Of all the Stephen King cinematic adaptations up for a remake, “Pet Sematary” is the one I looked forward to the most. I never cared much for the 1989 version directed by Mary Lambert. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was undone by a screenplay which tried to fit in too much from King’s novel, and ironically it was a screenplay written by King himself. While Fred Gwynne was perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, Dale Midkiff’s performance goes way over the top and contains moments which Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman are justified in describing as “exquisite acting.” And there was the ending which was undone by test screenings where the audience demanded something more graphic. Bitch, please!
Now we have the remake of “Pet Sematary” which comes to us from the directors of “Starry Eyes,” Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and it is easily an improvement over what came before. It is not a great horror movie, but even if it were, it is nearly impossible to top King’s 1983 novel which itself is one of the darkest works of fiction ever conceived. Heck, even King himself thought he went too far with it, and that should tell you something. Still, it is an effective film which pays tribute to the spirit of the novel even as it makes changes to the source material in a way I did not see coming.
As before, the story starts with Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) driving with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids to their new home in the small town of Ludlow, Maine. We learn that Louis and Rachel were looking to escape big city life for something simpler and countrylike to where they could spend more time with each other and the children. When they arrive at their new home, it looks like a heavenly and peaceful place which they will serve them well, but we all know where the story will go from there as a huge 18-wheeler truck zooms by with little warning while leaving a lot of dust and dead leaves in its wake.
The first half of the “Pet Sematary” remake more or less follows King’s novel to the letter as it treads familiar ground while adding some interesting touches in the process. Upon discovering the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, we also see a procession of children wearing animal masks as they march on by while carrying a dead dog in a wheelbarrow to the place which will bring about its resurrection. Both Kolsch and Widmyer give this movie a wonderfully unnerving feeling which they keep building on throughout as things for the Creed family get worse and worse to where they have little chance to regret the deeds they have committed.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
One of the interesting things about this version is how the filmmakers have switched elements around, but in a way which does not take away from the spirit of the novel. Instead of young Gage getting run over by a truck driver who is distracted by his cell phone (and who isn’t these days?), it is Ellie, and the reaction of her parents to this terrible tragedy feel all too real to where neither has to yell out in sheer anguish.
Jeté Laurence plays Ellie Creed, and her performance is especially impressive as she makes this resurrected character far more than a zombie with a thirst for blood. Ellie seems very aware of the fact she is not who she once was, but she also has knowledge of what lies beyond the realm of the living, and she becomes a little too eager to bring her parents to the other side of it.
Jason Clarke has long since proven to be one of our most dependable actors in movies today with his terrific performances in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Chappaquiddick.” Clarke makes Louis Creed into an especially sympathetic character even as he comes to play God when it comes to Ellie’s life. The late Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) warns Louis not to exceed the boundaries set for humanity, but Louis is blinded by a grief I would not wish on anyone, and his desire to undo a terrible tragedy is understandable even if it flies in the face of reason, logic and the saying of “sometimes dead is better.”
Amy Seimetz, who co-starred in “Alien: Covenant,” also makes the most of her role as Rachel Creed, an individual who has dealt with death a far too young an age. Rachel remains forever haunted by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) whom she was forced to watch by her lonesome while their parents were away. Indeed, Seimetz makes you deeply feel the unfairness of Rachel’s predicament as no child should be forced into such a position at such a young age, and it proves to be one of this movie’s most haunting segments as a result.
And while there is no topping Fred Gwynne’s performance as Jud Crandall, the great John Lithgow succeeds in making this role his own. How many movies and TV shows have we watched Lithgow in anyway? He has been a constant in popular culture, and he remains a welcome presence in anything he appears in. Lithgow doesn’t have to do much to show how Jud has lived a long life which has been filled with one tragedy too many, and this is the mark of a great on camera actor.
Kölsch and Widmyer do an excellent job of raising the tension and overbearing atmosphere of the story throughout the movie’s running time, and they don’t just resort to giving us jump scares every five minutes. They are also aided by a powerful film score composed by Christopher Young which makes an already unnerving motion picture even more so.
“Pet Sematary” is one of the few books I got to read before it was turned into a movie, and this is quite the feat for me these days as filmmakers typically beat me to the punch. As a result, my perspective of the book will forever remain more powerful than any movie made out of it. Still, this cinematic version of it is a powerful one which takes chances with the source material while remaining true to its spirit. I am also quite thankful the filmmakers had enough freedom to give this movie the ambiguous conclusion it deserves. I am a big fan of ambiguity in movies, and this one has an unsettling conclusion which stays with you long after you have walked out of the theater.
Still, I would have preferred The Ramones’ version of their song “Pet Sematary” as opposed to the cover of it performed here by Starcrawler. Nothing against their version, but in this case the original reigns supreme.