You know what I’d like to talk about today? Stephen King’s Pet Semetary.
The ninth novel release in what would become one of the storied and famous careers in horror literature, Pet Semetary was the second-ever Stephen King book I read, and it’s the one I’ve come back to most often. Following the story of a family living in a secluded home, and the agonising choice one of them faces after they lose a child, it’s a moving and gruelling and powerful meditation on the madness of grief, with the excellent and inventive horror wraparound really just a bonus. It’s a truly excellent book, and I cannot recommend enough that you go read it.
But unfortunately, I have to talk about, instead, Pet Semetary, 2019 – the latest adaptation in a string of King’s work (see also: IT), directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. And you know, Stephen King doesn’t have the greatest track record with adaptations – just ask Carrie (now is as good a time as any to mention that I recapped the entirety of the Carrie novel, and you can read that right here), or Christine, or ‘Salem’s Lot, or The Shining (yeah, I said it) – but I was hopeful about this one. Because, as I wrote in my review of Us, we’re in the post-modern horror landscape right now, and if there was any era when this slow-paced, deeply internal story could be brought to the screen in a way that did it justice, I feel like it’s now.
And yet, the film we get just feels like it could have been plucked out of any standard-issue horror universe. Apart from some really great real effects (and yes, I will be banging the real effects drum till the end of time), Pet Semetary feels so bloody standard. There are those cheesy jumpscares, the spooky kids, the well-meaning neighbour next door who’s really just a set-up machine (and damn, if you’re going to get John Lithgow in for this, at least give him some meat to work with, right?)…it all feels like box-ticking. You could tap out the beats to this one before you’ve even watched the credits roll. I don’t go into every horror movie ever expecting it to be this seismic shift in the very genre, but something that’s actually, you know, scary and atmospheric would do, right?
The performances are fine – Amy Seimetz as Rachel, the mother of the family, is probably the most impressive, mainly because Jason Clarke (our lead and her husband) does this weird thing when he’s trying to convey grief where is eyes shrink to one third of their original size. It struggles to fill it’s hundred-minute runtime, and lingers on over-explanation when what we need to see is the impact of these events, not just the action.
And, yes, of course a lot of people seeing this movie will not have read the book – the same went for me and The Dark Tower, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than my co-writer who had read the books – but the biggest issue I have with it is that I feel it misses the core message of the book so completely. Without getting super-spoilerific, the real thrust of the book isn’t the bloody violence or the creepy kids, it’s the sheer madness of profound grief, written from the point of view of a parent imagining the unimaginable loss of their own child. Stephen King himself says that the story is the one that disturbed him most while writing it, and I doubt that’s because it’s the most violent or bloody or the one the most spooky children in it.
The profound terror at the heart of Pet Semetary is the pinpoint representation and exploration of sadness, and for me, this movie adaptation lacks that. As far as this adaptation goes: I agree with the tagline. Sometimes dead is better. And that’s just where this movie should have stayed.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Mashable)