Sometimes, the joke is so apparent it’s irritating. “Sometimes dead is better” isn’t just the line that everyone knows and quotes from “Pet Sematary,” usually giving a comic approximation of a Maine accent as they do so. It’s also the obvious choice for a pithy headline questioning the value of this dull prequel to a middling reboot of a mid-tier Stephen King film adaptation (no offense to Mary Lambert, who directed the 1989 original). And that’s annoying, because the temptation to reach for the easy quip will almost certainly be too much for many critics to bear. But perhaps a movie like this isn’t worth the effort of coming up with a better bit.
In a bold move for an obviously low-budget prequel, “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines” catapults the action back to Ludlow, Maine, circa 1969, a backdrop presumably inspired by the success of “X” early last year. (We’ve seen several horror films set in the Vietnam era since then.) The script is co-written by director Lindsey Anderson Beer and Jeff Buhler, a specialist in ineffectual horror-franchise pablum who also contributed to the screenplay for Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 version of “Pet Sematary.” And the film’s attempt to pad out the lore behind old Jud Crandall and the Mi’kmaq burial ground that reanimates the dead is dutiful if not all that interesting.
“Bloodlines” centers on Jud (Jackson White), a restless teenager desperate to escape Ludlow. As the story begins, he’s about to do just that with the help of his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind), who’s convinced him to join her for a stint in the Peace Corps in faraway Michigan. But their exit is short-lived, as Norma is violently mauled by a dog belonging to Jud’s childhood friend Timmy (Jack Mulhern) on their way out of town. Jud is disturbed by his pal’s reaction to the attack: “He just stood there,” he mutters next to Norma’s hospital bed. Come to think of it, that’s not the only thing that’s been off about Timmy since he got back from the war …
There’s a hint of Edwin Neal’s “Hitchhiker” character from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in “Bloodline””s depiction of Timmy, which is about the biggest compliment one can give to a squirrely freak in a fatigue jacket. Sadly, however, it’s just a hint. For the most part, this movie’s walking manifestation of PTSD is more of a mindless Terminator-style killing machine, which “Bloodline” posits is due to Timmy’s possession by a malevolent spirit but is probably more of a sign of an underdeveloped performance.
David Duchovny and Pam Grier’s flat performances as townspeople burdened by an ancestral curse support the latter hypothesis. The only genuinely good turn in this movie comes from Forrest Goodluck (“The Revenant,” “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”), who plays Jud’s other boyhood BFF, Manny. Brief flashbacks to the boys sneaking beers in a treehouse do little to ground what’s supposedly a lifelong bond, and Goodluck’s character (as well as that of his sister, Donna, played by Isabella LaBlanc) seems to have been written into the film to lend authenticity to the Native lore in King’s novel. But he’s the best actor in the movie, which is lucky to have him.
Muddy nighttime photography adds to the aura of an afternoon spent waiting at a bus stop wondering if it’s going to rain, and, oh look, a zombie dog. Ho hum. But the thing that really kills “Pet Sematary: Bloodlines” is the editing. Beer, who made her name writing the Netflix rom-com “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” is new to the horror genre. But unlike some first-time horror helmers, she doesn’t show an intuitive knack for suspense or timing. As a result, the film drags on both its macro and micro levels. Not even the jump scares work, in other words, leaving little but sudden jolts of ghoulish carnage to keep the audience awake.
A couple of these are savage enough to temporarily knock “Bloodlines” out of its stupor, and there are a few good ideas buried in the muck of the screenplay. One is a brief flashback to 1674, on the land that would one day become Ludlow; this earth has been poisoned since the beginning, as it turns out, and the arrival of its white settlers only accelerated the evil. Somehow, the film’s 1674 is more convincing than its 1969, and the ideas being worked out in that brief segment are more compelling than the ones that make up the core narrative. But then it’s buried, and it doesn’t come back. Pity, that’s one time when resurrection would have been helpful.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (2023)
Jackson Whiteas Jud Crandall
Forrest Goodluckas Manny
Jack Mulhernas Timmy
Henry Thomasas Dan
Natalie Alyn Lind
Isabella Star LaBlancas Donna
Pam Grieras Majorie
David Duchovnyas Bill
Samantha Mathisas Kathy
Victoria Paige Watkinsas Friend
- Lindsey Anderson Beer
- Stephen King
- Lindsey Anderson Beer
- Jeff Buhler
- Lindsey Beer
- Benjamin Kirk Nielsen
- Jan Kovac
- Brandon Roberts