There are plenty of novels and short stories by Stephen King that await screen treatment—he is, after all, one of the most prolific writers on the planet. But known quantities have a special attraction, and so remakes of those already filmed once are not uncommon. Thus this second screen adaptation of King’s 1983 novel “Pet Sematary,” previously filmed in 1989 by Mary Lambert to a mixed reaction from fans and non-fans alike; it also spawned a 1993 sequel that was pretty universally panned.
Though it had some strong competition, “Sematary” was always among King’s silliest tall tales—with a protagonist who was almost preternaturally stupid. Still, it holds a honored place in his corpus of work, and so the natural question is whether this new version, written by Jeff Buhler and co-directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, is more faithful to the source than the 1989 movie, scripted by King himself, was. The short answer is no.
Certainly the picture sticks to the basics of the plot, about a family—Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and tyke Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), along with their cat Church—that moves into a rural house in Maine, only to be destroyed by, first, the trucks that rumble through the road that passes the place, but by the old Indian site in the deep woods where dead things—animals and people—can be resurrected if buried there. The place is beyond the titular area where, as is explained by their elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), locals have traditionally buried their pets without incident. When Church is killed by one of those speeding trucks, burying him in the cursed Indian place will. However, have horrendous ramifications that quickly escalate.
While sticking to that scenario, however, the new movie makes some important alterations. One is the identity of which Creed will shortly be buried in the evil ground from which Church came back much changed. And another involves the finale, which is changed significantly, becoming more ghastly and nihilistic in the process.
Nonetheless it must be admitted that, merely from the perspective of generating chills, shocks and nervous laughter, this is an effective piece of horror filmmaking; but it’s also thoroughly unpleasant, and at times positively repulsive. That’s due not merely to the nasty nature of the story itself and to the gruesome effects employed in telling it (like the knifing of a significant character in the final reel), but to the creepily perverted turn the movie takes when a monstrous child acts out some rather disgusting desires. King once said of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “The Shining”—which he intensely disliked—“I think he wants to make a movie that will hurt people.” One wonders whether this version of “Pet Sematary” can’t be seen as trying to do precisely the same thing.
King also deplored the misogynistic attitude he found in Kubrick’s film, and one could make an argument that this movie exhibits a similar stance toward women. The repeated flashbacks to Rachel’s memory of her elder sister’s death—which has traumatized her to the present—are one case in point, being portrayed in nearly ghoulish terms, but so is the overall weakness of the character.
Still, if you appreciate this sort of thing, “Pet Sematary” pulls it off as well as you could hope. Buhler’s screenplay offers ample opportunity for shocks, and Kölsch and Widmyer seize on every one of them, playing them to the hilt in “gotcha” moment after “gotcha” moment; Sarah Broshar’s editing and Christopher Young’s score contribute to their impact. Also noteworthy are Todd Chemiawsky’s production design and Laurie Rose’s cinematography, which contribute to a decidedly eerie atmosphere overall; the visual effects are appropriately unsettling as well.
As for the cast, Clarke does all he can—and then some—with a character that is, to tell the truth, pretty dumb. The other standouts are the ever-reliable Lithgow and little Laurence, who holds nothing back either. Seimetz, as noted, is a bit pallid, but the Lavoie twins are a cheeky pair, and Obssa Ahmed makes a properly ghastly accident victim/ghost, even if Victor Pascow is one of the most ill-conceived figures King ever imagined.
Ultimately, though, your reaction to “Pet Sematary” will depend pretty much on your tolerance of the ugliness of its concept and the execution of it here.