What if Stephen King wrote a book so disturbing not even Stephen King could read it? The answer to that question is Pet Sematary, a merciless version of the Monkey Paw fable with only a middle finger to wish upon. Published in 1983, the book was written years prior, but after King shared it with his wife, author Tabitha King, they both decided it was too fucked up to let outside of the house, and so it was buried in a drawer until King, needing to feed the Doubleday publishing beast and satiate its contractual obligations, submitted it.
Pet Sematary is not often counted among King's most beloved works, but it’s maybe the most respected. It’s one of his simplest narratives, with two straightforward morals: Grief can make you a monster if you let it, and monsters will beget more monsters if good intentions aren’t backed by good actions. Usually the most relatable thing in King’s stories are the characters—well-defined archetypes made for readers’ self-insertion and projection. But in Sematary, the most relatable aspect is grief itself. Pet, sibling, partner, child, parent—everyone old enough to read the book is familiar with death, and the hole it leaves in you, and the easily-soured comfort to be found in the fantasy of “If only we had just a little more time….”
What happens if you try adapting that book to film, but without any of its empathy and interiority?
You get 1989’s Pet Sematary, a campy gloss of the text (glossed by King himself, more than happy to pull all his punches this time around) whose impact is rooted in good gross-out gags and a willingness to not only kill cute little kids on-screen (which was still mostly taboo in '89), but then having those kids behave like America’s fan-favorite slashers, who had already ascended from cinematic bogeymen to corporate mascots by the end of the decade. Maybe the only thing in 1989's Sematary that approached the gut-level wrongness of the book was child actor Miko Hughes' mewling of "Not fair, daddy," as his Gage Creed descended back into the senseless death he was stolen from. Beyond that, '89's Sematary is basically a barely-above-average hit of Sunday Afternoon Cinemax Silliness, so diluted from its source that stapling a generically shitty Ramones song to its end credits felt perfectly appropriate.
So what happens 30 years later, when directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer create their own Pet Sematary? Would they remake the movie? Would they attempt adapting the book? Could they honestly adapt Sematary in 2019, after almost 40 years of American culture that’s not only embraced the notion of dead children as quality entertainment, but is so numbed to the concept of processing grief that we’ve resigned ourselves to monthly, real-life massacres of our kids as if it were not much more than unfortunate weather?
Yes. Of course it’s possible to seriously, thoughtfully tackle those themes head-on in this era and deliver the sort of meaningful, resonant dread King’s novel evokes. But that movie is called Hereditary, not Pet Sematary, and if you’re hoping to see a film that channels the potency of the book, you’re not going to find it here.
Thanks to the consistent laughter in the auditorium as Pet Sematary progressed, I couldn’t tell at first if the movie really was botching it. The performances are in every case an improvement, save for John Lithgow’s turn as Jud Crandall—he’s good in the role, just not as good as Fred Gwynne—and I handwaved the crowd’s callused reactions to the characters as the sort of nervous chuckling that regularly signifies growing discomfort at a horror screening, where laughter is like steam escaping a boiling kettle. But despite Jason Clarke and Amy Steimetz’s well-intentioned wrestling with the way grief and denial can ruin good people, still the crowd was laughing! Chuckle at the hissing undead kitty sitting on a toddler’s chest! Giggle as the trotting zombie feline foreshadows the skull-crushing end to a family birthday party! Head wounds are hilaaaarious! Was I wrong to not react to grieving parents contemplating unspeakable horror as just a rich comedy vein waiting to be tapped?
But as the film began its prolonged climax, it became obvious the misunderstanding was entirely mine. The room was on the directors’ wavelength, and my good-faith engagement with the first half of Pet Sematary was doomed to be unrewarded, because all that earnest shit was just a feint, one of many the film makes. (Worse, they're feints that only work if you’re familiar with the 1989 film.) This Pet Sematary is a barely buried accumulation of “gotchas” from people who appear to have convinced themselves that subverting familiarity is in and of itself a rewarding act, regardless of if that subversion serves the strengths of its story. And it doesn’t.
Pet Sematary plays like a film whose makers know you want to laugh at it, to giggle, and jump, and enjoy the sort of safe scares you’ve grown accustomed to after 30 years of rentals and basic-cable rewatches of the original. And eventually, after head-faking towards real drama and pathos, it shrugs, gives up, and gives permission: You may wallow in all this empty unpleasantness now! It invites you to sit with it, only to mischievously pull the chair out from under you and kick the bed across the room. It absolves itself of responsibility to King’s text in a cheap mixture of cliché and blood, and ends shortly thereafter, but not before nodding in self-satisfaction at how lazily it undoes itself just before cutting to black. Jud was right: Sometimes dead is better.