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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer wear their influences on their sleeve. Appropriately enough, the biggest influence appears to be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. There is no small irony in this, given the paradoxical position of The Shining as both one of the most successful adaptations of a Stephen King book and the author’s deep abiding hatred of that reimagining of his work. The Shining is an adaptation that at once understands the essence of why King’s horror resonates in popular culture, without being overly beholden to the author himself.

Pet Sematary opens with a helicopter shot of the American wilderness, the camera panning slowly over a sea of bright green trees. There is a shade of David Lynch’s work on Twin Peaks to all of this, itself indebted to Kubrick’s direction. The hovering camera does not glide over the surface of a lake, but it moves with purpose. There is a sense that the audience’s eye is being guided with something that is traversing the wilderness in search of its quarry; something so old that it might as well be timeless.

To be fair, the comparisons between Pet Sematary and The Shining suggest themselves, even without the decision to cut from that wilderness shot to the interior of a family car at the end of a long journey to the middle of nowhere. At their cores, both Pet Sematary and The Shining are stories of failed patriarchs, of flawed men attempting to protect their families from some ancient evil in the world that exists beyond their comprehension.

Even the individual story elements seem to line up. Jud Crandall is really just another take on the same basic character template as Dick Hallorann, the older man who is connected with something beyond the understanding of the other adults in the story and who strikes up a connection with precocious (and at risk) child. King seems to have been informed by some of the changes that Kubrick made to The Shining, lifting the idea of an “ancient Indian burial ground” from the film adaptation and porting it directly into Pet Sematary. As a result, the two stories fit well together.

Funeral for a four-legged friend.

It takes a lot of confidence to so brazenly invite comparisons to The Shining, a classic of horror cinema. Then again, so much of modern horror cinema is built on this idea of homage and reference to the sixties or seventies. The Conjuring riffs openly on The Exorcist, albeit replacing the jagged edges with a broader appeal. The so-called “elevated horror” typified by works like Hereditary draw from films like Don’t Look Now or Rosemary’s Baby.

With that in mind, it seems almost appropriate for Kölsch and Widmyer to draw so freely and so openly from Kubrick’s classic. At the very least, Pet Sematary can claim to belong to the same tangled and twisted family tree as The Shining. More than that, these homages add a layer of canny meta-textual horror to the narrative. Pet Sematary is fundamentally the story of things that refuse to die and which are resurrected as grotesque copies of themselves. It certainly seems an appropriate in the current pop cultural moment.

More than that, there’s a certain thrill to seeing Kölsch and Widmyer playing with the familiar horror tropes that made The Shining so iconic. Very few films come close to capturing the sense of North America as a vast (forested) haunted house like The Shining, and while Pet Sematary can’t quite compete on the level of a beloved classic, there is something very effective in watching it try. Pet Sematary commits to what it is doing, right down to treating the vast haunted American frontier as an extension of the more intimate and small-scale horror of a nuclear family gone awry.

Repeatedly over the course of Pet Sematary, the boundaries of inside and outside seem to blur. Louis Creed and his family retreat to rural surroundings to spend more time with one another, but the film repeatedly suggests that the walls and roof of their new home cannot keep out the darkness. A creepy forest lies on the edge of the property. “How far out is the boundary line?” Rachel Creed asks their new neighbour. Jud replies, “Farther out than you would ever want to go.”

Lith and let Lithgow.

At the heart of Pet Sematary is that most familiar of horror anxieties – the dread that a parent feels in trying to protect their child from the horrors of the world outside their door. Louis and Rachel are raising two children, Ellie and Gage. Ellie is almost nine years old, she is reaching the age when she is beginning to ask tough questions. The sight of a funeral procession for a dead cat only spurs questions about death that neither Louis nor Rachel are equipped to answer.

It is no surprise that the first harbinger of doom in the film is a cat knocking over the first “l” in a dresser-top arrangement of Ellie’s name; only the “lie” is left standing. As is the way in horror, so many bad decisions in Pet Sematary all stem from an understandable impulse that leads to character weakness. The horrors that are visited upon the Creed family derive from the lies that they tell one another and themselves in order to stave off the darkness outside the family home. It never works.

Internal and external spaces in Pet Sematary nest inside one another. “I can hear the forest,” Ellie tells Louis at one point. Louis responds that he closed the window. “Not like that,” she corrects him. “Inside.” Repeatedly, Louis has visions of stepping through doorways within the house into the vast wilderness beyond the family home. These journeys may not be literal, but they are real. Muddy prints dragged inside the house are a recurring motif, with Louis even waking up one night to discover that his feet are inexplicably dirty despite the fact that he hasn’t left the house.

This carries over into the production design. If inside becomes outside, then at several points outside becomes inside. At several points in Pet Sematary, characters wander deep into the woods. Surveying a map, Louis seems to suggest that they have wandered into a realm that doesn’t quite exist. Trying to map out his journey, Louis asks, “Where did you take me, Jud?” To the audience, the answer is clear. Louis and Jud venture past location shooting into the realm of closed sets and green screens, another outside nestled within an inside.

Marker his words.

Again, the primal fears underpinning Pet Sematary are very familiar, even beyond the context of The Shining. This is a horror about how little the European settlers truly understand the continent that they have claimed for themselves, a nightmare in which the earth itself has been rendered “sour.” Although Jud makes it clear that the mysticism around the Creed family house predates the indigenous population who knew enough to resist its “power”, the imagery is still inherently colonial; dead bodies rising up to avenge themselves on people who have no claim on the soil.

Indeed, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Pet Sematary is how it blends these two through-lines together. Pet Sematary is both a domestic nightmare and a colonial horror, without insisting upon boundaries between the two. The Creed family nightmare is at once separate from the frontier nightmare and also wedded inexorably to it. The Creeds are suggested to be rendered complicit in an evil beyond imagining, but not through any conscious choice or direct action. Instead, the Creed family is implicated through their inaction; in the mud that they drag in.

All of this is very effective, despite its familiarity. After all, like strange burial grounds that exist beyond the mortal realm, these old horror tropes have power. These images are effective. These ideas are unsettling. The fears that drive Pet Sematary are all very base and very archetypal, but they are also universal and recognisable. At the heart of Pet Sematary is the nightmare of parent who fail their children, particularly through the sin of omission or inaction. Similarly, there is a broader fear about a hostile wilderness and the evil buried beneath it.

Pet Sematary capitalises on this remarkably well. Kölsch and Widmyer deliver on all of the promised ingredients. There is very creepy cat, and a very strong sense that something has gone horribly wrong. There are a number of effective jump scares that serve to set up the movie’s biggest “wham!” moment, even if that moment is familiar to anybody who has either read the book or seen an earlier adaptation. There are shots openly cribbed from directors like Kubrick (that car journey) or Lynch (the swinging red light in a small town), but no less effective for that fact.

A matter of grave import.

There’s an elegance in the simplicity of the opening two acts of Pet Sematary. In some ways, it recalls the efficiency that James Wan brought to the Conjuring films, the same understandings of the mechanics of the genre. What elevates Pet Sematary above most of the spin-offs within the Conjuring franchise is a willingness to roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty. Pet Sematary is unashamedly trashy and visceral at points, swinging between graphic personal injury and heightened gothic melodrama. The film takes an infectious glee in these sharp shifts.

All of this is present in the source material, to some degree or another. Despite significant alterations to the plot, some of which are signposted heavily in the marketing and others just feeling like streamlining of clumsy exposition, Pet Sematary feels “true” to the novel that inspired it without feeling “beholden.” This fidelity is the source of the film’s greatest strengths and its biggest weaknesses. Most notably, like the source novel, things come undone at the climax.

There is a point in Pet Sematary were mood and dread are not enough of themselves to sustain a horror, and action is needed. The Shining has a similar pivot point, but Kubrick was able to anchor that in both a mesmerising performance from Jack Nicholson and a canny decision to shift the emotional weight away from Jack Torrence. (This second choice was a narrative necessity, but may have contributed to King’s dislike of the adaptation, given how much he invested in Torrence.) The problem with Pet Sematary is that the pivot point is effectively the end of the story.

Pet Sematary builds to a bad choice. That bad choice is at once very obviously a bad choice and also completely inevitable. That renders the story as a horrific tragedy. To bring the conversation back to an obvious inspiration, The Monkey’s Paw understands that the horror is the wish to bring back the lost child and that the story must wrap up immediately after that point. Unfortunately, the narrative climax of Pet Sematary – the pay-off to all the tension and anxiety – comes at the hinge between the second and third acts.

He’s Jud an ordinary guy…

As a result, the effectively mounting horror of the first two acts of Pet Sematary devolves into a cavalcade of familiar jump scares and action beats. As the film rushes towards its closing moments, the fears that drive Pet Sematary becomes less existential and abstract, coalescing into concrete forms that feel almost rote. Pet Sematary needs a pay-off, but it feels bolted on to a much more interesting and engaging film.

This is a shame, because there is a lot to like in Pet Sematary. It’s a film that often walks a fine line between being gloriously trashy and also deeply unsettling. It is a film that both understands horror and seeks to revel in it. It is just a shame that the third act drags as much mud into the house as it does.

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