By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring David Cotter, Jessica O’Toole and Rita Siddiqui
Written by Suzy Spade
Directed by Rebecca J. Matthews
If PET GRAVEYARD (on VOD and DVD tomorrow) actually was the naked attempt to piggyback on the notoriety and marketing budget of the PET SEMATARY remake that it appears to be, the evil red-eyed cat staring out from the poster and comparison-begging title would be considerably easier to swallow. The truth is, the plot that anchors PET GRAVEYARD—originally titled REAPER—is much more interesting than a crass knockoff designed to vicariously grab a fistful of major-studio gold.
Here’s the setup: A group of guilt-ridden strangers, who share little in common save the deaths of loved ones for which they blame themselves, meet online and come together to help one another “brink.” Essentially, you say a little invocation and have a compatriot suffocate you, and in the three minutes before scheduled resuscitation, you seek out your dearly departed and say what you need to say, make peace, and return to the living plane sans all the misery-stuffed baggage. As genre devotees will likely guess, what happens in purgatory does not stay in purgatory. Before you can say “sometimes dead is better,” some very nasty demons are running around trying to score themselves a real live human soul—and they’re using the characters’ guilt and guises as bait.
Forget PET SEMATARY; the vibe here is FINAL DESTINATION by way of INSIDIOUS by way of FLATLINERS. There is even an intriguing if fleeting exploration of the potentially corrosive effects of social-media culture, via a subplot in which the manic, tortured Jeff (David Cotter) is not only a grieving son but also a daredevil vlogger who at times appears as desperate to gain clicks as he is to get closure. In short, it’s not hard to see where PET GRAVEYARD is headed, but it takes an interesting route to that destination.
A producer of more than 15 previous films, Rebecca J. Matthews executes the first hour of her directorial debut with style and aplomb. The purgatory scenes are stark, harrowing and emotionally affecting. She smartly allows the reaper and/or demons—it’s not 100 percent clear how many presences are at work here, which is actually a narrative plus—to reveal themselves slowly, developing atmosphere, building tension. The reaper itself is frightening. The struggles, pain, sorrow, regret and anxious codependence of the characters are brought vividly to life thanks to both writer Suzy Spade’s compassionate script and the solid, naturalistic performances of the cast. There’s the careening and brooding of the aforementioned Cotter, and then Jessica O’Toole as his conflicted sister Lily, whose familial devotion drags her reluctantly into this game of death and more death. Rita Siddiqui is both beguiling and moving in her portrayal of the heartrending plight of Zara. Hindolo Koroma brings welcome swagger and incredulity to the role of Frances. In short, the dynamic is engaging and multilayered.
Watching these lost 20somethings asphyxiate each other to (hopefully temporary) death might make your skin crawl, yet the foundation created is strong enough that you empathize with their decision to go to that extreme. And then, two-thirds of the way in, PET GRAVEYARD jarringly loses the thread. By finding the cat.
To be clear, I’ve got nothing against the cat personally. It’s a well-known fact that felines are rarely granted script approval in film contracts, so the fact that this cat’s appearance carries an extremely shoehorned vibe is no doubt on the humans. Regardless, it could’ve been handled with a tad more finesse.
I mean, there Lily is, lying on her bed, surfing the web to figure out what to do about this darn monsters-from-the-Great-Beyond problem when she stumbles upon a website called—no joke—Supernatural Secrets Revealed. With—again, no joke—a page entitled, “Grim Reaper Cat Seen: Myth or Reality?” “Grim Reaper Companion to be seen when the reaper himself appears,” the text reads. “Victims claim to see the cat stalking their land.” Can you guess what’s purring down the pike next?
The exposition dump isn’t over, however. The same site also conveniently has another page offering detailed advice on “How to Stop Death After Brinking.” Why, it’s almost as if this webpage was built specifically for the characters in this specific film universe! That’s a pretty convoluted, clunky device that unnecessarily yanks you out of your suspended disbelief, injecting a bit of unfortunate corniness into the cat appearances that might not otherwise exist if the animal simply appeared as a more subtle harbinger.
The good news is that this proves a stumble, not a face-plant, and PET GRAVEYARD quickly gets back on track for a fast-paced—and bloody—denouement. It’s a tight, creepy, smart little indie horror flick; here’s hoping people don’t pass it over because of a totally reasonable perception that it might be setting the table for a meal it is in fact not serving.