After the success of intense, uncompromising films like It Comes at Night and Hereditary, fans have been kicking around a term called “elevated horror.” This refers to genre entries that are purportedly more thoughtful and ambitious than typical horror movies, which offer thrills for their own sake. Pet Sematary, the latest Stephen King adaptation, is a rebuke of this attempt at elevation. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have made a lean, mean horror film never overstays its welcome. Sure, there are some glaring leaps in logic, but they rush so quickly into the next scare that it hardly matters. And while there is an intriguing psychological subtext to what happens, it is all in service of the film getting under your skin.
The opening stretch follows the source material closely enough. We still have Louis (Jason Clarke), a city doctor relocating to a sleepy Maine town with his family. Louis speaks about wanting a “slower life,” which seems like subtext for the intense, disturbing grind of treating the injured in a big city. The town is welcoming enough: his daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) makes fast friends, and the next door neighbor Judd (John Lithgow) proves indispensable. But both Louis and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have strange nightmares, and it is all tied to what’s behind the pet graveyard on their property. There is an area back there with some seriously bad mojo: if you bury your dead there, they will come back to life, just not quite in the same way.
At just over one hundred minutes, the challenge for the directors and screenwriter Jeff Buhler is to make the transition from middle class idyll into hellish nightmare logic. Their solution is to introduce the psychological elements early, then build from there. The film taps into the guilt of their adult characters, creating ghoulish metaphors for their regret. Rachel had a terribly sick older sister, and in flashback we see her misshapen, twisted body (this is a callback to the decay of the old woman in The Shining’s Room 237). That psychological plausibility does not last for the entire film: in a scene that barely works, Lithgow’s Judd explains why he forced Louis into a horrible situation knowing full well what the consequences would be. His answer is barely satisfactory, and to the film’s credit, it plods ahead fast enough to suspend your disbelief.
Like the more successful modern horror filmmakers, Kölsch and Widmyer understand the power of misdirection. There are many, many scenes in Pet Sematary where characters wander into a dark places, with the camera suggesting a jump scare. They decline that easy payoff, relying more on a sense of mood and atmosphere. Horror does not just come from the woods, although they are scary (more on that later). There is a breakdown in logic and the laws of nature, creating a sense of hopelessness. These characters are drawn to do terrible things they do not quite understand, and while this psychological need is better explored in the novel, the directors mine it here for an added level of terror.
The barrier between the family property line and the cursed landscape is a large, barbed thicket of dead trees. When Louis crosses the threshold to where the dead rise again, the effect is borderline corny. The set looks out of fashion, like they used rear projection techniques that fell out of fashion decades ago, and the copious fog machines only add to the effect. The corny effects are part of the point: they are uncanny and strange, further suggesting the thin membrane between grief and madness. The actors are also on board, committing to this situation so that individual scenes hang together better than the greater whole. In a period where great, ambitious filmmakers use horror as their preferred canvas – Jordan Peele and Us come immediately to mind – it is downright comforting there are films like Pet Sematary that have the simple, pure desire to effectively scare the bejesus out of us.