Resurrected for another go-around on the big screen, Pet Sematary is an improvement upon its predecessor without exactly breathing new life into a retread concept.
Like its campier 1989 forerunner — and a sequel that’s better left unmentioned — this latest adaptation of the venerable Stephen King novel mostly misses the chilling texture of its source material in favor of cheap frights and genre gimmickry.
Its tightly focused story takes place in rural Maine, where big-city doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has relocated with his wife (Amy Seimetz) and two young children to escape the big-city hustle and bustle.
In the woods outside their spacious house, 8-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) discovers the entrance to a misspelled pet cemetery, and learns from their elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) that it’s been used by generations of grieving animal owners.
More disturbing, Jud explains to Louis that not only is the burial ground inside of their property line, but it also has the supernatural ability to bring pets back to life. When Ellie’s beloved cat is found dead, such knowledge comes in handy for Louis, but it also comes with sinister side effects for humans and felines alike. As Jud warns: “Sometimes dead is better.”
King aficionados might be split on some of the deviations from the novel by screenwriter Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy). The directing tandem of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) generates some mild tension by confronting common fears about mortality and the afterlife.
Conveniently and illogically, almost all of the pertinent action takes place at night, which enhances the overall creepiness of the atmosphere and the ability of things to jump out of the shadows. The film makes abundant use of familiar sensory devices such as flickering lights, creaky floors, and howling winds.
However, as we watch this series of deaths and reincarnations unfold, we’re not given much incentive for emotional investment in the characters, whether of the two-legged or four-legged variety. It’s difficult to care about who lives, who dies, or who does both.
The narrative momentum relies heavily on coincidences and a basic lack of common sense. The family should just flee, of course, but that wouldn’t leave us with much of a movie. So perhaps Pet Sematary ultimately is a cautionary tale about real estate. Now that would be scary.