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Review: Pet Sematary Is Atmospheric but Not Quite Perfect

3 out of 5 creepy masks.

Church the zombie cat from Pet Sematary looking creepy.

The fear of death is a driving motivation in many horror films. After all, what’s scarier than the unknown and potential oblivion? Death is natural, as Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) tells his young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), but as many know, and as Pet Sematary explores, when faced with the death of loved ones, it can be hard to accept that truth, and therein lies the horror of the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.

I wish I could say that Pet Sematary was as much of a triumph as IT: Chapter 1 turned out to be. There was talk of the film being “elevated horror,” and while I despise that term in general, this film was definitely not more than the average horror film. A great buildup doesn’t quite stick the landing, and a reliance on jump scares made it decidedly not my favorite horror film of 2019.

The plot is familiar: the Creed family—Louis, wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie, son Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie), and adorable cat Church—move to an old house in Maine that happens to have the town’s pet “sematary” on the property. The house is right next to a road where truckers barrel down at high speeds, and it claims the lives of many animals. When tragedy strikes, the Creeds’ neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), takes Louis farther into the woods to a place where the ground is “sour” … and where it brings things back.

Cat lovers, beware: Church might give you nightmares.

At a trim 1 hour and 40 minutes of runtime, the film seems more interested in getting to the next beat than it is in really exploring the nature of what’s happening. Still, the atmosphere is delightfully creepy, and it’s hard not to have a shiver run up your spine at the misty woods or at Louis being haunted by the specter of a young man (Obssa Ahmed) who died on his second day of work at the local hospital.

Rachel is also being haunted. Her sister, Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), who suffered from spinal meningitis and later died due to an accident caused by Rachel, has followed her to her new home. The role is a little thankless, but Seimetz gives it her all and delivers on the terror and grief needed to make Rachel sympathetic to the audiences. We have to understand why she’s traumatized by death for her ultimate decisions to make sense.

Clarke, an underrated actor, delivers a strong leading turn as Louis. Going from levelheaded, sensible doctor to grief-stricken father could be a campy journey, but Clarke does his best to keep the audience invested in Louis as a character.

The real star of the film though is Laurence, who gets to alternate between sweet Ellie and something else (if you’ve seen the second or third trailer for the film, you’ll understand). Laurence could definitely break out in a big way after this film, and I look forward to seeing what she’s cast in next.

The cinematography is solid, and when the film is trying to scare you without loud jump scares, it’s creepy. Still, the ending doesn’t quite land as well as one would hope, though the bleakness of it all will appeal to fans of King’s original work. Still, it’s hard not to think of the film it could have been with perhaps a slightly longer runtime. The relationship between Jud and the Creed family is slightly brushed over. In fact, Jud just sort of serves as an exposition machine, rather than an actual character, which is a shame since Lithgow is so good in the role.

Overall, it’s not the best adaptation of King’s work (I’ll still hold that the first IT is perfect in that regard), but if you’re looking for a bleak and atmospheric horror film to watch, you could do a lot worse. There are some memorable images and the performances are strong, but I can’t help wishing we could have seen more. Sometimes dead is better, it seems, and sometimes so is a more in-depth script.

(image: KERRY HAYES/PARAMOUNT PICTURES)

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Kate (she/her) says sorry a lot for someone who is not sorry about the amount of strongly held opinions she has. Raised on a steady diet of The West Wing and classic film, she is now a cosplayer who will fight you over issues of inclusion in media while also writing coffee shop AU fanfic for her favorite rare pairs.