Review: Pet Sematary (2019)

The horror genre has been on a roll recently, and a lot of these great works, from The Babadook to Hereditary, reached their emotional heights by focusing on families struggling with the grieving process. Stephen King’s classic story seems a perfect fit, following a man who outright refuses to cope once he learns of a magical patch of nearby land that brings the dead back to life.

Yet there’s not as much consideration here as there is in these other works – the idea of a child returning to life but slightly off is obviously horrendous, but Pet Sematary does little with this concept. We spend too much time getting to that central element, and the payoff feels so slight in comparison.

This modern Pet Sematary suffers from an atmospheric clash. The finale is clearly from a pulpier work, becoming a tale of violent demonic possession. Honestly, the film feels like it’s missing an entire act – it’s as if the first act swallowed up the second. We really don’t linger much on the trauma of losing a loved one or even seeing that loved one return but slightly off – the possessed child is so immediately and obviously a demonic entity out for blood.

There’s nothing wrong with pulp – the problem is how painfully serious this movie is up until that point. Pet Sematary makes a sudden jump from modern arthouse horror to a more straightforward shock-fest of the past. It spends an hour building up a certain atmosphere and then tosses it aside.

The big problem here is expectation – even as someone who has never encountered this story previously, I knew pretty much every detail from the trailers. So much focus was put on the child coming back from the dead, but different – as this sequence doesn’t occur until the back half of the story, it really detracts from anything that happens before.

The seemingly missing second act should have occurred between this death and the revival. If the film truly wanted to explore the concept of grieving, it should have spent more time with Louis as he makes his decision. Ultimately, it doesn’t even feel like a decision – the seemingly unconsidered inevitability of his actions are too mechanical to carry real emotional weight.

Uneven pacing plagues this film. Looking briefly through major changes from the novel, it appears Jud originally spends more time attempting to dissuade Louis from his decision. Here, everything’s 0 to 100. If the filmmakers really wanted to skip ahead to the demonic child, they could have at least lingered a bit on her uncanny presence before switching into her murderous mode, but it instead stumbles into something violent and atmospherically inconsistent.

The visual presentation is similarly inconsistent. An early scene finds Louis failing to save a badly-mangled student. The details here are gruesome, brains poking out through his charred face. Yet the terrible accident at the heart of this film leave a rather undamaged corpse – this was likely due to the age of the victim, but in a post-Hereditary world, it’s jarringly clean. If you’re not going to show the gruesome aftermath of such a crash, then simply don’t show it at all. Considering the nature of the accident, the film could have both avoided grisly details and implied something worse by suggesting the body couldn’t immediately be found. They could have even just kept to the reactions of the traumatized parents – anything other than showing an almost perfectly preserved corpse.

Other visual elements are also lacking. The burial ground has this air of artifice that clashes with the standard realism of the setting. The whole presentation seems to be hiding the cheapness of the set. Even if the finale didn’t feel so tonally inconsistent, it would have still faltered due to some poor visual effects.

I think the most disappointing thing here is how well it manages its themes before the tonal shift. The mother’s inability to confront death, even one as small as a cat’s, sets off a chain reaction. It then becomes a piece about a man committing evil acts for both the sake of the people he loves and his own inability to cope. Yet that personal failure doesn’t seem to play much into the ending – which, again, is a change from the novel. His inability to move on seems to play into the very final moment of the book, yet that’s completely dropped here for something without much meaning at all.

Pet Sematary is completely indecisive about what it wants to be. It puts on the appearance of a modern domestic horror but then drops the elements from the source material that would have aided in that goal. A film with such themes shouldn’t have left me feeling so indifferent.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

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