Pet Sematary is creepy for a time, before it becomes stupid. Then it’s creepy again: The final image will make you want your mommy.
That might be enough to make a decent horror movie, but Pet Sematary, adapted from Stephen King’s 1979 novel and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, doesn’t leave you feeling chilled so much as raked-over. Everything that’s unnerving about the movie may be baked into the material, a story about a family that moves to a small town in Maine and discovers a pet cemetery—its name misspelled on the crude home-made sign that adorns it—on their property. Strange things begin to happen, but you already knew that. What makes the basic material artful, and distinctively King-like, is its delicate approach to grief, and its exploration of how, as humans, we can’t help pondering the possibility of an afterlife (even if, ultimately, some humans will end up believing there isn’t one).
Kölsch and Widmyer—who previously directed a segment of the 2016 horror anthology Holidays, as well as the 2014 horror-fantasy Starry Eyes—show some artistry in the early sections of Pet Sematary: Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), along with wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), kids Ellie and Gage (Jeté Laurence and Hugo Lavoie), and jaunty, fluffy tiger-cat Church, show up at their new Maine house and start exploring. Almost immediately, Rachel and Ellie come upon a group of kids in creepy animal masks marching through the nearby woods, bearing a cart that appears to hold a deceased dog (or something). Ellie asks her mother what’s going on. “It’s some sort of procession,” Mom says. “What’s a procession?” Ellie asks. Mom’s answer: “It’s like a parade, but not for fun.”
That sort of sums up the movie. That kiddie funeral parade is eerie, and so are certain other details of Pet Sematary: For instance, the way Louis, who has come to Maine to take a job at a local university health clinic so he can “slow down,” is lured by some macabre force through a door leading to a misty forest full of dark secrets—the scene is filmed so vividly you can almost feel the soggy moisture in your bones. There’s also a possibly friendly, possibly malevolent next-door neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow, one of those actors who’s so subtly expressive he elevates everything he appears in), an elderly dude with nicotine stains on his beard—they give it a yellow-gray ombré effect, like a fur piece you’d find in a dusty thrift store.
Church dies. (Thankfully, we don’t see the death, just the aftermath.) Jud brings Louis to a “special place” to bury the cat. And from there, Pet Sematary continues on a path that’s almost somber, and sometimes rather affecting—when it’s not manipulating the audience to the point of unpleasantness. The story enfolds human death, too, and what grief can do to a person. But there are also the usual jump scares, some of which might get you and others you see coming. And at a certain point, the film becomes pedestrian and rather silly, more a ho-hum slasher movie than anything fresh or vital.
But its final image—accompanied by a blip of sound—is, for better or worse, a doozy. It may be almost too much, but Pet Sematary is at least striving toward something. After King completed the book, he locked it in a drawer for three years: He found it too raw, too close to home in its treatment of real human grief, to publish. (Eventually, when he needed to produce a book in order to get out of a restrictive publishing contract, he unlocked the drawer.) Pet Sematary was previously adapted, in 1989, and this new version certainly tries hard to honor the spirit of King’s material. But as one of the movie’s characters pronounces ominously, “Sometimes dead is better.” At the end of Pet Sematary, you wonder if that doesn’t go for some movie projects too.