Pet Sematary film review: sometimes dead is better

Does Paramount’s Pet Sematary adaptation live up to Stephen King’s book?

The recent surge of Stephen King adaptations for the small and big screen makes complete sense considering what confusing and scary times we are currently living through. King’s prose is ripe for disturbing visual interpretations and laced with the promise of psychological horror that will embed itself under your skin. The insidious evil of IT slithered its way to box office success and critical praise, with the second part due later this year. Over the last ten years there’s been a mix of duds and winners. Film wise, Kimberly Pierce’s Carrie remake and The Dark Tower have been critical failures while Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game fared way better. Maybe its popular resurrection is down to loving homage in Netflix’s global phenomenon Stranger Things, which was then followed a couple of years later with the more adult Castle Rock, released on Amazon.

However we got here, King’s body of work provides a strong basis to investigate the dark side of human nature and with the remake of Pet Sematary directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have been handed the keys to a property that had the potential to scare the hell out of a new generation. What they do with its themes of grief, death and guilt sits somewhere in between a fitfully amusing tongue-in-cheek horror and frustrating in its refusal to do anything truly interesting with the material. There’s always room to breathe new life into a concept when updating a film but at points, the tone deafness of certain choices is hard to fathom.

A few changes to the story have actually been made, one of which can be seen in the trailer, such as the death of the older child as opposed to a toddler. Ellie is now stalked by the grim reaper with the filmmakers able to play with the evil child trope as she is reanimated. Jason Clarke embodies the pain of a father who has lost a child as he gets sweatier, and dirtier by literally digging himself deeper into a desperately sad situation and Amy Seimetz brings her usual A-game as a woman wracked with guilt from her past.

John Lithgow as the troubled but kindly neighbour turns in a stand-out performance. It’s perfect casting and akin to Fred Gwyne’s rather wonderful turn in Mary Lambert’s 1989 original where you can almost see the loneliness in his eyes. Church the cat is also memorable thanks to the way his wilful destructiveness and manipulation is gleefully depicted with the help of numerous real felines. All the cast do solid work and similarly to IT, all the performances are game, yet the remake gets a little caught up in cheap thrills, knowing nods and brutal gore, forgetting to tease the psychological horror out of the doomed family’s fate.