By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz and Jeté Laurence
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Written by Jeff Buhler
If it’s true that the long-in-development second screen take on Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY got a jumpstart from IT’s huge box-office grosses two years ago, the end result has been the same in both cases. Like the reboot of King’s evil-clown epic, the new PET SEMATARY is a serious improvement on a predecessor that was a kindertrauma for many who saw it at a young age, but that doesn’t hold up as an adaptation today.
PET SEMATARY is one of King’s simpler novels on a narrative level, but one of his most emotionally dense and psychologically devastating. Its many shades of mood would probably be impossible to recapture in one two-hour feature, and directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and screenwriter Jeff Buhler have made the smart choice to zero in on the way the members of its central family process and deal with the facts of death. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz are fine casting—experienced enough to be comfortably familiar but not so famous they can’t disappear into their roles—as Louis and Rachel Creed, who move with their two children from Boston to a house in Ludlow, Maine. They’re both hoping Louis, a doctor, will find less job pressure in this small town, and there are lots of woods around for the Creeds’ 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) to explore.
What she soon discovers amidst the trees, of course, is the eponymous graveyard, where beloved pets have been laid to rest for decades (centuries?). As in IT, the production-design team (led by Todd Cherniawsky) has perfectly visualized the settings in King’s prose, and the pet sematary has the eerie ring of a place where people have ritualized the laying to rest of their animal friends a little more than usual. Its history is explained by the Creeds’ neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who seems kindly but is also burdened with the knowledge and experience of what an ancient burial ground deeper in the forest is capable of. Eschewing the “ayuh”s that endeared many to Fred Gwynne’s portrayal in the 1989 film, Lithgow is just right as Jud, honestly bonding with young Ellie while carrying just a hint of menace in what his knowledge might mean for the Creeds’ future, and imbuing this well-meaning but judgment-flawed man with troubled soul.
As anyone who’s familiar with King’s original story and/or the first movie and has seen the ads for the new one knows, a significant alteration has been made to the turn of events that sends PET SEMATARY into its most horrific territory. Just in case you haven’t caught those trailers or TV spots, the details won’t be discussed here, though the filmmakers cheekily psych you into thinking it’s going to go the way of the book before springing their twist. The change works, paying off on one of the key relationships and bringing new levels to the tragedy and terror of the tale’s final act. Throughout, Kölsch and Widmyer take the material and the very real emotions it plays on seriously (though there are moments of jet-black humor sprinkled throughout; is it an in-joke on the title that Louis misspells “cemetary” in an on-line search?). They suffuse even the daylit scenes and those in the initially comforting home with ominous mood, in concert with cinematographer (and frequent Ben Wheatley collaborator) Laurie Rose. Composer Christopher Young, an old hand at horror, also does a lot to pack PET SEMATARY with shocks and startles for the first hour or so, and maintaining a feeling of consistent dread thereafter.
PET SEMATARY takes a place in the upper tier of King-based features because its creators not only respect the source, they’ve identified the important elements to keep in making the necessary distillation from novel to film. They’ve also found the right actors (little Laurence is terrific in a challenging role, demonstrating skill beyond her years), gotten the details right and even found a couple of pretty great cats to play the Creeds’ ill-fated pet, Church. This PET SEMATARY makes a strong case for taking another shot at a screen property that wasn’t gotten quite right the first time; even Starcrawler’s cover of the closing-credits song feels more of a piece with the movie that has preceded it than the Ramones version did.