The plot of “Pet Sematary” is almost as nonsensical as its spelling.
An unclear timeline and inconsistent performances do not exactly help, either.
Following the 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel, “Pet Sematary” takes yet another visual incarnation. The movie opens on Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family moving into a remote home in a small town. Though the house is initially quite charming, Louis and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) soon learn that their 50-acre property comes with a cemetery dedicated to local pets. Beyond it, Louis discovers an ancient land that revives the family’s dead cat, but with a catch – their once-friendly feline turns malicious.
With the foundation laid for a seemingly straightforward plot, what could go wrong? As it turns out, a lot. Irrelevant characters dilute the plot, while unclear time jumps and offbeat acting fail to conjure a sense of depth.
Toward the beginning of the movie, an unexplained character is introduced: Louis is working as a doctor for a nearby college when he encounters a student hit by a car. Though it has no connection to the “sematary,” the mangled body haunts Louis’ thoughts and appears in multiple scenes over the course of the film, even narrating the vocalizations of the cursed forest as it beckons to the protagonist.
Similarly random is the focus on Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), Rachel’s dead sister who initially serves to explain Rachel’s fear of death. Yet Zelda appears in several scenes, overstaying her welcome as a useful explainer for her sister’s strange response to the cemetery.
Much of the plot swiftly kicks into gear as the film starts, with one of the couple’s children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence), stumbling across the gravestones of dozens of animals. But for some reason, the story soon jumps to Halloween, with Ellie spending time with two other kids an unknown number of days after finding the cemetery. Then the audience is brought forward to Ellie’s post-Halloween birthday party. Yet another indeterminate amount of time passes, making it hard to invest in the characters, but the film settles into a clear timeline in the party’s gloomy aftermath.
Playing the role of Ellie’s mother, Seimetz fully realizes her potential in the scarier scenes of the film, expressing what feels like genuine fear through shaky movements. Unfortunately, it seems she got the role based solely on how well she could pretend to be scared, as the rest of her screen time relies on lazy vocal intonations and uninspired facial expressions, particularly within her family role. Her most memorable line – “stay-at-home wifey” – best exemplifies the character’s more cringeworthy moments through disingenuously delivered lines.
The only notable acting comes from Laurence, one of the youngest members on the cast. Her portrayal of Ellie captures childhood innocence, serving as a tether to ground the family in a sense of realism. Her tutu-clad dances around the house rounded the movie out and served as the only satisfying nonhorror moments within the hour and 43 minutes of runtime.
The only aspect the film nails is the pervasive sense of terror it invokes, which makes it good horror, but not necessarily great film. “Pet Sematary” finds its redemption in moments of drawn-out, unpredictable action. One scene in particular involving Rachel’s dead sister plays a single moment into a full minute of suspense, each second increasing the stakes. Stretching one idea into such an intense experience can often actually ruin the reveal, but the scene felt expertly crafted due to its simplicity – thumping sounds intensifying over time with minimal background music.
Unpredictably horrifying moments also manifest themselves in scenes involving Louis’ investigation into the effects of the cemetery. As he walks down to his basement late at night, viewers are likely prepared for cliche jump scares, and instead are left disoriented in ways that parallel Louis’ own confusion toward his cat’s newly monstrous nature.
The refreshing nature of the film’s fear-inducing shots set it apart from most horror films of late but does not fully make up for the iffy plot devices or underwhelming acting. “Pet Sematary” made more mistakes than just spelling a word wrong.