There is a man mad with grief, wielding a resurrective power, fighting the urge to use it to bring back the ones he loves. In some ways, “Pet Sematary” is the story of the second brother from the Deathly Hallows, plus animals, minus the clear moral and Rowling’s charm.
The film follows the tried and true formula of stories that build on suspense, and there lie both its biggest faults and triumphs. No, co-directors Kevin Kölsch (“Holidays”) and Denis Wedmeyer (“Mama 2”) are not doing anything particularly new with the horror genre. But their pace is measured, hints carefully placed and answers evenly distributed.
The opening shot aerially tracks through the woods, passes the titular pet cemetery and a burning house, then zooms in and lingers on a scene marked with bloody handprints: We are told to mistrust the forest. The Creed family moves in to their new home, flanked by the thick forest and a throughway frequented by speeding semi trucks: We are primed to be skeptical of what we think is natural and what we think is manmade. Rachel Creed (Aimy Seimetz, “Upstream Color”) and her daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence, “The Snowman”) encounter the pet cemetery while exploring their new home, and Ellie’s parents have a fraught discussion with her about death and the afterlife: This one speaks for itself. The Creeds’s neighbor Jud (John Lithgow, “Interstellar”) always seems to be withholding information from Louis Creed (Jason Clarke, “Mudbound”), until the Creeds’s cat ‘Church’ gets hit by a semi, and he unveils an ancient burial ground adjacent to the “sematary” with resurrective potential.
Then, when Louis learns he successfully resurrected his daughter’s beloved cat, the first f-bomb is dropped, and things heated up.
After that f-bomb, several others follow, but, more importantly, so an uptick in the intensity and the momentum as we go from jogging to racing toward the climax. It also signaled a shift in several cast members’ favor who, swept up in the madness, got to bare their acting chops. Specifically, Laurence and Clarke both lose all self-control and command that terrible madness with gusto. Their cat also deserves a shout out for being immensely talented at looking sinister one moment and irreproachable the next.
As I said, however, the filmmakers carefully governed suspense. While this tactic succeeds in keeping us on our toes, it also compromises multiple characters and reshapes plot points into feeble plot devices.
Two examples come to mind: First, Rachel Creed’s backstory. When she tenses up at Louis’s willingness to tell their daughter of the realities of death, we learn through flashbacks that she had an early experience with death. Her sister Zelda was bedridden as a child and eventually died before Rachel’s young eyes. These flashbacks instill horror at least and sympathy for Rachel at most, but leave little for Zelda. Never suggested to be supernatural, her sister’s suffering becomes spectacle, becomes plot device, becomes sensation instead of tragedy.
Second, falling victim to a cheap tactic of the genre, the entire story hinges on appropriation of another culture’s spiritual beliefs — in this instance, that of Native Americans. At one point, Jud explains that it is a Native American burial ground, adjacent to the pet cemetery, that has the resurrective powers. This element coexists uneasily with the fact that both supernaturally resurrected beings and semi trucks plowing through the area are responsible for several of the deaths in “Pet Sematary.” Because who is at fault, then? The men manipulating mortality? The supernatural forces that the film associated with Native Americans? Troublingly, the trucks, the signs of industry and corruption, seem off the hook, and Native American ritual at fault.
Though I was always intrigued by “Pet Sematary,” I was never riveted, and, most importantly, never terrified enough to lose my senses like the characters in front of me. Fans of horror and of King, do with that what you will. Unlike the Creed family’s cat, this one won’t keep popping back up in my life.