The sheer fact of having a pet cemetery on your rural Maine property is not, in itself, a deal-breaker. People have to bury their pets somewhere, I suppose.
More alarming, to be honest, is the busy highway that runs right past the property. And the weird neighborhood kids who put on animal masks and march solemnly through the woods for their pet funerals, like they’re part of some avant-garde performance-art group. And the dry ice that always seems to flow whenever residents go out for a nighttime stroll.
You may sense the presence of Stephen King behind all this, and sure enough, we’re talking about the remake of King’s “Pet Sematary,” first filmed in 1989. The new one is distinguished only by its dour determination and a better-than-necessary cast.
The Creed family moves from Boston to the Maine woods, tired of the urban grind. Little do they know that the countryside is scary in ways a city can’t touch.
Dad (Jason Clarke, from last week’s “The Aftermath”) is a doctor in need of peace and quiet. Mom (Amy Seimetz, late of “Alien: Covenant”) is haunted by an elaborately gothic tragedy from her childhood. Their two kids quietly hang around until something terrible happens.
The family also has a cat. As with the ‘89 film, the material presents a good argument for keeping your kitty indoors.
Around to explain the spooky local lore is an old coot, played by John Lithgow at his cootiest. There’s almost nobody else in the film, because the focus is on the awful things that happen when something is buried out there in the woods.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer give the King story two distinguishing factors: the horror is very, very grisly, and the tone is completely grim. I’ll give them credit for taking the situation to its logical conclusion — this is a dark take, with a scorched-earth ending.
They even manage to squeeze more juice out of the current cinema’s creepy-kid phenomenon, thanks to the performance of Jete Laurence as the eldest child (and some effective digital make-up).
Clarke and Seimetz are talented actors, fully capable of conveying grief and anxiety. But their characters are so thinly-sketched they’re about as deep as the average ancient Indian burial ground. There’s no reason to be invested in them, except as mannequins walking into the next jump-scare.
Stephen King wants to scare you, too, obviously. But at his best he makes you care about his damaged characters — which is where the horror really lives.