Hollywood continues to exhume a steady slew of Stephen King’s previous works. Next up on the mortuary slab is King’s ‘Pet Sematary’, a reanimation of the cautionary tale centring on mortality. With King’s book-to-screen adaptations, sometimes, these are a hit and sometimes, these are a miss. After the commercial success and critical acclaim of ‘IT’ (2017), Pet Sematary’ is the former following in its predecessor’s footsteps. Whilst a disquiet Ludlow local asserts, “sometimes, dead is better”, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer prove this isn’t the case here. Sometimes, a remake is better.
Disillusioned from the hustle and bustle of city life in Boston, the well-to-do Creed’s made up of Father Louis (Jason Clarke), Mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Son Gage (Hugo Lavoie) relocate to a sleepy, rural town in the loneliness of Ludlow, Maine. Throughout, the direction provided by Kolsch and Widmyer is commendable. From the leafy Ludlow trees swallowing the sparse foreground of the Creed’s family home whole, the lone main road just outside their home notorious for being a hot spot for speeding to the computer-generated expanse of the woods enclosing on a burial ground beyond the ‘Pet Sematary’. The exquisite use of the locale as set pieces manifests a lonely sense of claustrophobia, an exacerbated extension of the unsettling isolation at the heart of grief and loss.
The welcome wagon welcoming the Creed’s to their new life comes in the form of a gas truck shooting down this main road, startling the family. This recurring foreshadowing disarms audiences with unease and dread after Louis narrowly misses a side-on collision with an all too familiar gas truck minutes earlier. Ellie wastes no time in becoming acquainted with the family’s new home by exploring the sprawling lands which came with the home’s deeds. Ellie stumbles upon a ‘Pet Sematary’ used for generations by locals to bury their pets. Ritualistic and marching to a somber drum beat, innocently sinister in down-trodden animal masks, children come baring crosses, shovels and wheelbarrows. Ellie mistakes this for a parade, Rachel corrects her that this is a procession. This will not allay the audience’s own anxieties that something is amiss. However momentary and inane this moment seems, it is extremely memorable and will linger and ruminate in the minds of audiences long after the credits roll.
Ellie, stopped by Ludlow local, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), from accessing the deeper recesses of the grounds where evil pervades, he creeps his way into family life. It would have been more impactful for greater attention to have been paid to how the loneliness haunting Jud manifested, since the death of his wife, and seeped into this co-dependent relationships with the Creed family. However, understandably, due to time restraints this was not possible. We’re told that the evil that pervades the lands beyond the Pet Sematary has something to do with Native Americans, Wendigos and Jud’s childhood (you can thank an unsatisfying exposition-heavy dialogue from Jud in the second act). Greater clarity over how these tie together, whilst not strictly necessary, would have been appreciated.
It was going to be sooner rather than later before the monstrous gas truck claimed its first roadkill. With the help from the all-too-helpful, mystified neighbour, Jud, under the veil of night, he guides Louis to a soundstage-y burial ground beyond the Pet Sematary to bury beloved family cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill). The ground has turned sour with restorative effects. Church returns home the same night however he isn’t quite the same. Disconcerting, skulking and shuddersome. This ferocious feline will make audiences re-evaluate whether they still consider their feline friends or foes, whilst also providing skewed comedic value. In part, Kolsch and Widmyer are aware that there is only so much mileage in how Church can be employed as a spectacle of chilling horror. It’s this self-awareness and self-reflexivity of the films own cultural lineage that makes post-modern horror, ‘Pet Sematary’, comfortable in using Church, the Creed’s family cat, as a means to subvert the building moments of suspense. Church is often found standing in door ways and on kitchen counters, with the camera hovering on the ominous, feral feline a second too long. Audiences might let out an unnerving chuckle as the misdirected, prolonged tension is relieved.
King is the master purveyor in showcasing that the true horror bubbles underneath the mundane, human experience. If walls could talk, and believe me, many times throughout ‘Pet Sematary’ they do, they would reverberate with groans and echoes of the Creed’s own worst fears, losses, regrets, and guilt. Embedded within the 101 minute running time are fears of death, loss and letting go. Listen close and hear them shout. Throughout, Rachel grapples with her own grief after her Sister, Zelda, passed away when she was just a child. Whilst the script commands Louis to be the main protagonist, the real star here is Amy Seimetz. Playing the dedicated stay-at-home Mum, she showcases the raw guilt and resiliency that accompanies loss and demands the undying attention of the audience each and every time. Whilst this subplot does not neatly compliment the narrative thread of the rest of the film, there is an underlying sense of denial that she has not come to terms with her sister’s morality due to the overwhelming sense of guilt that she had a role to play in it. This lends itself to one of the more interesting concepts at play during ‘Pet Sematary’, which explores how prior experience of loss and consequent trauma can shape our beliefs and manifest in society’s conscience as a cultural taboo. This is best illustrated when Louis (Clarke) and Rachel (Seimetz) are conflicted over how to address mortality after Ellie asks why animals die quicker than humans. Whilst there are a few misgivings within the script here, the gulf between religion and science and Rachel’s and Louis’ viewpoint is stark. Rachel’s hollow hope dances around her trauma whilst she shields Ellie away from the natural end of life by explaining there is life after death. On the other hand, Louis, a Doctor and a man of science believes in the finality of life and continues to be plagued by all-too-real nightmares of a patient who he was not able to save. Rachel and Louis are both hiding tormented anguish from one another, this pain is punctuated and accentuated by sparse gore, just enough so that it avoids verging on being unsympathetic to their pain but enough to elevate the suspension of the carnage unfolding.
It is only when the gas truck shoots down the lonesome road one last time on the day of Ellie’s ninth birthday, (they say three times is a charm) when the greatest tragedy strikes. Fans of the source material or Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation, may already have been spoiled by the myriad of spoiler heavy trailers, posters and promotion in the prior months to release. Here, Kolsch and Widmyer have subverted the source material and gender swapped the role of the unfortunate gas truck fatality from Gage (Lavoie) to Ellie (Laurence). Understandably, Kolsch and Widmyer want to give the audience something new with this remake. However, this switch up doesn’t hold much other significance for the plot. Fans familiar with ‘Pet Sematary’ won’t feel estranged from the original source material however depending upon your stance, may view this gender swap as unnecessary.
Clarke and Seimetz give a nuanced performance conveying the sheer horror and tragedy of a parents worst nightmare: the loneliness and pain of losing and grieving for the loss of their child. During the second act, the loss and grief of his Daughter, Louis is undone by grief, spiralling into insanity. It is a testament to Jason Clarke that he is able to convey such intensity and emotion that Louis’ dilemma to grieve his Daughter’s death or to overcome it by burying her body in the burial grounds with rejuvenating powers seemed for one second plausible. To lose a loved one and to be faced with the opportunity for them to come back, would be so very tempting for anyone. When this temptation proves too great for Louis to pass up, his beliefs are challenged and his hypocrisy is unveiled. Sometimes, death is not final.
The unrestrained performance from Jeté Laurence possesses a range beyond her years. From joy-filled, wide-eyed curiosity whilst exploring their new family home to the cruel, malevolent, victimiser when Ellie is reanimated. This elevates Laurence’s performance as Ellie Creed above other child horror actors in recent memory. Here, Laurence doesn’t just rely on throwing multi-syllabic words together to convey a sense of terror, like Jackson Robert Scott as Miles Blume in 2019’s ‘The Prodigy‘. Drawing parallels to Frankenstein, the theme of science versus religion is clear, Laurence reflects back to Louis the moral and ethical complexities of his choice: sometimes, there should be no second chance in death. Sometimes, dead is better.
Co-directors, Kolsch and Widmyer, during an SXSW Q&A, described ‘Pet Sematary’ as being an ‘elevated horror’. Horror is an unjustly subjugated genre and discourse is increasingly using labels such as ‘elevated horror’ as a means to give credibility to the genre whilst also for those films to be on a level footing with other genres. Audiences may respectfully disagree that ‘Pet Sematary’ is such, especially being released the week after ‘Us’. Here, comparatively, due to the condensed nature of the plot, the themes are not given the same depth or eye to detail. However, that is not to say that ‘Pet Sematary’ is not intelligent in its own right. ‘Pet Sematary’ is as much of an exploration of grief, loss and trauma as it is a traditional horror. However, the latter is more effective, with Kolsch and Widmyer using set pieces, lighting and cinematography to great effect to create a claustrophobically silent and unsettlingly tense atmosphere.
Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer arguably have taken King’s source material and stripped it to its narrative necessities. Within the fabric of the film, there is an obvious self-assured love from the co-directors which helps it to remain mostly faithful to King’s novel. For this reason, it is accessible for those not familiar with the original text. Whilst Kolsch and Widymyer have created a mostly cohesive overall product, in replicating King’s novel, much of the plot is crammed and condensed into the first and second act. Consequently, there is a ferocious momentum of zone-out-and-you-miss-it plot points. This whistle stop tour is a visual skim read of the characters, themes and plot and will not ever be as rich and deep as the source material. To this reviewer, it is felt that audiences may be haunted by their own sense of loss, an intangible and vague feeling that something from ‘Pet Sematary’ is missing. It may be because much of the condensed plot had already been teased during the extensive promotion pre-release. Once the credits starting rolling, the feeling that you had already seen much of the film if you had already seen the trailers is a hard one to shake. Or, it could also be because plot points are dropped in mere passing comments between the main cast with the pay off verging on disappointing or non-existent. However, this does lay the grim foundations for the third act to breathe. This is an opportune moment for the plot to veer off of the well-beaten track towards a third act surprise act twist, deviating from King’s novel. Whilst leaving the window open for a sequel, it happened so quickly, it was as logical as the rejuvenating powers of the Pet Sematary. However, perhaps that is the point. The horror behind nightmares and fears do exist outside the realms of logic, and explanation is the antithesis of fear.
Pet Sematary opens in Cinemas from Thursday 4th April. Visit the Pet Sematary and decide for yourself: is dead better?
Director: Kevin Kolsch and a Widmyer. Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie and John Lithgow. Release Date: 04/04/2019. Rated 15.