The best Stephen King adaptations do not adhere rigidly to the author’s text but rather remain true to the general spirit of the work. Think The Shining. Think Misery. Think even the 2017 adaptation of It. These works bear a strong resemblance to the words King used, but also forge their own identities, and tell their own stories – while maintaining the atmosphere King created. Pet Sematary, the latest King adaptation, fits in perfectly with these titles. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer take the terror that King forged, and mold it into something fresh, and exciting, and downright horrifying. Pet Sematary is one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever.
Riding a wave of recent King adaptations, the 2019 Pet Sematary is the second attempt to bring King’s scariest novel to the big screen. The first film, directed by Mary Harron in 1989, benefited from a script by King himself, and some genuinely unnerving moments. Rather than attempt to re-do what Harron did in ’89, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer – the duo responsible for indie horror film Starry Eyes – have forged their own path. On the surface, the story is the same. But beneath the sour earth, something new is waiting.
Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has left a career as a successful, but constantly busy, ER doctor in Boston to move his family to a small town in Maine. He’s landed a job as a college campus doc, a gig that will allow him to spend more time with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and children – nine-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie). Also along for the trip: the family’s cat Church. The house the Creeds move into may look idyllic, nestled away in a rural landscape gone crazy with trees, but right from the start, an ominous air prevails. There’s a patch of land in the woods behind the Creed household that the local kids have turned into a “pet sematary” – a place to bury beloved animals when they pass away, either by natural causes, or when killed by the tanker trucks that frequently roar down the road in front of the Creed household.
The Creed’s neighbor, elderly Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), knows a lot about the pet sematary – and what’s beyond it – another burial ground that’s blocked by a looming deadfall of fallen trees and dead, dried branches. The pet sematary itself is gloomy, but harmless. The burial ground beyond it, though, is a different story. It has the power to bring back the dead – but the pet (or person) you plant in that ground doesn’t come back the same.
Kölsch and Widmyer, along with screenwriter Jeff Buhler, have a blast playing with our expectations. They’re well aware that most of us will know this story, either from reading King’s novel or seeing the 1989 movie. But the fun – and fear – comes when those expectations are subverted. We may think we know where this story is going, but Pet Sematary has plenty of shocking tricks up its sleeve. The end result is a film somehow darker than the book itself, which at one point seemed impossible. King’s novel is notoriously bleak – so bleak that the writer himself felt he had gone too far when he wrote it, and originally considered throwing it away rather than publish it. But the new Pet Sematary pushes the envelope, and then some, going further than King even dared. The fact that this is a studio film is both surprising, and thrilling. The producers have allowed Kölsch and Widmyer to go down some twisted paths, and dig up something considerably nasty.
At the center of it all, though, is a heavy focus on family. This new adaptation has streamlined King’s book to the point where the outside world is an afterthought. That may sound limiting in scope, but it makes the overall narrative stronger. We spend so much time getting to know the Creeds (and Jud) that we can’t help but care for them – and grow horrified at the doom awaiting them all.
Among the many changes to the source is an increased role for Rachel. King’s novel (and the ’89 film) keeps her secondary, and often oblivious. Here, she’s a much more active participant. Haunted by the brutal demise of her sickly sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), she treats the subject of death and dying like something toxic. Louis may think death is natural, but to Rachel, it’s horrifying. Seimetz excels in this role, downplaying the part while also doing a wonderful job bringing us into Rachel’s tormented headspace. The rest of the cast is strong as well. Clarke brings an everyman quality to the part of Louis, although he seems to really come alive in the back half of the movie, when his character goes to some dark places. The actor’s natural Australian accent also has a bad habit of slipping out from time to time, which can be a bit distracting. Lithgow, as the grandfatherly Jud, brings a much-needed warmth to all the doom and gloom. Jud is one of King’s best characters, and Lithgow knows exactly how to play it, with a mix of gruffness slowly giving way to kindness.
The real standout, though is, young actress Laurence, as Ellie. Ellie is yet another character who has been greatly expanded from the source material, and Laurence is tasked with a challenging part that requires her to be sweet and innocent at first, and the complete opposite as the story progresses. Laurence accomplishes both moods wonderfully, and it’s a treat to watch her descend into darkness. That darkness results in some surprisingly funny moments – moments in which the filmmakers lean into a kind of morbid comedy that you can’t help but laugh at, despite the horrible implications of it all.
But make no mistake: while there are moments of levity, Pet Sematary is unapologetically horrifying. Dread blankets the film, to the point where it’s almost suffocating. Cinematographer Laurie Rose bathes the movie in shadows and fog, and Christopher Young concocts as jarring score full of atonal sounds and ominous chanting. The terror is palpable here – and it never lets up. You’ll feel a pronounced sense of anxiety for nearly the entire runtime, sitting in the pit of your stomach like a stone.
But will any of this win over King purists? Or fans of the ’89 movie? Anyone expecting the new Pet Sematary to play by the same rules is going to be both shocked, and maybe disappointed. The entire third act of the film in particular is wildly different from what King wrote so many years ago. Yet despite all this, I truly believe this is one of the best adaptations of King’s work. Because in the end, it understands exactly what makes the book so powerful, and terrifying. “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret,” King wrote in the introduction to the novel, and that seems to serve as a mantra for this film as a whole. No one can know what awaits us when we shuffle off this mortal coil, but the implications from King’s novel, and this new take on the material, makes it clear that whatever it is, it’s preferable to tampering with those secrets and mysteries. As Jud Crandall says, “Sometimes, dead is better.”
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
Disclaimer: Paramount Pictures brought me to SXSW to specifically review Pet Sematary. This did not influence the review itself in any way.
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Source: Slash Film