“Sometimes dead is better” is the oft-quoted line from “Pet Semetary,” Stephen King’s terrifying 1983 novel. The story was adapted for a decent enough 1989 film by Mary Lambert and has now been remade by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, who were responsible for the grim “Starry Eyes.”
In the case of this film, that mantra is appropriate. Despite some decent elements – Jason Clarke’s performance, John Lithgow’s supporting role and some spooky cinematography – this is a story that didn’t need to be told again. While this remake tries to set itself apart from the original – there’s a twist in this one regarding which family member ends up terrorizing the others – it still feels too similar to the original film. The credits even feature the same song (which I’ve always liked, by the way), although this time it’s performed by Joan Jett, rather than the Ramones.
In the film, doctor Louis Creed (Clarke) moves his family to a large, secluded home in a rural Maine town to have more family time together, although I’m not sure the end result is what Louis and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), had in mind. The Creeds’ two children include precocious Ellie (Jete Laurence) and young Gage (Hugo Lavoie).
There are some early indicators that things aren’t quite right. A particularly grisly emergency room scene leaves Louis unsettled, and soon the Creeds’ cat, Church, is struck by one of the massive trucks that disturbingly fly by the family’s property on an abandoned road at seemingly regular intervals. Louis’s friendly neighbor, Jud (Lithgow, taking over the Fred Gwynne role), notes that there’s a place where Louis can bury the beloved pet and get some surprising results.
Of course, Church comes back from the dead, but is less friendly. Shortly thereafter, a tragedy leads to Louis visiting the burial site – whose powers are never fully explained, but not to the story’s detriment as it lends some mystery to the tale – a second time. As a result, the family unravels in horrifying ways.
King’s book was especially terrifying, not only for the creepy supernatural element guiding it, but also because of how unapologetically dark it was. It was a more gruesome take on the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” but it was loaded with ambiance and King’s excellent use of characterization and sense of place. This new cinematic version of the story is an excuse for numerous jump scares – one of my least favorite filmmaking tactics – and a particularly bleak ending, which also differs from the book or original film version.
I appreciate that the filmmakers added some variety to the story, but they haven’t really expanded it in any meaningful way – as Stanley Kubrick did with his remarkable adaptation of King’s “The Shining” – or improved upon the original film. Rather, this “Pet Semetary” is merely one in a long line of mediocre Stephen King adaptations.