PET SEMATARY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed, Alyssa Levine.

John Lithgow and Jeté Laurence in Pet Sematary (2019)

Stephen King is a popular writer of horror stories and one of the most prolific authors of our generation. His novels have become fodder for filmmakers, and while some adaptations have been excellent, others have been underwhelming. With the success of last year’s adaptation of It, which has become the highest grossing horror film of all time, it seems that King is back in vogue again, and there are numerous projects based on his works in various stages of production. Pet Sematary is a remake of his 1983 novel, which was originally filmed in 1989 by Mary Lambert.

Dr Louis Creed (Australian actor Jason Clarke, who is establishing quite a solid career in Hollywood) has relocated his family from the bustling city of Boston to the quiet rural town of Ludlow in Maine, hoping to be able to spend more time with his family, and especially his daughter Elle (Jete Laurence, from The Snowman, etc). His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, from Lean On Pete, etc) is insecure and deeply troubled, haunted by nightmares of a traumatic event from her past. Their idyllic property backs onto a narrow road along which cross country truckers speed, and which has “used up a lot of animals.” Their friendly neighbour Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) seems to know a lot about the town and its history.

When the Creed’s pet cat Church is squashed by a truck one night, Louis decides to bury it in the nearby cemetery where the local kids bury their dead pets. But Jud suggests that he bury it in a mystical part of the cemetery which apparently allows dead animals to come back to life. However, they are flawed and imperfect reincarnations. The return of a more feral Church foreshadows tragic events that set in motion the macabre elements of this horror film.

When a tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis makes the conscious decision to bury his dead child in that same part of the cemetery, which he learns is a haunted ancient Indian burial ground. The concept of cursed traditional native lands was one of the key elements of King’s classic The Shining, and also a pivotal plot point in Poltergeist. Creed soon learns that sometimes dead is better.

Writer Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy, etc) uses the 1989 screenplay from Matt Greenberg (1408, etc) as the basis for this new film, but he has made a couple of key changes and given the material some emotional heft as well as a darker tone. The film deals with themes of death, loss, grief, mortality, faith, Native American superstitions, and even explores how far a parent will go to save a loved one. This is more of a reimagining of the novel rather than a strict remake. And it works quite well.

Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (the 2014 horror film Starry Eyes, etc) have an affection for King’s spooky tale, but they manage to inject some fresh life into the familiar tale. And they work in a few effective jump scares and gory moments, and develop an atmosphere of unease and slowly growing dread. This is a fairly bleak tale, and its ending is quite pessimistic and down beat. The film has been atmospherically shot by Laurie Rose (Overlord, etc), who gives the fog shrouded forest and cemetery an eerie and menacing quality.

There are some good performances here that elevate the material. Clarke is good as the distraught father driven by his grief to take risks that have terrifying consequences for his family. His solid performance anchors the film. Seimetz is also good as his troubled wife. Laurence is another of those child actors who can convincingly journey into some dark and psychologically troubling material. The always reliable Lithgow shines with a solid, nuanced performance as the avuncular and well-meaning Jud.

For those unfamiliar with the original novel or the 1989 film this 2019 version of Pet Sematary is a superior horror film that will certainly deliver some well-timed shocks and creepiness.

★★★☆

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