Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
With the recent adaptation of “It” mixed with the binge worthy “Castle Rock” series on Hulu, Stephen King is having a bit of a late career resurgence. And so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood took another stab at what is considered his most personal, tragic, and disturbing novel: “Pet Sematary.” In 1989, “Pet Sematary” was released six years after it was originally published under the direction of Mary Lambert, which to this day provokes nightmares in the most unsuspecting moviegoers. Now, 30 years later, directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have collaborated on a new adaptation that benefits from a slew of game performances, but doesn’t resonant or terrify as much as it does on the page or pack the same emotional punch it’s predecessor did years ago.
Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) have recently located with their two children from the big city to the quiet, rural Maine town of Ludlow (see if you can spot a Derry, Maine easter egg in the second half) attempting to establish a sense of normalcy. Louis has worked the graveyard shift at a local emergency room, tending to some horrific and traumatic incidents. The move is designed to be a nice change of pace for the Creed family, including eight-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) - but it’s not long before the family is struck with tragedy when their cat, Church, is hit by one of the fuel trucks that speed recklessly on the lone country road in front of their home.
On the advice of their neighbor, a friendly and harmless widower named Jud Crandall (John Lithgow - the best part of the the whole film), Louis buries Church in a nearby and secret area dubbed by the locals as a “pet sematary,” where children in weird animal masks lay their childhood pets to rest in eerie fashion. You can imagine Louis’s surprise when Church comes back alive, but the once cuddly feline is not the same. And if you’re not with the program by now: the whole “Sometimes dead is better” mentality - when tragedy strikes the family again, Louis fails to adhere to those guidelines.
Working from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler, this new “Pet Sematary” is both darkly humorous and chilling, and it’s able to modernize and update some of the scare factor from the unbalanced 89’ classic (even reducing some of the more cheesier elements). For the first half, directors Kolsch and Widmyer tackle the themes of grief in deeply personal affections, and in the process deliver an exploration of death and its emotional side effects. It isn’t until the grand finale that “Pet Sematary” loses the spunk and leaves viewers with a nasty aftertaste (though Star Crawlers version of “Pet Sematary” blasting through the end credits almost makes up for it).
It’s shame how the finale gets the better of Kolsch and Widmyer’s ambitious efforts, particularly because this cast conveys the trauma associated with the type of themes being presented. Lithgow, in particular, understands the stakes, and his speeches had me hanging on every word. And for the 80 minutes of buildup spent getting us invested, the final shot feels more insulting than artistic.
Not to mention the underlying subplots that King spent a good chunk of time delving into in his original narrative get lost in the mix. The whole Native American ritualistic subtext isn’t as potent here, nor is the way Victor Pasquale’s (Obssa Ahmed) death - which grimly casts a shadow over Louis the entire film - is handled (his character is basically forgotten for the last stretch of the film). In addition, the digital CGI effects feel cartoonish whereas the 1989 classic did so much with the little technological advances made available at the time.
Instead of “sometimes dead is better” how about “sometimes less is more.”