begins with the familiar. An out-of-towner (Jason Clarke as burned-out Boston doctor Louis) moves to a small New England town with his family, wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), nine year old daughter Elllie (Jeté Laurence), toddler son Gage (Hugo Lavoie) and beloved family cat Church. 

You buy a place in the country, you get a lot of land. Louis’s land includes an Indian burial ground that has traditionally become a cemetery for people’s pets (Don’t they all? And while I’m at it, shouldn’t movies with Native American plot points have a Native American to explain it instead of some white guy?) . “How far does my property extend?” Louis asks his new neighbour Jud (John Lithgow). “Farther than you want to go,” Jud answers, in one of those giggle lines.

Let me digress for a second about the odd casting of Lithgow as a dusty rural codger. If it sometimes seems as if this movie – co-directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer – seems determined to let go of Stephen King with both hands. As played by the late Fred Gwynne in the original, the neighbour character had a full-on Maine accent that constantly reminded you that you were in King’s home stomping grounds. The only nod here is a road sign that says, “Derry 20 miles.” None of the characters has even a vaguely New England accent. What I wouldn’t have given for even the odd, “Ayuh.”

Another drawback, of course, is that there’s a busy truck route uncomfortably close to the family home. Soon, poor Church has met his maker (or has he?). And Jud is sharing the dubious news about the far side of the Pet Sematary, the patch with the “sour soil.” You bury something there and it comes back. Different, but hey, it’s back.

So, a cat that seemed grumpy in the first place is even grumpier. But there’s more tragedy to come (foretold by the spirit of a college kid killed by a car on Louis’s first day at the local hospital). I won’t say who’s killed by a truck next, but the directors have an annoying habit of ham-fistedly referencing events in the original movie and then doing the opposite (two words: Achilles tendon). Suffice to say, what worked for a cat…

Besides the directors’ general lack of knack for horror timing (there’s really one scene that jumps out at you, or rather falls down on you), the changes they’ve made all seem to make the movie wordier.

In the original, a dead-and-demonized-toddler was a pretty scary entity in and of itself. Switching to a girl, who’s old enough to articulate everything (and have awkwardly expositional “talks” with her parents about death and whether there’s an afterlife) injects “context” the story doesn’t need, making a lot of lead-up to the main event grind to a state of boredom. This is a movie that’s 100 minutes long, but feels like it could have been 20 minutes shorter.

As per the famous tagline – uttered by both Gwynne and Lithgow – “Sometimes dead is better,” a remake needs a reason. With Pet Sematary, it seems like the remake was ordered, and the filmmakers tried unsuccessfully to come up with a reason. Sometimes less is better too.

Pet Sematary. Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. Starring Jason Clarke, John Lithgow and Jeté Laurence. Opens wide, Friday, April 5.