US | 2019 | Directed by Ken Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer
Logline: A family moves into a new rural home and discover an ancient curse lurks in the adjacent woods which insidiously overwhelms them.
Stephen King has gone on record as saying that his 1983 novel Pet Sematary is the only book of his own that has genuinely scared. I’ll second that dark emotion, and say that it is definitely one of my favourite of the author’s, and I rate it amongst his creepiest, most unsettling tales of horror. The first movie adaptation, made by Mary Lambert, was scripted by King himself, and was fairly faithful to his novel. It’s been thirty years since I saw it, but from memory, I thought it was okay. I’m not sure how well it would hold up today.
I was very excited when I learned that the directors of one of my favourite horror movies of the past ten years, Starry Eyes, were on board a fresh adaptation of the novel. This one had a screen story by Matt Greenberg (who has been involved in a few other King adaptations over the years) and screenplay by Jeff Buhler (who adapted Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train). I was convinced these were the guys to deliver an vibrant and terrifying new vision of one King’s best horror stories.
Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates his family, wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), young daughter Ellie (Jeté Lawrence) and toddler Gage, to beautiful, wooded (not far from Derry, as a road sign tells us, in a sly nod to King’s It). Their neighbour is Jud (John Lithgow), a widower who knows a thing or two about the area.
The family settle in, including their furry Maine Coon, Church. But Dr. Creed has a harrowing experience at the university medical centre where he works, when a severely injured man is brought in from a nearby car accident and promptly dies in Creed’s arms. Creed is not so much shaken by the man’s death, as his wounds were horrendous, but more so because the man’s ghost appears before Creed and warns him of a dark future. Creed is an atheist, so, you can imagine his concern.
Kölsch and Widmyer set up the movie well, and the performances are solid. Then the first major change from the novel occurs, when tragedy strikes the family, in full force. I can appreciate this radical twist to the narrative, by having Ellie as the child returned from the grave, as she is able to converse with Louis and it allows her to behave and interact in ways that a two-year-old simply couldn’t or wouldn’t. However, the original novel and adaptation’s abject grotesquerie of having a very young child armed with a scalpel, on a murderous spree is a macabre image that cannot be improved upon. Perhaps in the post-Chucky world we live in the writers and producers felt it would appear blackly comical? But then why did they come up with such a risible ending for the movie?? I’ll come back to that.
The production values are high, and, as I mentioned, the acting is strong, with Clarke, Seimetz, Lithgow, and Lawrence, all delivering solid work. The score provides suitable punctuation also, but I felt the whole movie was playing it all very safe, very Hollywoody. I wasn’t entirely sold on the folk-horror element. It felt half-assed, almost token. There was nothing to wow me about any of it. I wasn’t creeped out, as I assumed I would be. Even the violence, with the exception of the heel slice - but we were all expecting that one, and would’ve been very disappointed had they not used it.
The very ending, and the lead-up to the ending, is where the story takes a radical departure from the novel. I’m sure your average audiences, who haven’t read the book, and probably haven’t seen the original adaptation, will find little to fault the movie, as it delivers all the “right” spooks. But why did the opt for such a tonal shift for the ending? The screenwriter could’ve really driven the nail into the coffin by having them douse the car in kerosine and light it up.
Pet Sematary is the kind of horror movie which wasn’t bad, but it disappointed me greatly. High expectations can do terrible things, I know. I feel the urge to re-read King’s novel. That makes me feel better.