The second feature adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 horror novel Pet Sematary, following a 1989 version that is no classic but has its admirers, possesses three important qualities. One, it has a fog machine, and it's not afraid to use it, especially when that fog can be backlit to curl across the obviously, appealingly fake forest sets in thick white bars. Two, it has a score by Christopher Young that deserves no points for originality, but has a hell of a lot of commitment to using various minor keys and percussive elements to craft a sense of heavy menace, something brutal and cruel and just outside of sight. Third, it has Church, one of the very best cats I have seen in a movie in years, a tortoiseshell Maine Coon played by Leo, Tonic, Jager, and JD, all of whom are extremely good boys, putting up with having some sort of gooey junk put in their coats, and being excellent at following the handlers' cues for when to hiss and when to project saucer-eyed innocence. I will not spoil the places where the new movie's script, adapted by Jeff Buhler from a story by Matt Greenberg, breaks away from the book, but I will say that one of the most significant involve Church giving an enormous, happy stare to human star Jason Clarke, and if I were given that stare, I too would allow the insane demon zombie cat to eat me and all of my family, with a happy heart.

Anyway: fog, music, cat. Does Pet Sematary really need any more than that? Because it doesn't have a whole lot more than that, but it comes shockingly close to being enough. The original novel - one of King's best, to my mind, or at least one of the very few that doesn't shit its pants for the last 20% of its length, which is as good as the same thing - is an immensely slow burn, spending a huge chunk of its early running time as a pastorale about a city family recalibrating to life in rural Maine; it is domestic drama that only begins unfolding as domestic horror once we've fully absorbed the rhythms of the characters' feelings and philosophies. Neither movie is remotely that patient, and in the particular case of the 2019 film (which is as much a remake as a new adaptation), directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer barely even make us wait until the second scene before they start ladling out thick overcast skies, hushed and morbid line readings, and a procession of identity-less children in homemade papier-mâché animal masks, like a third-grade production of The Wicker Man. And so fog; so music; so, ultimately, cat.

Truth be told, as much as I admire those elements, and the filmmakers' commitment to making Pet Sematary as much about constant atmosphere as about its plot or themes, it's never much better than well-mounted schlock. The very concept of the thing (to describe it at all would constitute a spoiler, and despite the existence of the 36-year-old book and 30-year-old first movie, I think I will avoid doing that) is inherently schlocky, if you haven't carefully rooted it in the characters' very normal, very human feelings about death and loss. Those characters being Dr. Louis Creed (Clarke), newly hired as a staff member at a college medical center, and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and toddler son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), who don't really get as much of that character definition as the material wants. There are a few different reasons for that: one is that Clarke's performance is inexplicably pinched and flat, an atypically tin-eared bit of acting for someone who's at least more reliable than this; another is that the script and editing keeping changing their minds about how much Rachel (who gets a much stronger performance; Seimetz's head movements alone tell us more about her character than anything Clarke ever does) is actually a central character, to whose thoughts and feelings we will be made privy.

The biggest one, though, is that the film wants us to get to the creepy stuff as absolutely fast as possible. It knows we're here for a horror film, and it is petrified by the thought that we might get bored if more than ten minutes go by without anything horrifying. At its best, this means fog and wonderfully spooky woodland sets, and John Lithgow's excellent work as Jud, the across-the-street neighbor whose gruff folksy charm keeps leaving dangling ellipses and a profound sense that he has see things that he is anxious not to remember. At worst, it means jump scares.

So many jump scares. Jump scares have their place in the ecosystem of scary movies, no doubt; they work reflexively, they can get the audience primed for deeper scares to come, or at least give us a good jolt followed by a good chuckle. But Pet Sematary relies on them to an extent that would be shameful for an '80s slasher movie, and so we get jump scares of doors opening, of footprints, of Jud, of Ellie, of trucks, of pretty much anything that you can have pop up unexpectedly over the course of a cut. It's fun, at least, how the filmmakers tweak the formulaic "it's not the monster, it's just a cat" fake-out jump scare by having Church be a false jump scare and later having false jump scares in place of Church. But that's almost, like, anti-frightening.

The real pity is that Pet Sematary has no need to rely on jump scares like this: it's clear enough that the film can do other things when it wants to. In the second half, Laurence all by herself provides all of the skin-crawling uncanniness a horror movie could want (the nature of her character has been substantially twisted from the book - a good change, I think, one that allows for a much more articulated version of the themes always hiding right below the plot), giving what I think will live on as a performance for the "Creepy Horror Movie Children" hall of fame.

At any rate, the film works more than it doesn't, and there's enough moodiness to paper over some of the thin writing, Clarke's performance, or the cheap shots. So much so that I was all set to give the film a net positive review, right up until the last five or eight minutes: and that's where the film's desire to do something wholly different from the book bites it in the ass. Like I said, Pet Sematary is an exceptional rarity for Stephen King, in that the ending feels just about perfect, bringing all of the book's themes to a head and wrapping them in pure nightmare. The new ending fashioned for this Pet Sematary is emphatically not that; it's boneheaded shock-for-shock's sake, completely erasing any sort of momentum that the material was building up as it headed toward Louis's ultimate, fatal errors of grief and smug bad judgment. It's just a horror movie ending, and a particularly hacky one, and it leaves such a sour flavor as the film cuts to credits that it's next to impossible to feel nearly as good towards the film's opening 90 minutes as I did while they were actually playing.