For a writer known as the king of horror, Stephen King’s filmography is filled with just as many tales better characterized as dramas (Stand By Me, 1986), thrillers (Misery, 1990), and slices of the fantastic (The Green Mile, 1999). Horror, though, remains his meat and potatoes, and while it rears its terrifying head in those other works it shines the darkest in his tales and films focused on pure, unrelenting fear, dread, and terror. The Shining (1980), Cujo (1983), and It (2017) are some of the big dogs, but his most terrifying creation remains Pet Sematary. The novel was published in 1983 and remains his grimmest creation as its tale of grief, loss, and emotional madness is every bit as devastating thirty-six years later. Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation, scripted by King himself, stumbles some on the performance front but succeeds beautifully at capturing our fear of death and our debilitating inability to let go.
Three decades later a new adaptation of King’s most viscerally haunting novel is hitting screens, and while it improves greatly on its predecessor’s biggest flaw it falls limp in the areas that are most important to the story. It fails to deliver with sorrow-fueled madness and unrelenting terror… and its ending is more likely to leave viewers giggling with disappointment than shaken and unnerved.
Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz) have moved their family from the hectic streets of Boston to the more relaxed and neighborly roads of rural Maine. A big house and a far larger forest for a back yard combine to make their new home, and both nine-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo Lavole) seem to be equally in love with the place. The only downside is the road at the end of their driveway which is frequently trafficked by fast-moving big rigs, but that’s a problem for another day. Or, at least, until the day Ellie’s cat Church is found dead alongside the road. Their widowed neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) has taken a liking to the family and to young Ellie, and not wanting to see her suffer he introduces Louis to the dark local secret beyond the raw “pet sematary” in the woods. It’s a special place where dead things placed in the ground return to life. Kind of. Church returns, changed for the worst, but it’s not enough to deter Louis when an even bigger tragedy strikes.
Those familiar with King’s novel and the previous film will have a sense of where directors Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes, 2014) and writer Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train, 2008) are going with their Pet Sematary adaptation as the basics remain true. It’s a story of grief and how we process the idea of death — both in the passing of others and in our own fear of what, if anything, comes next — and as the Creeds descend into sadness and terror their choices only dig the hole that much deeper. Louis enters this nightmare having just failed a student hit by a car on the campus where he now works. There was nothing he could have done to save young Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), but guilt is rarely a rational beast, and that in turn feeds into his later choices. Louis is a man of science believing that death is the inevitable end, but Rachel argues differently. She believes there’s more — she hopes there’s more — as the horrifying life and death of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) when they were children still haunts her. Their competing viewpoints leave them ill-prepared for the horror to come.
The trauma of losing a child is made clear, and both Clarke and Seimetz do great work portraying the grief and emptiness that follows. Their performances are a noticeable improvement over their counterparts in the 1989 film, and viewers can’t help but feel their pain pouring from the screen. It’s a good thing they’re so strong, as the script continually rushes through beats and exposition often neglecting to allow time to soak in the weight of it all. Rather than compete with the terror that Lambert and King deliver in their 1989 film this incarnation changes up the Zelda flashbacks and replaces creepy dread with jump scares. Rather than pull back and allow us to take in the mystical scope of the burial ground we’re stuck in what feels like a fog-shrouded sound-stage. From the inciting truck incident — marred by some distracting CG/optical fx — to the days following their child’s death, we’re moved too quickly through the motions en route to a third act that fumbles in its changes to King’s original narrative.
Adaptations are never beholden to the source material, but changes made here wholly neuter the intended effect. In addition to kneecapping the waves of grief the film eliminates some powerful scenes of self-awareness. Jud is never allowed to share his cautionary tale about the last time a human was buried in the woods (RIP Timmy Baterman) and barely touches on his own feelings of guilt as Louis instead just drugs the old man and proceeds with his mad plan. Lithgow is still quite good here, but he’s not given enough to do beyond act as catalyst in introducing Louis to the tool of his own impending doom.
The film’s biggest misstep, though, is evident through the entirety of the third act. No specific spoilers here, but where King’s book and the previous film ramp up the horror with a balance between the emotional and the physical, this adaptation goes a different route. Gone is the horrifying surprise of a malicious toddler and the utter heartache of a parent having to kill their own child, and in their place we’re given a generic kiddie “slasher,” tone-killing wisecracks, and a goofy ending.
Pet Sematary is still a horror film with effective gore, smart production design, and strong atmosphere, but rather than built to and end on a note of dark, nightmarish terror and despair the film settles for stalk ‘n’ slash antics and silliness. Kölsch and Widmyer’s attraction to stories about people reaching beyond the point of reason for their wants and needs is on full display here, but their brilliant Starry Eyes captures it far better and commits through to its final, horrifyingly beautiful frames. Buhler’s script here doesn’t afford them the same opportunity as it instead hops off early in search of fun that it neither warrants nor finds. It’s ultimately a perfectly serviceable horror film, and as a fan of the ongoing King renaissance on the big and small screen I’m hoping it finds an audience open to its missteps and changes even as I grieve over the same.