Review by Daniel Lima
It seems that the longer a film franchise goes on, the more likely it will renege on its mantra — the core idea that gave the original its heart. The Rambo series devolved from sobering psychological drama about the cost of war to right-wing fantasy. Jurassic Park asked whether having the technology to do something justifies doing it, to which the CG slop of the long-gap sequels said, “Yes.” Pet Sematary is a cautionary tale about clinging to something after its time has come and gone, so it’s only natural that Pet Sematary: Bloodlines attempts to revive an IP which should have been laid to rest.
In the 2019 reboot of Pet Sematary, John Lithgow plays Jud Crandall, a kindly old man who tries to help his new neighbors adjust to life in the town of Ludlow. Bloodlines winds back the clock fifty years, as the young Crandall prepares to leave home for the Peace Corps, only to be drawn back into town by the sudden return of an estranged friend. His return brings with it an ancient evil that forces Crandall to confront not only his friend, but also the history of his town and his own family.
That this is a prequel to the remake, and not the original film, is important because Fred Gwynne’s Crandall in the latter has a scene where he explains exactly what happened in the town decades ago when someone began meddling with the curtain between life and death. On the one hand, this means this story has never even been hinted at within the narrative of this particular interpretation of the Pet Sematary cosmos. On the other hand, this series is powered by residual goodwill towards that first film, so it can be assumed the audience will be familiar with this film’s point of origin. Add that these monkey’s paw tales — character’s dreams coming true only for them to regret it — only have one place to go, and the film ends up feeling wholly inessential.
Horror films have long used a boilerplate narrative as the foundation for an exercise in style, but this fails to cultivate any atmosphere or mood. Where a Sam Raimi film possesses a manic energy reflected in the dynamic camerawork, or a Lucio Fulci film creates a surreal dreamscape through hazy, lurid imagery, Bloodlines looks like any number of straight-to-streaming cast-offs. The film adopts a muted color palette that makes the days seem dreary and the nights impregnably dark, and the compositions never rise above workmanlike.
There is a world where the characters elevate the material, and the ensemble fleshes the world out in a way that makes the audience invested in their plight. For some unfathomable reason, however, the film spends more time on the mystery of the town — a mystery anyone watching will already know — than establishing who these people are.
The moments where the film gestures towards emotional bonds between the characters are laughable, as there is no work done to establish the nature of who they are and the relationships they have outside of quick flashbacks. That every single performance feels phoned in does nothing to help, though it's always nice to see Pam Grier and Henry Thomas getting work. As for star Jackson White... he's no John Lithgow.
The lack of purpose, aesthetic, or engaging characters means that when the film actually does take a stab at horror set pieces, it falls flat. These moments are horribly telegraphed, there’s never any tension as the scene develops, what actually happens is wildly unimaginative, and there’s no reason to care about anyone in the movie anyways. The best that can be said about the horror is that there’s some solid makeup and practical effects, and even those are obscured from view in the darkness of some of these scenes.
In the face of this obvious lack of creative ambition and inspiration, it’s hard not to ask, “Why does this movie exist?” The answer is simple: the reboot made over five times its budget. The only thing animating this is the desire to keep the brand alive and within the popular consciousness, and keeping something alive beyond its natural end, in defiance of the laws of God and nature, carries with it a terrible price. For the small town of Ludlow, it was a miasma of malevolent energy that spoke to a rot at the core of the community. As someone who just watched Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, I’d say they were lucky.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.