Pet Sematary (2019) movie review: bad things happen when you leave the city

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Pet Sematary red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A lazy adaptation of the Stephen King novel, manipulatively cheap when it isn’t provoking eye-rolls at its genre banalities. Why can’t someone find the right role for the charismatic Jason Clarke?tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Jason Clarke
I’m “biast” (con): not a huge fan of studio horror
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Seriously, who buys property in Stephen King country and doesn’t check — before they move in! — to see if the woods behind their new house contains some freakin’ haunted ancient Indian burial grounds? I have no sympathy for these Creed people and their scare-riffic trials and tribulations when they couldn’t even be bothered to do the barest amount of real-estate due diligence until long into the movie, when one of them finally gets around to sitting down for some infodumpish Googling. After weird shit starts to go down in their new home.

Also seriously: Enough with the “protagonist Googles to find some information that will be vital to the plot” scenes. Find a better way to tell a story, lazy-ass screenwriters. (Looking at you, Matt Greenberg [Seventh Son, 1408] and Jeff Buhler.)

Pet Sematary 2019
Spooky, right? Rest easy, scaredycats: this literally has nothing to do with what’s going on in this movie.

Also also seriously: Who makes a movie in 20-freakin’-19 that is entirely fueled by the “exotic” nonsense of haunted ancient Indian burial grounds? Our Native friends have had enough of this bullshit appropriation of their spirituality and would like to be the protagonists of their own horror fantasies finally, thankyouverymuch.

I’m a fairly big Stephen King fan, but his 1983 novel on which this is based was always low on my King to-read list, so I haven’t read it, and if I had read it, it would have been like 30 years ago anyway. So I’m guessing when I say that I doubt it has been done any favors by this new film adaptation, which is an extreme collection of hoary and tedious clichés. (You have seen this movie a million times before, mostly done poorly, as this is. Absolutely nothing is a surprise here.) It opens with a drone shot of the car of Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke: The Aftermath, Serenity), who is moving his family from Boston to the woods outside a small New England town, wending its way along winding forested roads with precisely the same sort of temporary tranquility that you know will soon morph into anxiety and then (allegedly) terror but then of course back to some sort of new equilibrium. You might as well be watching a TV ad for, I dunno, an insurance company that wants to reassure you that you and your loved ones will be covered should anything supernatural happen in your home, it’s that bland and obvious. (Now there is an idea for a new kind of horror movie: supernatural insurance. You can have that one for free, Hollywood.)

Pet Sematary 2019
Chekhov’s kitty…

Right. So. Why can’t someone find the right role for the handsome and charismatic Jason Clarke? He is forced to wander around this dumb movie like he’s an idiot who doesn’t know that fog, lightning, pets behaving oddly*, and cheesy fakey arboreal-soundstage sets signify ostensibly spooky shit in the offing. He doesn’t even witness the funereal procession of strange children in weird masks accompanied by creepy music parading through the forest to bury a dead dog in the “pet sematary” in the woods. Though that’s probably a good thing because it’s a total sidebar — never mind that it’s the title of the film — to the actual supernatural stuff. The “pet sematary” — it’s spelled wrong, Little Rascals–style, on the handpainted sign in the woods — has zip to do with anything happening here. WTF?

(*The Creeds move to their new home with a pet cat. You’ve heard of Chekhov’s gun? This is Chekhov’s kitty.)

No, it’s the realm beyond the “pet sematary” in the woods surrounding the Creeds’ house that harbors a preternatural secret… which I won’t reveal, in case you don’t already know what it is. Literally do not fear, though: It’s not that interesting at all, in a supernatural-horror sense. Something about death and whether death is the end of all things or not — so, like, everything that every human religion ever contends with, and also many horror movies — and even though this is a basic human question about our most fundamental reality, the movie finds nothing ooky or even simply moving in it. Dr. Creed’s is a family haunted by unexpected deaths, past and present, and in the hands of a filmmaking team who could translate human existential fear into powerful action, there might be something in it.

Pet Sematary 2019 Amy Seimetz
“Don’t worry, honey, Mommy’s getting you out of this bad, bad movie right now…”

One simple, obvious tack this movie could have taken: It could not have wasted indie queen Amy Seimetz (Alien: Covenant, The Reconstruction of William Zero) as Louis’s wife, and instead of giving her little to do but fret, it could have gender-flipped the story so that she (with her intriguingly anguished background) is now the protagonist and her husband the bystander. This would automatically raise all sorts of new questions that are directly related to what the movie thinks it is about.

But no one appears to have imagined this possibility. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer let it all fall flat, and leave us feeling nothing beyond occasional accidental amusement at its manipulative cheapness or eye-rolling boredom at the straightforward deployment of genre banalities. It’s like, perhaps, an attempt to find a compromise between authentic, profound dramatic tragedy and cheesy schlock horror settled on a completely unsatisfying mushy middle ground, as if this were preferable to either other option. It’s not.

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