We are smack-dab in the middle of the cinematic second coming of Stephen King. The man’s work already hit its heyday decades ago when horror film began taking off in the 80s and his books were quickly adapted into a host of classic (and not-so-classic) films. Most authors only get one period of Hollywood loving them, if they get any at all, but King is now on his second round and it’s delivering some of the best movies and TV we’ve seen in years (and some of the worst).
Of course, King has written prolifically since the 80s binge on his books. The man writes like he physically can’t stop so you’d think that we’d be getting plenty of content based on his newer work, but Hollywood is in full remake mode, and that means we’re getting remakes instead. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the adaptations of King’s work back then were slapdash and lazy. The It remake is a perfect example of something that was really bad and became really good.
Pet Sematary, on the other hand, was actually a decent adaptation. Yes, it treated the book a bit too much like a slasher movie and suffers from Chucky-itis — the effect that occurs when you use a doll to attack your protagonist in the conclusion of your film — but it actually captures both the tone and the themes of King’s writing really well. Plus, it had a song written specifically for it by the Ramones. So what can a new adaptation give us? Turns out a lot, when it isn’t trying to be a remake.
Director: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Release Date: April 5, 2019
I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people at this point either haven’t read the Pet Sematary book or haven’t seen the original movie, meaning all of this is actually just a new movie for them. The Creed family is moving from Boston to a small, New England town so that Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) can spend more time with his family in a less busy doctoring job. His wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and two children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie), settle in quickly as the family befriends their elderly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow). However, when the family cat, Church, dies, Jud shows Louis an old Native American burial ground where “the ground is sour” and also happens to bring the dead back to life. This leads to, shall we say, some future problems involving a lot of blood and death.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story or first film, there’s a lot in this remake that’s going to go over their head. The film loves playing with callbacks to the original and teasing our expectations of what is going to happen. Those things make it more fun for people who know what’s being winked at, but it can also feel like the first half of the movie is stuck in a bog-standard remake. There’s a feeling of redundancy for a good part of the film that slows the pace down too much.
All of that is eventually in aid of making the movie’s divergence from both the book and original film all the more powerful and shocking, especially since the big change already revealed by all the marketing isn’t really the biggest change on the whole. For instance, the opening shot wonderfully sets the experienced viewer up to believe they know what is going to happen but subverts that expectation as the movie plays out. The issue is if you’re not in on the setup none of that subversion is actually subversion at all and the first half of the movie doesn’t work as well without that aspect.
Thankfully, for both those that know the originals and those that don’t, the second half is a masterstroke of increasing horror and disturbing visuals. Once the movie offers up its big “twist” in the plot the entire film becomes a tightly structured horror that’s less jump scare and more slow, emotional burn. When the movie can finally leave the trappings of its predecessors behind it evolves into a modern classic. Given the freedom to not think about the past the film starts playing with tropes and delivering creepy touches that wouldn’t have even been thought of when the original was made. Some of those aspects are actually improvements, making the movie all the scarier. By the time the final sequence is unfolding you’re not sure what to expect anymore, and yet the film still keeps in line with the tones that King’s book delivered.
(Warning, there are spoilers ahead. They’re given away by the film’s marketing so I felt comfortable discussing them, but for those who want to go in blind stop reading.)
Part of that is a strong turn by Laurence, who, with the aid of some makeup, delivers a thoroughly disturbing villain once the movie gets there. Clarke, as the steadily crazier father, isn’t quite as powerful. He and the directors never take his character into the full-on manic territory that it deserves but on the flip side they do a far better job dealing with Rachel’s increasing emotional issues and her traumatic relationship with death. It’s a give-and-take that changes the complexion of the movie in ways that, once again, eventually pay off, but feel a bit lacking in the moment. Once, however, you pick up on what the film is doing, its new interpretation feels like a breath of fresh air.
I should also just quickly mention how scary Church is after his eventual rebirth. Cat training and acting has obviously come a long way since the original film because this cat is disturbing as all hell.
What’s most important about Pet Sematary is that it is scary and it is troubling and it deals with its themes of death and loss in ways that are harrowing and thought-provoking. The movie may take a bit to find its feet before it actually starts working — an effect of being too beholden to its inspiration — but once it ditches its past it is reborn into some fantastic horror. It is as if the film itself is buried in that sour ground with Ellie, both coming back to life full of evil, terror, and death.