In the wake of the ongoing Stephen Kingaissance in film and television, it was probably inevitable that Pet Sematary – one of the author’s most popular and (in)famous horror stories ever – would eventually find its way back to the big screen. The book, which King wrote in 1983, is far from a stranger to cinematic interpretations, and was previously adapted by director Mary Lambert in 1989. Where that version was relatively faithful to the original novel, this new version takes some major liberties, for both good and bad. Pet Sematary captures the bruality of King’s source material, but its attempts to add shocking twists to the original narrative yield mixed results.
The new Pet Sematary starts off the same as previous iterations, following the Creed family as they relocate to rural Maine – on the outskirts of a small town called Ludlow – for their patriarch Louis’ (Jason Clarke) new job at a university hospital. Shortly after, their young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) discovers the existence of a nearby pet cemetery (misspelled “Sematary” on its sign), and befriends their kindly new neighbor, the widower Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Jud attempts to help Louis by revealing the dangerous truth about what lies beyond the pet cemetery in the woods – namely, an ancient burial ground with the power to resurrect the dead, but at a terrible cost.
Written by Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train) from a screen story by Matt Greenberg (1408), Pet Sematary allows Buhler to further explore themes about the horror of parenthood, much like his did earlier this year with his script for the evil child thriller The Prodigy. Those aren’t the only similarities between the two horror movies, either. Both Pet Sematary and The Prodigy knowingly attempt to subvert expectations; in the case of the former, it nods to infamous moments from previous versions of the story before taking things in a different direction. The trailers for Pet Sematary have already spoiled one of its biggest twists on King’s novel, but the film has other tricks up its sleeves, especially during the final act. Its conclusion aside (more on that later), these changes don’t necessarily make the movie better or worse than the book and Lambert’s adaptation – just different.
For the most part, however, Pet Sematary works as a streamlined retelling of King’s original story. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) maintain a study pace throughout the film, and are equally efficient in the way they build up to the more gruesome developments in the second half through a series of ominous and foreboding moments (in particular, a ghastly incident where Louis tries and fails to save a student who was hit by a car). The movie’s scary sequences are similarly sturdy in their construction, if not particularly ground-breaking, and are buoyed by the quietly unsettling colors of Overlord DP Laurie Rose’s cinematography, in combination with Sinister composer Christopher Young’s more overtly threatening score. Pet Sematary‘s cast, which includes Amy Seimetz as the Creed family’s matriarch Rachel, likewise inspire sympathy for the film’s characters (and their often ill-conceived decisions) through their performances.
Unfortunately, the movie stumbles when it tries to change things up (again) during the climax. In its efforts to deliver a gut-punch of a finale that’s even gloomier than the conclusion to King’s source material, the new Pet Sematary winds up sacrificing some of the novel’s thematic substance. While it doesn’t leave quite the nihilistic aftertaste of the ending to The Prodigy, Buhler’s script nevertheless loses track of the story’s overarching moral about the suffocating power of unprocessed grief and trauma in its final act. This, in turn, muddles Louis’ arc and lessens the emotional impact of subplots like Rachel’s morbid backstory (which involves the death of her sister Zelda, when she was a child). It doesn’t help that things get a little silly in the final third, making it all the more difficult to appreciate the gravity of what transpires.
At the end of the day, Pet Sematary falls somewhere in the middle on the scale of Stephen King movies. It’s effectively creepy and well-acted overall, but lacks the heart and substance of the best-received King adaptations in recent years (specifically, IT and Gerald’s Game). At the same time, some people will undoubtedly appreciate the way the film changes things up from King’s novel more than others, and should further enjoy the small references to King’s other major works included here (like Cujo and, yes, IT again). It might not be a must-see for general audiences, but horror buffs and King fans will want to give this one a look at some point. Sometimes dead is better when it comes to King’s properties, but this is one of the exceptions.
Pet Sematary begins playing in U.S. theaters on Thursday evening, April 4. It is 101 minutes long and is rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language.
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