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Pet Sematary

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Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary the book is somewhat notorious as the ‘80s Stephen King novel that even Stephen King thought was too dark to actually publish. He only did it because he had a deadline and nothing else to hand in. It’s one of his bleakest, most mean-spirited, nihilistic stories, one that requires some of the biggest suspensions of disbelief. The supernatural side of the book’s horror requires an elaborate and time-consuming amount of work to unleash, yet it is constantly BEING unleashed by people who are somehow exactly competent enough to know how to do it but not really in the right frame of mind to realize they shouldn’t.

The premise here is there’s an Indian burial mound out in the middle of somewhere that’s haunted by a demonic something. If you bury a dead thing there, it comes back to life as either a zombie or something like the host body for the demon in charge of the burial mound. It’s Stephen King — when he’s ON, it doesn’t have to make sense. He can make anything scary on the page. Pet Sematary is a viscerally terrifying book and easily one of the nastier straightforward one-damn-thing-after-the-next page turners from his “Wow this King guy is GREAT but has anyone checked on him cause I don’t think he’s okay…” prolific period. But like a lot of the other work from the same era, so much of the terror is based in the mind’s eye or pit of the stomach that it’s hard to get on screen.

The plot concerns a big city doctor who moves with his family to a small Maine community seeking a quiet country life that turns out to be anything but. Mom and dad are having arguments about how to talk to the kids about the nature of death regarding the afterlife versus atheism. Mom’s haunted by her traumatic childhood and dad by his nightmares about a patient he couldn’t save warning him to stay out of a haunted forest which (SPOILER!) he will not stay out of. When the daughter’s beloved cat dies unexpectedly, an elderly neighbor shows dad how to use the creepy zombie-resurrection mound. By then you’ve either started meeting the movie on its own weird logic or it all breaks down.

With apologies to Mr. King, motion-picture adaptations of his stuff often feel like someone shot a horror comedy and then took all the punchlines out.

Like a lot of King’s more stripped-down, bare essentials fare, Pet Sematary relies on a tricky tone switch where most of its narrative provides a grounded, realistic portrait of believably damaged ordinary people coping with unspoken trauma and personal flaws in various unhealthy ways. That story is punctuated by shock moments of individual tragedy, brief nightmares or tormenting flashbacks. Then there’s a hard Act 3 turn into full on “Oh, OK. THERE’s the monster stuff!” territory. That often translates as an awkward pivot to high camp rather than a descent into abject horror.

The original 1989 film version of Pet Sematary didn’t really manage this, mostly because the emergence of the final “boss monster” is kind of hard to make work on screen in any context. This new attempt diverges significantly in that sense. For a while there it seems like the plan was to take the story in a creepier direction that’s less killer zombie and more unnerving existential horror or skin-crawly body horror .  Instead, the film still steers inexorably into Evil Dead territory which, however competently performed, still feels like too much of a leap from what came before.

There are individual parts here that work, but not cohesively.  With apologies to Mr. King, motion-picture adaptations of his stuff often feel like someone shot a horror comedy and then took all the punchlines out. There’s  a moment where Jason Clarke’s beleaguered doctor dad character is staring into the camera with an expression that’s meant to convey a dawning sense of existential dread at having crossed a moral event horizon, but from the timing you feel like he’s gonna fire off a one-liner like, “Well I didn’t think THAT through!”

In the end, this one could have stayed buried.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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