Legend has it that Stephen King was so terrified after writing Pet Sematary that he almost didn’t publish it. It’s not hard to see why. The book gets into the darkest corners of the psyche; it deals with grief in its ugliest permutation, with disloyalty in families and great unspoken truths about the human condition. He finally did publish it, and we collectively sank under the novel’s macabre spell. It’s one of his best stories and it’s easily his most disturbing. Now, the directing duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have given us a truly frightening adaptation – one of scariest movies ever based on King’s works.
Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary is a horror classic, but Kölsch and Widmyer do wonders with their version, working off Jeff Buhler’s excellent script. The bones of the story are familiar: Lou Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his family to Ludlow, Maine when he’s transferred from late night shifts in the ER to a campus doctor’s office. At first, things are pleasant for the Creeds; Lou’s wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) spends her days tending to their kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and the family bonds with their neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). But their lives are soon marred by various Ludlow dangers, including a savage road that runs between the Creed and Crandall homes, and a pet cemetery where kids bury the animals who die on the road. After Ellie’s beloved cat Church is run over and killed, Jud lets Lou in on another local secret: the pet cemetery is merely a placeholder for the ancient burial ground just beyond it, that has the power to restore life… at a terrible cost.
From there, Buhler’s script diverges greatly from King’s book in ways that feel genuinely fresh. This may rile some fans, but if you kill your darlings and subscribe to the sheer madness that follows, you’re in for a wicked treat. Kölsch and Widmyer’s Pet Sematary is obsessed with the inevitably of death, and finds new ways to make it terrifying. After stumbling upon the cemetery, Ellie grows obsessed with dying, and what comes next, and why humans outlive animals. The specifics of the death and resurrection of her cat Church are kept from her, but foretell her own terrifying fate; she, too, falls victim to the road, and is struck by a semi truck on her 9th birthday. It’s a paralyzing moment that the film (and Clarke and Seimetz) really nails. Child death is never an easy thing to watch, and Pet Sematary makes it agonizingly real.
Of course, it’s Gage who dies in King’s book, so Ellie’s storyline is one of the many major changes. To speak to how the story follows after this big diversion is to spoil all of the fun Pet Sematary has in store. It feels strange to call a story about endless grief “fun,” but the film is stuffed with treats for the audience, and is surprisingly funny in many places. Some of that may be the anxiety it conjures, and the fleeting relief it doles out; laughs and screams often accompany one another in horror, and they certainly do here. But they don’t outshine a script that both plays with expectations and delivers on familiar beats. Mangled college student Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) is still there in all his creepy glory, as are flashbacks to Rachel’s meningitis-afflicted sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), and there’s an unforgettable moment with a scalpel and an Achilles heel that is far more gruesome than the 1989 version, and had the audience at the film’s SXSW world premiere shrieking in agony.
The film’s final act is where things get truly out of control, and spin into an ending that is different from King’s novel and somehow even darker. It all works thanks to great performances from Clarke, Seimetz, and Laurence, who play off one another to great effect, and who really sell the family horror angle. Clarke in particular feels the most like a Stephen King character come to life, a grieving father relentlessly traumatized and driven to near-madness. It feels like his moment may finally be here, in a role that matches his talents and proves his horror bonafides.
Pet Sematary isn’t changing the horror game, nor is it really trying to, but it’s a solid-as-hell studio horror flick that is entertaining, well-constructed, and that forges its own identity—exactly what we should want out of the second adaptation of a classic horror novel. If audiences can embrace the major changes, they’re in for a wicked, gory treat.
Images: Paramount Pictures