Pet Sematary is the second adaptation of Stephen King’s beloved 1983 novel telling the story of a family that, stricken by grief over a tragedy, resorts to desperate means involving a mysterious pet cemetery in the woods behind their new rural home. The film, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes), made its debut at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
The story of Pet Sematary has always been super creepy, with it being one of King’s creepiest stories. That being said, this new version of the tale manages to squander that creepy premise with a movie that is thoroughly by-the-book and boring. The script is far too heavy on exposition, but this exposition does nothing to immerse you in the world. Had the dialogue done more to build the mythology of the “Pet Sematary”, the film would have been far more interesting.
The biggest issue with the film is that it takes too long to get moving. All of the action happens in the last thirty minutes, and while that isn’t always a bad thing, the movie isn’t effective at being a slow-burn thriller either. Instead, the film feels like it is crawling along for the first two acts, then it goes up in flames for the final act only to end super abruptly. It doesn’t help that the runtime was teased as two hours even though it is actually closer to an hour and forty minutes. It was hard not to check your watch thinking, “When is the plot going to start?”
Another big issue with the movie is that the characters aren’t made out to be sympathetic at all. King is great at making characters that are very honest and compelling despite the supernatural situations in which they find themselves, and this film abandons that characterization. All of the characters, especially the protagonist, are extremely flat and don’t really have an arc over the course of the movie. Simply put, their stories just aren’t interesting.
The film is also far too safe in terms of execution. The movie simply doesn’t have the atmospheric tension upon which King thrives. Books can’t have any jump scares, so King is a master of building suspense through atmospheric means. Instead of following that method, Kölsch and Widmyer made a film that is heavy on jump scares and cheesiness, so much so that the audience was laughing throughout the movie at points in which they weren’t supposed to be laughing.
On a technical level, the film is also largely disappointing. Although the movie doesn’t look bad, it looks generic, and that may be even worse than simply looking bad. The film’s color palette is comprised mostly of greys, so it isn’t particularly aesthetically appealing. The production design is solid, but nothing spectacular. The cinematography is safe and uninteresting.
The ensemble isn’t terrible, but they don’t really do anything to stand out either. Jason Clarke is a hit-or-miss actor, and this is definitely a miss for him. His performance is generic, and he does not do a good job of delivering the movie’s more emotional moments. John Lithgow is pretty great in his supporting role as the neighbor Jud, but it would have been nice to see him given more to do.
Overall, Pet Sematary was an extremely disappointing film. It is a safe and boring movie that wastes the excellent source material from which it was adapted.
Pet Sematary debuted as the Closing Night Film of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It opens in theaters everywhere on April 5.