It’s been 18 years since I first read Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” I remember vividly buying the book from Barnes and Noble and carrying the mini-tome with me everywhere. For a 12-year-old who constantly got bored by the sweeping fantasy novels that he was accustomed to, that also inflated to 800-plus pages, “Pet Sematary,” at 374 pages, was still fairly long but also manageable.
However, carrying around a copy of a horror book came with its downfalls. First, you wanted to make sure that no one could read the gory bits over your shoulder. Secondly, in the early 2000s of my youth, horror didn’t have quite the weight it has in pop culture today. It was still seen as excessive sleaze and just barely above outright pornography. So heading down the halls of my tiny Texas junior high with Stephen King’s name on my book? It was like a Bat-signal to teachers: this little homie is up to no good.
But I wasn’t! Although my spirits did drop when the coach teaching Texas History singled me out based on what I was reading. I steeled myself for the worst. “Shit man, I love this book!” he exclaimed. “I’ve read everything by Stephen King!” I was a little shocked, granted I was 12 after all and not accustomed to adults being hip to the stuff I liked. But it was the first time I realized just how all-encompassing Stephen King’s fandom was. From a horror hound nerd in the middle of Texas to a small town football coach to the countless number of people who’ve plucked one of his novels off an airport bookstore shelf, the power of Stephen King has yet to wane. And in 2018, it seems to just be getting stronger.
After captivating audiences with the new adaptation of his coulrophobia epic IT, and a sequel right around the corner, not to mention fresh off the heels of Hulu’s Castle Rock, we now have a modern retelling of an all-time classic. Helmed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, visionary minds behind 2014’s Starry Eyes, and writer Jeff Buehler (SYFY’s upcoming Nightflyers), Pet Sematary follows the Creed family. Newly relocated from Boston (Chicago in the original novel), the family quickly experience an earth-shattering tragedy that tears at the fabric of the family. But fueled by rumors of the supernatural powers of the old Pet Sematary, patriarch Louis (Jason Clarke) will stop at nothing to put his family back together. Even if that means going to Hell and back.
I was always struck by just how morose and somber “Pet Sematary” is while never losing that page-turning quality of Stephen King’s most accessible reads. Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation barely crept into the melancholy of the book, but from this first trailer, Kölsch and Widmyer are not shying away from embracing the darkness. Watch it below.
What I find most striking is just how atmospheric it feels compared to other King adaptations. Without a doubt the author’s voice is one of the strongest and most recognizable consistently working today, so typically with modern adaptations, they try to lean on the crutch of his storytelling, letting that inform the visual tone. With a film like Silver Bullet, what the filmmakers lack in arresting visual storytelling they make up for in pure werewolf entertainment. In the converse though, when the filmmakers divorce completely from the author’s original intention in lieu of tone and their own aesthetic we get a film like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, equal parts the best and worst adaptation of King’s career.
But it’s unsurprising that Pet Sematary would have such a strong visual eye. Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes, outside of being wholly unsettling, is absolutely gorgeous. Their Valentines Day short as part of the extremely uneven Holidays anthology film carried that visual trademark, focusing on bright popping pinks and reds. Here their pallet has been muted by the earthy landscape around the Creed’s new home, but that just sets a new challenge for their artistry. Rather than letting their colors be loud and garish, they are embracing the quiet of the trees to counterpoint the brashness of the busy road that will spell the families fate in the film.
Mudbound aside, I’ll admit my eyes roll back in my head when I think of how basic AF Jason Clarke is, but when I first heard his casting as Louis Creed, I actually found it inspired. Why? Because Louis Creed should be a basic dad, something I found Dale Midkiff from Mary Lambert’s movie has in spades. Here Clarke looks perfect as a father just trying to make sense of what’s happening to his family. And while Fred Gwynne and his accent will forever be synonymous with Jud Crandall (even lampooned on South Park!), John Lithgow is pitch perfect for the warm and foreboding neighbor.
While we do know that Louis is visited by Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), who pops up both in life and after, my eye is drawn to this one shot from the trailer. We can see what appears to be a window, but it almost seems to be floating within the forest, a scant touch of wallpaper disappearing into the trees. If the directing duo has a trademark, it’s their dreamlike aesthetic, and between this and all of the shots of creepy kids cosplaying their favorite scenes from The Wicker Man, I’m excited to see what dream logic they’ll deploy.
While Mary Lambert’s movie is faithful, while also very much being a product of the late ’80s, one thing everyone can agree on is how frightening Aunt Zelda was. In King’s original novel, Zelda is Rachel Creed’s sister, who died from spinal meningitis when she was still a child. The trauma from this experience has haunted Rachel her entire life, carrying it with her throughout the horrors of the film. In the previous adaptation, Zelda was played by a heavily made-up Andrew Hubatsek, giving the character an unnerving physicality.
Zelda will now be played by Alyssa Brooke Levine, and it appears that Kölsch and Widmyer will honor her terrifying legacy. We only see bite-size clips of what is most likely Zelda unfurling herself from a dumbwaiter, but by doing justice to the character not only is this new creative team honoring King’s classic novel but also paying respects to the beloved adaptation that came before it. And maybe that’s what we have most to look forward to. A film that will blaze it’s own trail, while not forgetting those that came before it. We could use this type of artistic respect in every movie.
Pet Sematary starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow with Obssa Ahmed, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, and one seriously pissed off looking cat hits theaters on April 5, 2019.