I think people forget what makes Stephen King's stories so scary and effective. He focuses on characters, developing them fully before exposing their deepest fears and chilling them to the bone. He is able to tap into human tragedy and mine it for horrifying imagery. I think this is why his books will remain popular for years to come, they are relatable.
The new adaptation of King's 1983 novel forgets this. It focuses solely on plot points and doesn't do the work needed to make us understand the characters. It robs us of the real horror of losing a loved one and instead shifts a story about grief into a haunted house affair. Pet Sematary was always about King's fear of losing a child and the guilt-ridden grief a parent would feel at failing to protect their kin. This new version makes some key changes to the plot but none of them add richness to King's original story.
The clunky script by Jeff Buhler crams in so much plot. Louis (Jason Clarke) moves his family to a small town in Maine. Their house is close to a highway where big rig trucks speed past. Behind their house is a dense forest with a pet cemetery in it. Louis's wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and his two children, 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lovoie) are ready to have him around more. Louis is a doctor who has been absent and this move is an attempt to change that. Things get spooky early on when Ellie discovers the cemetery. Enter in the harbinger Jud (John Lithgow) to explain what is really going on in the woods. When Ellie's cat is killed by a passing truck, Jud takes Louis to a spot deep in the woods to bury it. The cat returns later that night but it is not the same cat as before. When real tragedy hits the family, the supernatural cemetery is used again but with disturbing results.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have some good ideas here. There are some striking visual nightmares and the mood is foreboding throughout. However, they stumble at finding the human elements early on. There is too much going on for one thing. We learn that Louis is haunted by the death of a young college student he couldn't save and that Rachel is haunted by the death of her sister. These strands do very little to add to our understanding of these characters and often just feel like excuses for jump scares. This lack of character development over plot points is really felt in Louis's big decision in the film. We never fully fell his loss and so don't understand why he is pushed to raise the dead even after the cat returned as an evil version of itself. It is disappointing because King's story packs an emotional heft to it that is never realized here.