“Sometimes dead is better”, in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new take on Stephen King’s cautionary fable Pet Sematary, a gothic, glossy remake which goes hard on the horror. For a time ‘remake’ was a dirty word in genre circles but after the storming success of IT in 2017, digging up back catalogue King and bringing it back from the dead is all the rage (keep your eye out for resurrections of Fire Starter, The Stand and The Tommyknockers for starters)
Would Pet Sematary have been better left to rest in peace? Well not exactly, but sadly many of the new spins in Kolsch and Widmeyer’s take are the parts that work the least well. On the plus side though: the cat is great.
Essentially a Monkey’s Paw story which sees Jason Clarke messing with mother nature and paying the price via the titular mystical burial ground, this version adds a Shining-esque haunted house element to the mix. Clarke and his family have relocated to a beautiful old property by a forest in an attempt to reconnect, but his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is plagued with guilt from a childhood trauma (in a subplot that has aged badly and doesn’t work). Clarke works as a doctor and soon both he, Rachel and even their little boy Gage are plagued with visions of the dead which play like dream sequences (but don’t always occur while characters are sleeping).
Then there’s the looming threat of the main road just outside their house – a point which is forcefully hammered home at every opportunity with shots of articulated lorries charging down the freeway coming thick and fast. It’s a bit of foreshadowing that’s hardly even necessary for anyone who watched the extremely spoilerish trailer, or indeed has read the book or seen Mary Lambert’s 1989 original.
The movie’s called Pet Sematary, so it not a massive surprise that someone’s going to be buried there and come back changed, though the movie does at least mess with your expectations on this a little. The film’s real ace in the hole though is its take on Church, the family cat. Portrayed as a sneering evil genius and orchestrator of the family’s downfall, he’s got a great line in terrifying stares while not actually really doing anything that a normal cat wouldn’t be all over. He sits on the breadboard, brings in a dead bird and scratches young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) when she tries to brush him. Classic cat.
While Pet Sematary is steeped in gothic imagery and pulls off some effective jump scares there’s a strong vein of humour here too. The biggest laugh in the press screening came from a gag about Winston Churchill from John Lithgow who plays interfering neighbour Jud, who tells Louis about the Sematary’s powers in the first place, though even some of the horrific moments have dark comedy behind them. Kölsch and Widmyer’s previous feature Starry Eyes had a similar black streak, as well as icky body horror elements, bits of which make it into Pet Sematary too. Sadly Pet Sematary really isn’t as good as Starry Eyes. Perhaps in part because the story isn’t new or even that great (sorry Stephen!), Pet Sematary is quite fun but very forgettable, though a cheeky final twist which could possibly even leave room for a sequel adds an interesting new flavour.
One of the creepiest things about the movie is actually young Gage (Hugo Lavoie) who looks uncannily like Miko Hughes who played Gage in Lambert’s movie – we’ve no idea what mystical cloning business went on there – or, you know, just good casting. In fact all the cast are good. Clarke is best when he’s bitter and grief-stricken, Seimetz is suitably unhinged, and Lithgow is excellent as always, though the script doesn’t serve his character particularly well and some of the pathos around Jud is lost.
Pet Sematary isn’t a total dead loss by any stretch. More it’s a reheated version of a well trodden story that tries to follow new paths but slips on the way.
Pet Sematary opens in UK cinemas on 4 April.