Synopsis – Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.
My Take – There is no denying of the fact that author Stephen King‘s 1983 novel, till date remains one of his most well-known works, mainly for being all kinds of disturbing and grim. Even King himself has often described it as his least enjoyable book, due to its relentlessly bleak subject matter of grief and guilt. Reading it at different times in your life will offer up different but equally devastating experiences. If you are a parent to a young child, it’s a new kind of horrifying, the horror of understanding, of knowing that if you were in the story, you’d feel obliged to right a great cosmic wrong too, even if you know that what you’re about to do goes against the very laws of nature.
As a father of a young toddler myself, the novel gave me nightmares for a week, following its completion. Though compared to King‘s other popular works like ‘It’ or ‘The Shining’, the story has none of the glee or the shock value inherent in them, but once you understand the elements you have been exposed to, you realize how it is far more grisly than either of these, especially on how it approaches the horror.
Despite the potential for it being made into exploitative trash, a solid film adaptation directed by Mary Lambert and with a screenplay written by King himself found its way on to the big screen in 1989. While some of the grislier aspects of the story were reined in, it did manage to maintain the crushing sense of doom, and the element of darker forces at work, yet also left a lot to be desired for fans, especially in the horror department.
Thankfully, this latest adaption reinstates the gruesomeness, and brings in the weirder elements with a leaner and meaner streak. Sure, there are significant changes from the book and purists to King‘s work will likely find fault with them. However, the question that so often plagues any adaptation, is how to transplant something that works on a page to something that works on a screen. I agree, adhering to the source material is important, but if it can be readily molded into an alternate direction, why not?
Here, Jeff Buhler‘s script and Matt Greenberg‘s screen story funnels the themes of the book into a more distilled, sleeker offering with the directing duo, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, keeping the horror and tension up throughout. Yes, some really cheap jump scares have been thrown in, but there are also some really solid moments of fear and foreboding horror emanating throughout.
The story follows Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a former Emergency doctor who with his family consisting of his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), eight-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and toddler son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), moves from Boston to the rural town of Ludlow to escape the fast city life. While they initially think that the influx of oil trucks that zoom down the highway, right in front of their house, is the only thing they have to worry about, the family ends up discovering a mysterious burial ground marked as Pet Cemetery (misspelled as Sematary) near their new home, hidden deep in the woods, which may also be home to a supernatural presence.
But when the family cat, Church, gets hit by a truck, Louis seeks the help of Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), their aged kindly neighbor, to bury the body in Cemetery, unknowingly setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unspeakable evil with horrific consequences.
Since this is a Stephen King story, it goes without saying that the animal burial ground borders something altogether more sinister, an occult marshland with supernatural properties, and there are harrowing flashbacks to Rachel’s childhood and her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), whose teenage death from spinal meningitis continues to haunt her.
Let me be clear about one thing, for those who are coming into this film expecting (or hoping for) a beat for beat adaptation of the book like the original film are going to be disappointed. Though the first half is faithful to the source material, in the second half directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s take on the classic goes in a new and creepier directions. While the spirit of the original remains, a significant plot twist is changed, in a way that will likely prove controversial to some fans. If you’re able to accept that, then you’ll be rewarded with a deeply unsettling third act, and a chillingly ambiguous ending that might leave you shaken up.
The core elements are there, but it distinguishes itself from with necessary deletions and additions that service the story. The change actually makes complete sense, when you track who’s having the most potent conversations about death in both the novel and the film before everything goes south. The alteration allows this new adaptation to explore the topic in a deeper, more visceral fashion than the source material. By stripping the film‘s first two acts of everything except what’s strictly necessary, here, Buhler and directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch leave room for a third act that delves deeper into the novel’s musings on death and why we’d be wise to accept it.
For example, early in the film, the parents have an awkward disagreement about how to explain death and the afterlife to Ellie, who is approaching 9-years old. This part was all too realistic and it’s a credit to the writers and actors. Kids question us, and they are smart and they know when we’re feeding them BS to placate them. The film does a great job at compartmentalizing grief through each of the characters. Church returns, but, as predicted, is different.
There’s also real sense of warmth between the family and the craggy next-door neighbor, so that when the Significant Incident occurs at the halfway point, the rapid disintegration is all the more chilling. Sure, it might be wrapped up in gory moments and jump-shocks, but the underlying themes of how grief and guilt can utterly destroy once happy people still come through. A factor which instantly makes this one a much better overall film, although one that is not without its flaws.
While as a fan of King myself, I am happy that the filmmakers here were respectful to the source material, both on page and screen, a few bolder choices by the two directors could have bumped this into crazy, all time territory. In the sense, I can see the director duo know how to craft eerie visuals and turn up the tension, but their over reliance on jump scares really do end up making an unnecessary dent.
There is also a scene early on that has been heavily marketed in previews and TV spots of a group of masked youngsters in a funeral march in the woods. That awesome visual is used once and never furthered. The film also hints at the presence of the Wendigo, an evil force of Native American lore who featured in the novel, but only provides a passing glimpse of the character.
Thankfully the acting can be considered an improvement from 1989 film. Jason Clarke is solid, if a little restrained, as Louis, a man of science whose brain might melt in the face of every illogical thing he’s seeing, while Amy Seimetz is able to convey anguish and guilt in such a chilling, present way. Standing in the shoes of the late great Fred Gwynne is the incomparable John Lithgow, who at 78 still possesses the emotional presence and physical grit to pull off a modern Jud Crandall.
However, the real stand out here is Jeté Laurence. It takes a lot of skill to shift between two completely different states of being, especially in so young an actor, but she carries it off well and convincingly so – only just scraping the line of ridiculousness in parts. While child actors in horror films are often required to do little more than react to things, Laurence gets a chance to stretch herself in a way that’s challenging to adult actors. You won’t likely forget her any time soon. Obssa Ahmed and Alyssa Brooke Levine manage to make their small roles effective. On the whole, ‘Pet Sematary’ is a gruesomely entertaining horror which manages to be satisfyingly ghoulish.
Rated – R
Run Time – 101 minutes