At The Movies - Sometimes The Book Is Better
By Jordan Bosch
Stephen King has said that of all his books, Pet Sematary is the one he finds the most frightening,
which is particularly heavy coming from a man whose horror stories have become a genre unto
Watching the new 2019 film adaptation directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, I
can see why. It’s a great Monkey’s Paw kind of story bursting at the seams with creepy ideas and
implications connected to real world fears. So why isn’t this movie as fittingly bone-chilling?
Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté
Laurence), toddler son Gage, and the family cat Church from Boston to the town of Ludlow, Maine
where he has a job at the state university. In the woods on their vast new premises is an old and
unnerving pet cemetery.
When Church is hit by a speeding vehicle, the Creeds’ neighbour Jud (John
Lithgow) takes Louis deep into the woods to bury him at an ancient burial ground and the next
morning the cat has come back to life. But Church’s nature is now harsher and violent, and his
resurrection sets the Creeds on a much darker, irreparable path.
Like many of King’s stories, the plot has a way of hooking you on its central idea and
iconography. Just the image of a makeshift pet cemetery is pretty haunting even without supernatural
forces at work. The same is true of the children who make it a ritual to bury their pets in a grim
procession wearing animal masks -which never comes into play in any significant way but it sets a
The central premise works too, and is interesting enough that even though from
the moment Church comes back you know where the story is headed, your curiosity is still piqued.
However while each development after that has the sliver of something compelling or scary to it, this
film doesn’t execute them well, and in fact turns most of them generic.
The movie’s story differs from the book in some pretty major regards and the result is some choices, particularly in the third act, that are made primarily for some cheap scares and have no meaning to them.
The story also has a couple quintessentially King subplots about characters being haunted by ghosts and traumatic memories that are pretty decent and foreboding on their own, but don’t actually amount to anything.
Pet Sematary also isn’t terribly scary. While it does have some pretty good suspense in
moments, understands as well as Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House the terror of dumb waiters, and
creates a genuinely frightening mood in the Mi’kmaq graveyard, most of the horror is presented
through predictable jump scares and a little bit of gore.
There’s nothing atypical in the direction or editing, the camera-work or lighting, any of which easily could have been manipulated to render frightful sequences effective. As can be imagined, the undead plays a major role in the story, but there’s nothing new or engaging done with their presence.
And this movie tries, it really tries to make the regenerated Church creepy and menacing, but it doesn’t work, not even as an omen. Because without any effects-work or graphic detail, he just looks like a ragged and gnarly house cat -a little aggressive sure, but cute at times. I think the key problem is that to my understanding, the novel is more about the horror behind the idea of resurrection itself than it is about being stalked by an undead evil. As such, the fear it evokes is more lasting and the ending much darker, though I’m sure the filmmakers believe their’s is.
Jason Clarke gives more of a sustained effort in this film than he did in his pathetic last horror
movie Winchester, but it’s still not that great a performance, let down perhaps by lacklustre direction.
Amy Seimetz is certainly a little better, and John Lithgow is as expected, the best part of the movie.
Jeté Laurence however plays Ellie, probably the key role of the film, no different than any other
version of this stock character. The characters themselves are pretty dull to begin with though, with
only Rachel getting much of curious psychological examination. Indeed, I get the impression all of
their characters have more interesting book counterparts, with Louis Creed being perhaps of the
tormented Jack Torrance variety.
Pet Sematary has a lot of the right pieces to work with to make good horror movie, and you can
see one at times peering out from the shadows of this film. But chances are you’re seeing it in a
cinema that’s still showing Us, which is so much better at sowing lasting impressions and cultivating
deep and meaningful scares that it would be unfair to compare the two.
I’ll only say that Pet Sematary may frighten you in the instant, but won’t linger in your mind much beyond a cursory idea in the hours following a viewing.