Monday 22 April 2019

Movie Review: Pet Sematary (2019)

A horror film about meddling with life after death, Pet Sematary offers chilling ambiance but is over-reliant on traditional jump scares.

In search of a slower pace and more family time, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates his life from Boston to rural Maine. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), nine year old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and infant son Gage are initially happy with the transition, although the massive trucks speeding along the nearby country road are disconcerting. Rachel harbours deep guilt from childhood over the gruesome death of her sister. Her mood is not improved when the family discover a spooky pet cemetery in the woods behind their new home.

Meanwhile, Louis starts work at a local clinic and experiences a disturbing incident when a young man dies violently but appears to haunt Louis with talk of calamities to come. When Ellie's pet cat Church expires, grizzled neighbour Jud (John Lithgow) guides Louis to haunted grounds beyond the cemetery where whatever is buried comes back alive. Louis takes a chance to try and bring Church to life, starting a violent chain of unintended consequences.

The 1983 Stephen King novel was first adapted to the screen in 1989. Thirty years later, co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer working from a Jeff Buhler script recreate King's vision of a forbidden yet tempting place where willing humans have the ability to experiment with regenerating life. The film is effective in creating a bleak mood with death haunting the family's past and present. A steady start introduces the family dynamics and their ominous new surroundings, and once Lewis' patient dies quickly followed by Ellie's cat, the second half offers a tightening grip of unrelenting horror.

Pet Sematary delves into themes of persistent guilt casting a lifelong shadow. Rachel blames herself for the traumatic death of her deformed sister at a young age, an incident replayed and leveraged by Kölsch and Widmyer to good effect. Back in the present Lewis is overwhelmed with guilt when things start going wrong for the family he relocated to new surroundings, increasing the dark appeal of meddling with nature in a desperate attempt to set things right.

And the film does find a focus on the intoxicating magnetism of controlling life and death. Jud is honest about the inexorable pull of the haunted soils. The ramifications of meddling with the dead are not all good, and yet the enormous power to reinstate life cannot be resisted, especially when combined with human emotional failings and the medical imperative to save lives even when all seems lost.

While the story offers plenty of opportunities for interpretation, on the screen Kölsch and Widmyer resort to relatively safe and traditional genre elements. Things go bump in the night, doors creek, the wind howls, and intimidating creatures make sudden appearances from the shadows. It's all reasonably effective, but also quite predictable.

Pet Sematary may not break much new ground, but does place a worthwhile marker in familiar territory.

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