I understand that a lot of Stephen King acolytes have a soft spot for Mary Lambert’s 1989 big-screen adaptation of Pet Sematary. It’s decent enough, I guess. Still, it’s nowhere near as thematically loaded and as nightmare-creepy as the source novel, which is one of King’s most unshakeable from that period. The cacophonous hodgepodge of hokey Maine accents (apart from King’s own as the film’s graveside priest, of course) certainly didn’t help matters. Which is why I’d argue that if any of the author’s tales of terror deserved a second stab on screen, it was this one. Fortunately, directing duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer get everything absolutely right in their bone-chillingly effective new remake.
With the recent box-office success of It, not to mention Hulu’s eerie series Castle Rock and King’s own 2018 novel The Outsider, the maestro of the macabre is having a bit of a late-career renaissance. And the new and improved Pet Sematary may just be the best movie based on one of his books in 20 years.
The thing that has always made King such a heavyweight storyteller isn’t the fiendishly-orchestrated scares which he serves up like a ghoulish symphony conductor (although those certainly help). Rather it’s how he creates a rich sense of place and three-dimensional characters who we care about and whom we can see ourselves in. When bad things happen to them (and they will), we’re invested because they’re our surrogates. Their horrors could just as easily be our horrors with a slight twist of bad luck.
The writer of the new Pet Sematary, Jeff Buhler, gets that. He’s made some slight tweaks to King’s story (and the original film version) that make the tale of the Creed family more human and, thus, more vicariously terrifying. Jason Clarke stars as Louis Creed, a Boston E.R. doctor who moves his family – wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), and toddler son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) to the rural Maine town of Ludlow. The old red barn-house they move into seems, at first, like an idyllic retreat from busy city life ripped from the pages of Yankee magazine. But the place has two not insignificant drawbacks. One, it’s set on a road where speeding 18-wheelers barrel along without warning. And second, its sprawling backyard contains a spooky animal burial ground, where local kids have laid their beloved family pets to rest for generations.
That may all seem harmless enough. Even the misspelled sign nailed to a tree that says “Pet Sematary” has a quaint, Little Rascals quality to it. But there’s something particularly unsettling about the way the pint-sized children of Ludlow dress in animal masks, bang on drums, and make pagan-like processionals to deposit the constant flow of dead Fluffys and Lassies who’ve become an endless conveyor belt of semi-truck roadkill. It’s easy to understand why the Creed’s real estate agent may have neglected to mention that part when they were relocating from the big city.
There’s one small thing I guess that I’ve forgotten to mention about the Creed family. A small thing that will turn out to have big ramifications. The family has a fifth member: A fluffy cat named Church, who Ellie is deeply attached to. Even if you haven’t read King’s book or seen the ‘80s Pet Sematary, you pretty much know what’s in store for Church the first time one of those bullet-train oil tankers comes barreling down the road.
When the inevitable finally comes to pass, the Creeds’ neighbor – an old coot named Jud, played by an affably frisky John Lithgow who’s perfectly cast in a way that the original’s Fred Gwynne and his “Pepperidge Fahm remembahs” dialect wasn’t – suggests that he and Louis bury Church at night in the “sematary”. At least, that’s the plan. But seeing how much Ellie loves Church and how he hates to see her lose something so dear to her, Jud takes Louis further into the woods — to a supernatural ancient Native American burial ground. Digging a hole, Clarke’s slightly weirded-out Louis looks at Jud and says, “What exactly are we doing here, Jud?”
Oh, he’s about to find out…
The burial ground has mystical, double-edged sword powers of resurrection. Yes, Church will be brought back to life and Ellie won’t have to receive that awkward conversation about losing a family pet. But Church 2.0 won’t be the same cat that they all remembered. When Church returns, it’s a little mangier, it seems to pop up when/where you least expect, and it howls, growls, hisses, and scratches. It’s for all intents and purposes a zombie cat. Thanks, Jud.
King clearly knows the primal force and hardwired emotions that humans have for their pets and enjoys messing around with them – after all, this is the same guy who wrote Cujo. But it’s Clarke, in the first role that’s really fit him since Mudbound, who makes his character’s paternal love palpable and real. Especially after another tragedy (this time involving a non-pet family member, no spoilers here) makes him desperate enough to return to the place beyond the Pet Sematary.
Directors Kolsch and Widmyer, who previously directed the underseen 2014 horror sleeper Starry Eyes, turn the screws on the audience with jolting, joy-buzzer glee. And their Pet Sematary dares to go to far darker places than you think from a big-studio movie like this (something that It could have used more of, frankly). Eventually, you may find yourself laughing because the alternative is to dig your fingernails into your armrest. That’s because of the film’s standard horror movie jump and jolts and misdirections, of course. But it’s also because King’s supernatural story is rooted in a pretty heady meditation on grief.
It would be churlish to give too much away about what happens in the deliciously dark homestretch of Pet Sematary. Suffice it to say that the final scene of the film is a perfectly perverse, sick-joke stinger that will stick with you right until you turn off the lights and try to fall asleep when you get home. Emphasis on try. B+
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