When telling a story, the question of motivation is an important one – why do the people in it do what they do, what prompts them to follow a certain path. In movies (or books or TV, etc.), the reasons for an action are more easy to explain than in the real world, but still crucially important. It is easier to connect with a character, and therefore a story, if we can place ourselves inside that person. Knowing the reasons behind actions is a big part of that. In the new “Pet Sematary,” directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer (and based on Stephen King’s book), motivation represents a massive problem and does so multiple times.
Very little in the movie makes any sense, and the issue starts from the very beginning of the movie, where we meet the main family – Louis (Jason Clarke) & Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) & Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie). They have moved from Boston to Maine because Louis was working too hard as an ER doctor. Why did Louis simply not switch jobs rather than uprooting the family? Rachel, at minimum, seems skeptical about the move from the beginning, but no reasoning is forthcoming.
While that is a small question, it hints at the bigger issues down the line in this film, issues that commence with Louis being dragged to a scary peak behind a bog which is behind a pet cemetery (with the incorrect spelling used in the film’s title) by his next door neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow) to bury a cat. Why go to the peak and not just the cemetery? Jud won’t tell Louis.
It is not spoiling anything in a movie like this, one with the tagline, “sometimes dead is better,” to say that things come back from the dead, but they come back evil. This then means that Jud, knowing this problem, has Louis bring back to life a cat. It is here that things really go off the rails with “Pet Sematary.”
This is not a film that cares about motivation. It doesn’t care about why things are happening, just that they are so that it can throw in a few jump scares. The barest wisps of an explanation are given for what is going on and, when Jud tries to explain his logic for bringing back the cat, the only thing the film can muster is something about the power of the burial ground wanting to make you go back there.
Maybe that could work in a movie where the evil is explained, but it doesn’t work in a film that doesn’t bother delving into what is really taking place. It doesn’t work with Jud deciding to continue living in the house he grew up in, which is about as close as you can get to the evil burial ground. He knows there is tremendous evil right there, but he sticks around… why?
Rather than bothering to delve into any sort of explanations so that audiences can not only come to grips with the truth of the evil mystical nature of the lands or why Jud or Louis act as they do, “Pet Sematary” tosses in an entire side story about the death of Rachel’s sister when Rachel was younger. It is one of many things in the film which give an inkling of a larger work, a broader story, that is simply not present here. As it stands, this entire portion of the film could be excised without anything getting lost. It is appropriately creepy, yes, but it has virtually nothing to do with anything else that takes place in the movie.
Separately, one could argue that the movie succeeds because it makes one feel the terrible fear parents have about their children and about wanting to protect their offspring. This critic would suggest that it takes very little to succeed on that level – the mere act of showing a parent helpless when their child is in mortal danger is enough.
This is the same sort of logic that argues that a film is scary because it has jump scares. The use of a musical sting and an abrupt visual change, however, just as with putting a child in danger, causes a subconscious reaction, not true fear. And beyond those gut reactions, this work generates no fear.
“Pet Sematary” feels like a fragment of a movie. There is so very clearly a whole lot of tale involved that is simply not told. Whether it was filmed and left on the cutting room floor or simply never translated from the novel is an interesting question, but on the whole doesn’t affect the end result – a disappointing Stephen King adaptation that would be better left in the ground.
photo credit: Paramount Pictures