It’s been said that Pet Sematary was Stephen King’s ‘unfilmable’ novel. This is not because of its size and scale, like The Stand or the Dark Tower series, but because its central concern is grief, the raw intensity and the devastating effects it has on people. I first read the book in the ‘80s and it moved me in a way that a popular horror had never been able to do before. In 1989, the first adaptation was released, directed by Mary Lambert and starring Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed and Denise Crosby as Rachel, two parents who are confronted with perhaps the greatest horror a parent can face – the death of a child. This iteration of the story never worked for me as I always felt that it seemed stilted and forced. The grief was jettisoned and replaced with a
In the last few years I’ve revisited King’s novels, listening to them in audiobook form, and once again was deeply moved by this particular story, so when a remake was touted a few years ago, I was cautiously optimistic. On the one hand I thought that of all King’s books this was one that deserved a decent adaptation, however, I worried that the familial anxiety would once again be impossible to capture in the same way the book did.
As grief is internal, it’s often very difficult to realise on screen, and few films have managed to capture it (I would recommend Three Colours: Blue as perhaps the best example of this). I’m happy to report that this new remake, despite a number of flaws, handled this particular aspect of King’s novel very well.
This time Jason Clarke takes on the role of Louis, a doctor who moves to rural Maine with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), his daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and their young son Gage (played by twins Hugo & Lucas Lavoie). Louis is a doctor who has escaped the stress of Boston and now works in a University Campus clinic. Behind their house, deep in the woods, is the titular Pet Sematary, a place where the children of the town have long buried their pets in a ritual involving a morose procession, the banging of drums, and the wearing of animal masks. At the far end of the cemetery is a large deadfall of trees and beyond that there are some ancient and mysterious Indian burial grounds.
At the entrance to the Creed’s new home is a very busy strip of road where oil trucks speed past, in and out of the town of Ludlow and beyond. Soon their cat, Church, is run over and, as he was loved by Ellie, the new neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow), takes Louis to bury the cat in the Indian burial grounds. Later that night, the dead cat returns.
There has always been a certain signposted inevitability as to what’s going to happen in Pet Sematary, and when one of the children is hit by a lorry and killed, it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. However, Stephen King’s writing didn’t allow this obviousness of what should be a shocking plot development to spoil the story. Instead, he laced the story with such dread – constantly bringing up the meaning and consequences of death – that we are forewarned, but in no way prepared, for the evitable. Personally, I thought that this was missing in the 1989 film, but is frighteningly close to the surface in this new iteration.
This is not necessarily done with a huge amount of subtlety, but directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer do have a playful streak that could easily be missed. For example, when the parent’s try telling Ellie that Church has run away (because Rachel has a fear of death and thinks her child is too young to have to face it), the camera pans over a block of letters that should have read ‘ELLIE’ but, as the now-dead Church has returned home and knocked down some of the letters, we see the word ‘LIE’ instead.
Some horror fans may be disappointed that Pet Sematary is not as frightening as it could have been. This is a valid criticism as the film is stronger at investigating grief than it is at chilling the bones. There are a few jump scares in the beginning which worked well with the audience but little beyond this that truly terrifies.
The biggest disappointment however, was the lack of any filmmaking flare. In the book, when Louis and Jud cross the deadfall, they are confronted with a cacophony of noises and partial sightings, which gives you a real sense of someone crossing plains, from the Earth into the supernatural. In this version however, the journey is presented as little more than a long walk. We hear lots of strange noises, but at no time do they seem in any way threatening or frightening.
There are a number of changes to the original novel which help keep you guessing even though the source material is so familiar. Although I was a bit reticent about any such changes being made, they seem to work, especially the ending which really impressed me. It illustrates the sound translation of a very bleak humour that is present in some of King’s other writing (The Mist being a perfect example).
The performances are great throughout. In one scene, Rachel confronts Louis to find out what he has done and instead of feeling the chill of horror, I was moved by the extent of grief that these two exhibit. Scenes like this are very hard to create and very easy to mess up, but I found the whole portrayal of grief uncomfortably realistic. If I were to single anyone out it would be Jeté Laurence, who handles some difficult scenes with ease.
Pet Sematary is hardly the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it’s certainly not as good as 2017’s It. Whereas It could rely on the banter of the children to fill in any narrative gaps from what was a fairly hefty tome, Pet Sematary is far less entertaining as a film. But given its subject matter and the sterling job the book does of conveying grief, I doubt it ever could have been.
Pet Sematary takes its subject matter seriously and doesn’t try to shirk responsibility or rely on cheap thrills. Given the very highs and the plummeting lows of past films and TV series based on King’s work, it pleases me to declare that Pet Sematary sits definitively amongst the better adaptations of the author’s many literary works.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 7/10
Pet Sematary is on general theatrical release now.