Pet Sematary is an unapologetic genre film that simultaneously benefits from and suffers from its adherence to generic conventions. As an adaptation of a Stephen King novel – the second, in fact, adapted from his 1983 book of the same name – that’s not entirely surprising.
Director duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have a horror background, most notably making Starry Eyes, and their familiarity with the genre bleeds through to every frame of their take on Pet Sematary. They open with a flash forward that guarantees mayhem to come, and even ensure that the innocent introduction to the film’s family – Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavole) – is laced with an undercurrent of dread and a fakeout jump scare or two.
As the film progresses, and the true nefarious nature of the so-called “pet sematary” is revealed – “thanks” to the counsel of their kindly/creepy neighbour Jud (John Lithgow) – Kölsch and Widmyer cater directly to the horror aficionados in their audience, cleverly playing with expectations. Sometimes they lean into standard scares, delivering jolts and gore in equal measure; at other points, they subvert audience expectations, gleefully toying with their viewers. While rarely truly terrifying, Pet Sematary is fun to watch in a way that recalls the best B-grade ‘80s horror movies.
When the film tries to extend itself beyond a tried-and-true scare delivery service is where it begins to falter. The screenplay is mostly faithful to King’s original (there are some clever changes, but they’re mostly intended to surprise those familiar with the source text rather than radically changing its tone), which presents a bit of a problem. Why? Because the plot of King’s novel, for all its strength, is thin enough that you can synopsise it in a paragraph (or, I dunno, a Ramones song). The core of the novel is an interrogation of grief, insecurity and – in a roundabout way – the failure of the nuclear family. If you’re thinking ‘wow, that doesn’t sound like a great launching pad for a standard horror film’ you’d be right!
It’s not that Kölsch and Widmyer abandon this subtext entirely. The character of Jud, particularly, and the suggestion of the suffering he endured (and possibly inflicted) evokes an ocean of grief, thanks in large part to Lithgow’s precisely-measured performance. Yet when it comes to the central family, similar tragedies never ring true in the same way. I don’t think you can blame Clarke or Seimetz for this. Rather, I’m pointing the finger at the direction, where the careful use of shadows and negative space (in the frame and editing alike) emphasises scares over subtlety.
I walked out of Pet Sematary thinking that I’d seen an effective horror film. And then I didn’t think about it again. If this were the nth Conjuring spin-off, that isn’t necessarily a problem. But when adapting a work embedded with such a resonant depiction of grief and loss, I wish that the directors had chosen to dig a little deeper. Sometimes read is better.