By Joe Hammerschmidt
In that beautiful decade for film known as the 80s, Stephen King adaptations were a dime a dozen, and many continue to leave a certain impression on cinephiles. Having only looked at Mary Lambert’s original adaptation of Pet Sematary, a middle-of-the-road horror that rocked the box office in 1989, with only 24 hours before my attended promo screening of this newer “remake” of sorts (or would it better declared as a re-adaptation?), a certain qualm of indifference lingers. Neither work is scarier than the other, and each offers something unique the other couldn’t imitate. Both can proudly claim they do firm justice to King’s written work, but I still sit on the fence over who did it best. Even trying to make sense of where it aligns would be enough to cause a migraine.
At least it starts out about the same way. Medical professional Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), kids Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and the brilliant cat Church have traveled up to the quiet stillness of Maine, for a fresh start when Boston city life grows weary. Yet, all seems less than still any longer when he fails to save the life of a university student, destroying his confidence to the point where the victim re-manifests in his dreams. Only, it may not be so much of a dream, when considering their new home is relatively close to a cemetery for loved pets, possibly the largest hazard in their neck of the woods. It’s a curiosity Ellie begins to obsess greatly over, as King’s preemptive theme of uncertain mortality is carefully breached, then put to application when Church is ran over by what may be the second largest hazard, an endless array of tanker trucks.
As the posters would lead you to believe, Church is the scene-stealer, and the family’s favorite, even after his claws cause more scratch than gentle scritches, as their next-door neighbor, the delightful Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) would observe. Proposing he and Louis give the feline his last rest inside the cemetery, it proves how shocking the ground actually is, resurrecting the badass cat, and a few others from the zone of no return. And perhaps, in return, it could very well make the Creed family a bit more human along the way.
That alone is among the subtle laundry list of carefully placed alterations directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, and screenwriter Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) have inflicted, to differentiate slightly further from King’s 1983 novel and from Miss Lambert’s menacing (if not more psychological) take. The fright value is there, along with a level of over-the-top craftsmanship that can be both appreciated and cringed toward. Widmyer is elevating the original manuscript to a level of deliberate shock not expected, but it’s almost too macabre at times, grotesque, slightly less cerebral by comparison. That doesn’t stop the directing pair, best known for smaller indie projects (ex.: 2014’s Starry Eyes) to put on a real show with a significantly larger budget. The overall look alone, as dictated by production designer Todd Cherniawsky (Ginger Snaps) was enough to invoke a deepening chill in the air, and one could hope the respective guild will grant plenty attention when deserved.
As for the cast, they absolutely have no tough time going with the motions, submitting to the horror motifs as needed. Clarke, Seimetz, and the rest of the Creed clan each offer powerful moments of unbridled levity; near the latter half, it’s clearly Miss Laurence and the cat who absolutely steal the show while maintaining tone. Of course, their 80s counterparts needn’t be overlooked; they’re all on the same captivating level. The only actor who could barely miss the mark is Lithgow, his approach a far departure from that of character performer Fred Gwynne. The classically trained actor and a one-time inept alien is a quaint presence on screen, no longer buried behind a stereotypical New England drawl, and yet still a trifle muted until the finale. He’s more dignified, more solemn, less backward; easily a mixed bag that I couldn’t quite get behind at a hundred percent.
As King has reached another deserved resurgence in his career as a gold-standard for scares, between IT, Hulu’s Castle Rock, and to far lesser extent, The Dark Tower (I did once say its forthcoming TV followup could heal still-fresh wounds, but that may no longer be valid), I’d say this new take on Pet Sematary is in mostly fair company. Lambert’s past efforts were easy to shine to and find repulsion in. But while Kolsch and Widmyer have amped up the intensity, they shed a fair level of the intellect that may have been more rampant in King’s words, which to this day remain unread, and it may be time to correct that.
The trade isn’t the least bit fair, especially to bigger King diehards who will easily be split down the middle over whether this new version belongs in that higher threshold of the author’s better works. Both spins on a familiar tale, and its themes on life after death, the control we may have over our passing, and that to which our legacy lives on, deserve to carry a position in my shelf with enough time gone by. But neither is perfect, neither improve upon the other nor are they purposefully easy to look at. This is horror at its most grandiose, and its least logical, taking many a shortcut to approach its foregone conclusion, unlike its superior predecessor. Worth a watch, even if we all happily, and continually refer back to the book afterward, determined to sleep soundly with our cats safe in the other room. (C+)
Pet Sematary is in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language; 100 minutes.