‘Pet Sematary’ and the Sticky Wicket of “Elevated Horror”


“Look, he’s right there,” Ellie says, and she points towards the closet. Her parents have come to tell her that her cat ran away — softening the real story, that her cat was hit by a truck and killed — but we know, because we’ve come to see Pet Sematary, that the cat has returned from the dead. So Ellie points to her bedroom closet, and the camera pushes in on the slightly ajar closet door, ever so slowly, and the creepy music swells, and we giggle in anticipation, and then the the cat hisses, and we jump. And then we giggle again, because it’s fun to be scared together. We all know how this goes, and what our role is in this particular interchange.

It’s a textbook horror movie moment, and it works the way it’s supposed to in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s take on Stephen King’s masterful 1983 novel (his best, for my money). The movie is full of moments like that, tropes and devices (and, occasionally, clichés) typical of mainstream scary movies, so it’s downright baffling that the film is being positioned and promoted as “elevated horror,” the semi-recent branding bugaboo that’s become something of a cause célèbre among horror critics and fans.

It’s been floating around for a couple of years now, usually attached to movies that dazzle critics at midnight shows at Sundance — things like The Babadook, The Witch, and Hereditary — but whose boosters and, often, creators want the rabble to understand that they’re not just any ol’ horror movie; they deal in serious subjects and have real actors and may not have a scare a minute or a lot of gore or any of the things that people who don’t watch a lot of horror assume horror movies are made of.

And, indeed, it feels like this new Pet Sematary may well have been fast-tracked after Hereditary; it takes a similar approach to this earlier story of familial grief and parental responsibility, and likewise features a high-caliber cast (including Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow), and is shot with a familiar dirty-dishwater approach to cinematography. When a studio publicist assured me in an email, without prompting, that “it definitely fits the elevated horror genre,” I cringed but shrugged; they’ve got a movie to sell. But when its own director threw the phrase around after its SXSW premiere (“It’s not about vampires or werewolves… but [Paramount] got behind it and saw it as a very elevated horror film”), it became clear that these are the terms they’re setting.

And frankly, they’re ridiculous. Because if anything should get to just be regular ol’ horror, it’s a film adaptation of an ‘80s Stephen King book.

The premise remains one of King’s best; it’s easy to see why it sold so well, and has proven such catnip to moviemakers. Louis and Rachel Creed (Clarke and Seimetz) move their family to Maine, into a rural home that’s pretty idyllic, except for the tractor trailers that go roaring by every once in a while. Before long, one of them runs over the family cat, and the old-timer next door (Lithgow) encourages Louis to bury it in what turns out to be a Native American burial ground, and sure enough, the kitty comes back – but he’s different, nasty and smelly, prone to scratching and worse. But while they’re struggling with all of this, their daughter is killed in a horrible accident. And now Louis knows a way to bring her back.

Alas, that simple and elegant premise has been transformed into secondhand claptrap by directors Kölsch and Widmyer. Much was made of their decision to flip the dead kid from the family’s toddler son to their older daughter, but this isn’t particularly objectionable (though it mostly feels like it was made to allow for some egregiously broad quotations of The Exorcist). It’s their alterations to the third act that ultimately sink this already dodgy adaptation; the entire climax is deeply, deeply stupid, and the final scene gets more repugnant the more you think about it, and the more you connect it to the opening images.

Pet Sematary isn’t a complete waste. Jeté Laurence is smashing as little Ellie, particularly the chilling second half of the performance. Seimetz gets a couple of juicy acting moments to sink her teeth into – her reaction to seeing her dead daughter again is a remarkable juggling act, three or four powerful emotions slugging it out -and she and Clarke get a real bead on their complicated marital dynamic. But he flounders without her; this is a next-to-impossible role, and try as he might, Clarke can’t fix it. Lithgow is terrific in his flannel shirts and bushy beard, in a role that capitalizes on his gift for speaking directly, but hinting at more. But even he can’t make heads or tails of the scene where he tries to explain his murky motivations; after conveying the tale of the beloved family dog his father ended up having to put down a second time, he shrugs, “I thought it would be different with Ellie’s cat.” WHY DID YOU THINK THAT, JOHN LITHGOW?

But back to this “elevated horror” nonsense: you don’t get to throw in a bunch of cheap jump scares and other pat devices, and then insist that you’re above the genre fray. In addition to the frequent roaring trucks, Pet Sematary lingers on medical oddities, emergency room blood, unnervingly gory kid art, and creaky old houses with things lurking in the basement dark. It’s like a laundry list of horror clichés. And that’s fine. Just own it.

To be clear, this viewer isn’t as dead-set against the idea behind “elevated horror” as some others who’ve written on the subject; labels are helpful, after all, be they “prestige drama” or “slapstick comedy” or even something like “art horror,” which was widely (and accurately) applied to last year’s Suspiria remake. It’s good to let people know what they’re in for, if for no other reason than to circumvent disappointment, and end up with a perfectly good movie like It Comes at Night sporting a “D” CinemaScore.

It’s this particular verbiage, it seems, that grates; the “elevated” modifier explicitly posits the notion that this particular strain of high-minded moviemaking is above its lowly plain-horror brethren. The problem with that thinking is that horror should be disreputable; the great horror classics, from Night of the Living Dead to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the original Suspiria, all were. The notion that this new classification is necessary for critic-friendly horror is borne out of an antiquated (and perhaps always inaccurate) idea of critical necessity when it comes to genre film. They’ve always been critic-proof, even back when Siskel & Ebert were devoting entire shows to dragging horror; nowadays, there are plenty of critics who just plain dig horror, the less “elevated” the better.

Most importantly to the matter at hand, even if you subscribe to those terms, Pet Sematary doesn’t fit them. It’s woefully, sometimes irritatingly average, and if you’re going to go around insisting that your horror movie is better than most, you’d better be damn sure that it is.

“Pet Sematary” is out tonight in wide release.