Stephen King has often cited 1983’s Pet Sematary as his darkest and most disturbing novel, one he might not even have published if not for a contractual obligation, and Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation, even with a screenplay by King himself, only partially did justice to that unrelenting darkness. The new film version increases the horror intensity, and it features more consistent performances and a more even tone. It’s a bit plodding and overly subdued (with a dull, gray visual style), especially in the first half, but it captures some genuinely unsettling moments, and it builds to an ending that’s both darker and pulpier than the original.
Initially, the screenplay by Jeff Buhler follows King’s novel fairly closely: The Creed family has moved to rural Ludlow, Maine, from Boston, so that dad Louis (Jason Clarke) can take a job as the head of the health clinic at a nearby university. He brings along his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, 9-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and 2-year-old Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), hoping to start a quiet new life in the countryside. Of course, that’s not possible when your house is adjacent to a cursed burial ground, which is exactly where the Creeds are living.
The family’s avuncular neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) first shows them the pet cemetery with the misspelled sign, and later, when Ellie’s cat Church is killed by a passing truck on the nearby highway, Jud shows Louis another, hidden graveyard: It’s a mystical place where any buried living things return to life, and that’s exactly what happens to Church the day after Louis puts the cat in the ground. Church returns mangy and mean, though, with a sadistic streak, no longer the friendly and cuddly cat that the family loved.
Played by four different cats, with the aid of some very effective makeup work (and probably some subtle CGI), Church is the breakout star, a constant ominous presence throughout the movie, a sort of harbinger of further evil developments every time he shows up. As horrifying as the resurrected Church is, though, when Ellie gets hit by yet another speeding semi-truck, Louis doesn’t waver in his determination to bring her back, too. His grief blinds him to the danger right in front of him, despite Jud’s somber warnings.
The biggest change this version makes to King’s story is Ellie, not Gage, is the child who is killed and brought back as a demonic entity, and it’s a smart choice, since toddler Miko Hughes often had difficulty conveying evil intent in the original movie. Buhler and directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) establish Ellie as a thoughtful, sympathetic character before subjecting her to tragedy, and both her death and subsequent undeath are horrifying to witness. Laurence conveys innocence and malevolence with equal skill, and the movie’s climax is more effective when the monster is actually scary.
The time leading up to that climax drags a bit, though, and the family drama (especially Rachel’s guilt over the death of her chronically ill sister when she was a child, depicted in extensive flashbacks) doesn’t quite land. Kölsch and Widmyer throw in a few stock horror-movie devices (creepy masks, dream-sequence fake-outs, jump scares) that don’t add much to the story, but they also stage some very suspenseful sequences, and they get strong performances out of all their actors. Clarke and Seimetz are more compelling leads than Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby were in the previous movie, and Clarke especially delivers on Louis’ helplessness and desperation as he resorts to drastic, dangerous measures to deal with his grief. Clarke has often played frustrated, ineffectual husbands and fathers, and here he makes Louis’ every move an exercise in doomed futility.
Lithgow can’t match Fred Gwynne’s majestic Maine accent as the original Jud, and he wisely doesn’t try to. Lithgow’s Jud is more of a wistful, world-weary presence, almost resigned to the inevitable chaos the cemetery invites. There’s a sense of grim inevitability to the entire story, really, and its bleakness is both a strength and a potential pitfall, especially once things spiral out of control. Kölsch and Widmyer take the story into familiar horror-movie territory as it heads toward its conclusion, and the deep sadness of King’s story gets a bit overshadowed by nasty gore.
Even so, this is a remarkably meditative horror movie, giving careful consideration to parental responsibility and the overwhelming nature of grieving for a loved one. While King’s stories often suffered from cheap, tossed-off adaptations in the early days (and still sometimes do), this version of Pet Sematary makes serious attempts to grapple with his themes, and give real weight to every misguided decision the characters make. It doesn’t always succeed in that effort, but it’s worth watching for the ways in which it does.