We're in a very strange renaissance of Stephen King adaptations. Ever since the Hulu miniseries "11.22.63" in 2016, we've had "The Dark Tower," "It" (the sequel of which will be premiering later this year), "Gerald's Game," "1922," "Mr. Mercedes" and "Castle Rock." This isn't even mentioning the future adaptations for television and film that are currently in development. Riding in on this unexpected momentum is "Pet Sematary," the second adaptation of the novel this time handled by horror duo Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch.
When a family's pet cat is tragically hit by a car, their elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) shows the father Louis (Jason Clarke) a dark secret. In the nearby woods, there's a magical area that can bring animals back to life when buried there. When further tragedy strikes, Louis is tempted to use its power for much darker purposes.
When a film critic talks about the "atmosphere" of a film, it's a jargonistic term to describe how the film makes them feel. This term is mainly used because how a film makes you feel is hard to pin down. It happens at the invisible crossroad where all the individual aspects of filmmaking create a cohesive whole. So when I say that "Pet Sematary" has a good atmosphere, what I mean is that it has a lingering sense of detached dread and melancholy that hangs over the audience. Part of it is the idea behind the story, part of it is the cinematography, part of it is the music, etc. And while it would be usually possible to pick apart the different aspects that contribute to this feeling of depression and unease, "Pet Sematary" isn't really a movie you can do that with. It's one of those movies where the people involved seem to have a really clear idea of what they were going for and thus everything involved clicks together into a wonderfully bleak picture.
The thing I've noticed about modern day horror movies is that they seem afraid to be actually scary or give the audience any sort of emotion that isn't at least a little positive. Movies like "Us," "Happy Death Day 2 U" and even "It" aren't really horror films. They're more like haunted houses: a couple of thrills, jump scares, some fun gore, that kind of thing. And while that's fine, that's not really what defines a horror movie in my opinion. A true horror movie has the courage to make its audience leave the theater on a down note, sober and chewing on what they just saw. This is exactly what "Pet Sematary" does. It paints a rich tapestry of sorrow and pain with a kind of melancholic nihilism I haven't seen in a horror film since "Hereditary."
This is probably the reason the film has been taking such a lashing from critics and audiences. It's not the sort of horror film that the normal moviegoing public goes to see. It's just not interested in being exciting or enthralling or fun in any way. It's a dark story with a disturbing message and creepy visuals to bring it across. And the slower pace makes sure that you soak in that environment for as long as possible, like it's trying to boil you to death. But it's this refusal to be nice to its audience that makes the film such a breath of fresh, diseased air. In a market of crowd-pleasing thrillers with mildly weird imagery, it's nice to find a horror movie that remembers that horror is supposed to purposefully depress and unnerve its audience.
The cast is uniformly good. Jason Clarke turns in what might be the best performance of his career so far and that's really saying something considering how good this guy is. Amy Seimetz excels as the mother, having to carry a lot of the emotional weight of the film. And John Lithgow pulls in solid dramatic work as Jud.
The biggest surprise from the cast, however, are the kids. They are shockingly good in this, even the two twins who play the 4-year-old Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). At first I wasn't sure about Jeté Laurence as the daughter, but the stuff she does in the second half of the film is inspiringly chilling. It's no hyperbole that her performance is the stand out of the whole film.
The actors are helped by the fact that the characters have a bit more dimension to them than in the pervious incarnation. The decisions they make feel more genuine and the connections feel stronger. Unfortunately, these motivations are mostly fleshed out through pieces of throwaway dialogue that you immediately forget about. However, this isn't that bothersome because their effect is still felt: the characters become more human.
"Pet Sematary" is a solid piece of horror filmmaking. It has great atmosphere, a dark story idea, fantastic scares and gives you a lot to chew on while watching. This is not for those of you who like your jump scares, but if you're a horror fan who's been craving some real creeps, then this'll be more than enough until "Midsommer."