Movie review: Pet Sematary

A Stephen King remake relies too much on standard tricks

Pet Sematary (Řbitov zviřátek)
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
With Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Alyssa Brooke Levine, Sonia Maria Chirila, Bailey Thain, Jacob Lemieux, Lucas Lavoie

Hollywood continues its remake trend with Pet Sematary, based on a Stephen King novel. It was previously filmed in 1989.

This version builds an unsettling mood by the end, but takes the easy route there. The scares are due to loud noises, jump cuts and nightmares or fantasies presented as reality. These are the same tricks used in every low-budget horror film, and the filmmakers should have upped their game to justify doing this remake.

The story is pretty well-known, with a family living by a busy highway running through a rural area. Lots of pets get killed on the road, and in the nearby woods there is a pet cemetery with a misspelled name. An impenetrable wall of branches and rocks is behind it.

The films tries to evoke The Shining, based on another Stephen King novel several times near the start. Drone footage looking straight down is reminiscent of The Shining’s opening credits. Early on, a precision of children in animal masks goes to the cemetery with a deceased pet. The masks are a bit like the ones briefly glimpsed in hotel room in one of The Shining’s more unsettling moments.

But neither of these ideas is developed. The masks are never seen again.

The family that just moved to the house by the highway is led by Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor who left Boston for a post at a hospital at a small university. He was joined by his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). And of course, their cat called Church.

The unsettling scenes start right away, when Louis fails to save a young man, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), who was struck by a vehicle. Louis sees Victor changing positions and even talking after he is dead, and the filmmakers try to blur the line over whether these are hallucinations or real. They milk this trick rather much throughout the film.

Films of this sort always have someone trying to drop some warnings. Veteran actor John Lithgow is the stereotypical reclusive neighbor, Jud Crandall. He warns Ellie in particular about the woods, and also manages to seem really creepy while doing it, cornering a young girl in an overgrown and isolated area.

His role though in the plot is a bit problematic, as he also encourages Louis to use the secret powers of the area next to the pet cemetery, which unleashes the horrific chain of events.

The other cast members sleepwalk though their roles, with both parents showing a limited range of emotion, which keeps the film a bit flat. Jeté Laurence as the daughter brings some feeling to her character.

Visually, the film creates a sense of claustrophobia, with the family seeming trapped in their new house despite having a lot of land.

Toward the end, the filmmakers finally leave the cheap scare tricks behind and let the situation itself create a dark mood. But by this time, they have played with the audience just a little too much for the subtlety to be effective.

Recent films like Get Out and Us have changed the horror landscape, and that makes Pet Sematary seem a bit out of date already by playing it safe with the standard tropes.

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