Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Stephen King is one of our age’s most storied novelists, and Pet Sematary is one of his most storied novels. Deemed too disturbing by the author, Pet Sematary was relegated to a desk drawer and only resurrected when King needed one more novel to fulfill his contract with Doubleday. The book was an immediate bestseller. So visceral was its impact that only six years after publication, a movie adaptation from director Mary Lambert came out in 1989, and gained a cult following for adopting a slasher-movie aesthetic with a chubby two-year-old boy as its scalpel-wielding maniac.
Movie adaptations from King’s works are having a moment again, likely due to the intersection of precarious, present-day realities and the coming of age of filmmakers who worshipped the psychological acuity of King’s storytelling. That abiding respect is mostly present in the second screen retelling of Pet Sematary from directing tandem Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, which comes three decades after the first. The basics remain the same: Fleeing the late shifts and violent injuries of big-city life, physician Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and two kids, 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), from Boston to rural Maine. Once there, they move into a sprawling, barn-like house with 50 acres of forest as their backyard…which includes a pet cemetery where local kids bury their animal friends in ritualistic fashion. (The genius of Pet Sematary as a title is how quickly that misspelling clues you in to how wrong the place is.) And beyond that, a mysterious tract of land with terrifying powers of resurrection, which the Creeds’ kindly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) demonstrates for Louis once the family cat gets flattened by a passing tanker truck.
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Slavish fans of King and the novel will find much to love in this new adaptation, which greatly improves upon the Lambert version in many areas. For one, Kölsch, Widmyer and screenwriter Jeff Buhler get to the heart of King’s story—the pernicious ways in which death and guilt are intertwined—by shrewdly deploying at the most effective points flashbacks to Rachel’s childhood trauma from a sister’s disfiguring disease. There are even winking references to the fandom, including an in-joke about Lithgow’s long career and a bait-and-switch involving which Creed child will meet their untimely end. Even when the movie diverges from the events of the book and its cinematic predecessor during the second act, fans are bound to give it leeway because the makers maintain the source material’s nasty bite and bizarre poignance.
That is, until the third act. Which is when the brain trust abandons virtuoso filmmaking for a climax too schlocky even for Shaun of the Dead. It’s a dispiriting sight to see—roughly 80 minutes of great storytelling buried under 15 minutes of gaudy silliness. Pet Sematary basically snatches defeat from the jaws of victory; it’s enough to make any horror movie fan mourn.