As a general rule, remakes should take something that wasn’t great the first time and make it better. This is why you don’t see people trying to remake From Here to Eternity, and the same reason why Stephen King’s Pet Sematary seemed to be a good choice for a revisit. The original film, released in 1989, received a mixed response because of its campy tone and lack of scares. And in 2019, on the heels of films like Hereditary and Us, we are in something of a golden age of prestige horror. Lots of filmmakers are doing interesting work with tone and genre tropes and audience expectations are shifting as a result. The new Pet Sematary, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer opened at the SXSW film festival to rave reviews, and it looked like the future was bright for this Stephen King remake. So, why is this film so maddeningly mediocre?
Louis (Jason Clarke) just moved to a Maine suburb from Boston with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and two children, Ellie and Gage (Jeté Laurence and Hugo/Lucas Lavoie). Haggard old man neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) tells Ellie about a neighborhood pet cemetery that is on their new home’s property. And after the family’s beloved cat dies in an accident, Jud takes Louis to an area on their property behind the pet cemetery where dead animals have been brought back to life. But they don’t come back the same. Jud tells Louis, ‘sometimes dead is better’.
Jason Clarke is boring, and there is nothing remotely interesting going on with his performance. I would go so far as to say that he ruins every film he’s in, with the notable exception of Chappaquiddick last year, where he gave an uncharacteristically good performance. Here, he sleepwalks through his performance like he usually does and the problem here is he’s supposed to be the emotional core of it. We’re supposed to relate to Louis and see this potentially powerful exploration of grief through his eyes. But instead, he’s going through the motions, and so does the audience.
Amy Seimetz is very good. She plays dramatic scenes with an authenticity that Clarke doesn’t understand, and despite her character’s laughable backstory, she makes it kind of work. Jeté Laurence, as the daughter Ellie, is excellent, more so as her character takes a turn late in the second act. And John Lithgow, filling the considerable shoes of Fred Gwynne, who first played the part, is doing his best. I’m not saying he is the best choice for this role and I couldn’t possibly picture another actor in the role. For instance, Sam Elliott would have been great if he didn’t have better things to do these days. However, Lithgow is trying harder than any adult actor in this film, and that has got to count for something.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer fail to do anything interesting with the way this film is presented. It may be a bit bloodier and more graphic than the 1989 film, but it’s also a lot darker, visually and occasionally it’s a bit difficult to even see what’s going on. You can tell they are attempting to mimic the tone of recent atmospheric horror hits like Hereditary and The Witch, where the mood was menacing and methodical and then when the big third-act event rolls around, it’s breathtaking. But, instead this is a horror movie where nothing interesting is happening for a long time and then when the exposition dump happens too late in the film, we barely even care anymore.
Overall, Pet Sematary is colossally disappointing. It’s equal parts tedious and asinine. While the Stephen King novel suggests an intriguing study of grief, it has been translated twice into a horror movie that is all about the jump scare, and never the deeper meaning behind anything. It’s worth noting that this entire movie is shown in the trailer, including the big twist where this film deviates from its predecessors. If you’ve seen that trailer, you don’t need to see this movie. It’s a laborious and dull version of something you’ve already seen. And it’s about on the same level of quality as the mediocre original film, which is never the way a remake should go.