Who cares if cats are camera-shy? This is the year they came into their own at the multiplex, thanks at least in part to the magic of CGI. Last fall we saw gratuitous feline reaction shots in Bohemian Rhapsody, followed earlier this year by the scene-stealing tabby of Captain Marvel. Now four credited Maine coons play the pivotal role of Church in the new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. And those kitties are arguably the movie’s breakout stars.
Church is pivotal because it’s his job to teach the story’s protagonists an apparently unlearnable lesson: Death sucks, but denial is worse. Shortly after the Creed family moves to rural Maine, 9-year-old Ellie’s beloved cat becomes roadkill. Doctor dad Louis (Jason Clarke) wants to be honest with his daughter (Jeté Laurence), but his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), who has her own troubled history with death, begs him to sugarcoat the truth. The Creeds’ crusty new neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), offers to solve the problem by interring Church in a mysterious burial ground deep in the woods, behind the town’s official “Pet Sematary.”
The next day, Church comes back, but he’s not the same. Glossy, hissy and lionine, his eyes dripping with intelligent malice, he becomes a sort of demon familiar overseeing the family’s inevitable destruction. Because now that Louis knows a spot on his property can resurrect the dead — sort of — he can’t unknow it.
Pet Sematary is a harrowing book about grief and the bad decisions it spawns. The problem with retelling King’s moral fable cinematically, though, is that it depends so heavily on Louis’ perspective. On-screen, his refusal to grasp the obvious, which should be tragic, can become almost comical. What we actually see is a protagonist doing exactly what he was repeatedly warned not to do — first by a ghost (Obssa Ahmed) with oozing brains, then by the whole zombie cat experience. Unheeded warnings are commonplace in horror, but here they’re the bulk of the plot.
Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary embraces that absurdity. It’s seldom scary or sad, but it’s a good slumber-party movie, full of campy high points. By contrast, this Pet Sematary boasts lead actors who can actually convey the emotions they’re supposed to. The filmmakers tone down the silliness — at least for a while — and alter the midpoint twist in a way that, whatever King loyalists may think of it, generates a few genuinely disturbing scenes.
Yet, for all this classing-up, the result is somehow still more hokey than harrowing. Louis and Jud still seem willfully obtuse rather than believably flawed. The biggest scares still come from Rachel’s memories of her disabled sister (Alyssa Brooke Levine), who’s still treated more like a scary prop than a person. Kölsch and Widmyer seem to want to establish a subdued, naturalist register, yet they cleave closer to camp as they go, eventually concocting a coda wackier than anything in Lambert’s version.
If you want a genuinely devastating Pet Sematary, this isn’t it. But considering how audiences react whenever horror movies get close to portraying real trauma (remember Mother! and Hereditary?), camp may be a safer bet. If anything, screenwriters Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler seem less interested in the grief of the living than in the malevolence of the undead — first and foremost, that creepy cat. Long live undead Church and his fellow residents of the Uncanny Valley between the digital and the flesh.