Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jete Laurence. Horror, USA, 101 mins, cert 15.
In cinemas 4th April from Paramount Pictures.
Since the release of Andy Muschietti’s wildly popular take on IT, there has been something of an onscreen renaissance of Stephen King adaptations. The first season of Castle Rock made a decent fist of gathering together various characters and familiar locales into one enticing narrative. Pet Sematary attempts to keep this unbeaten streak going in this fresh and often surprising take on Kings bleak novel and Mary Lambert’s own 1989 adaptation.
The tale of the Creed family and the most ill-advised case of flitting ever should surely be familiar to horror fans by now. If not then the concepts of cursed burial grounds and recently deceased family members returning from the great beyond should be, a trope going back as far as the 1902 story The Monkeys Paw, which King’s own 1983 novel riffed on, delving even further into the effects of death and grieving in punishing detail. If not, then newcomers to the tale will know right away that the titular Pet Sematary located in the woods behind the Creed’s new home cannot be a sign of anything good when it is introduced almost immediately in this new adaptation by a procession of silent children in unsettling animal masks.
Directors Kolsch and Widmyer, with the aid of scriptwriter Jeff Buhler, neatly condense and trim King’s novel down to the bare-essentials while for the most part remaining faithful to it. The cast with Clarke as father and doctor Louis and Amy Seimetz as his wife Rachel succeed immediately in capturing the audience's sympathy, particularly concerning their children, eight-year-old Ellie and toddler Gage. John Lithgow also does well with his handling of elderly neighbour Jud Crandall, one of King’s most likeable and sympathetic characters, although it must be said that it does not come close to Fred Gwynne’s iconic, hangdog performance.
If this is a viewer's first exposure to the tale, then there is enough to satisfy here. The film skips briskly along and contains enough shocks and scares although its take on the original story’s themes are never fully explored to the extent that would leave an effect on the viewer that the earlier adaptation and novel did to harrowing effect.
Those already familiar with the tale can also find enough to enjoy, mainly when certain events take unexpected turns giving the story a different dynamic for its latter stages. However, they may find that it suffers in comparison, lacking the earlier films doom-laden atmosphere and stark atmospherics. The “Sematary” itself has a theatrical, studio-bound, smoke machine laden atmosphere that has more in familiar with the Universal horror films of the 1930s and ’40s than the earlier films more effective natural locations. However, this version does manage and exceed Lambert’s take on Rachel’s backstory with her disabled sister Zelda giving it an even nastier edge here that verges into body horror territory that matches any of the shocks in the first adaptation.
This is an entertaining enough take that feels no need to delve into despair. In fact, it feels no need to dwell at all on any of the darker aspects of the story. Towards the end it feels like it is tripping over itself to get to its conclusion, therefore, depriving it of ascending to the higher levels of King adaptations occupied by the likes of The Shining, Carrie and The Dead Zone. It does continue the uptick in the quality of adaptations of King’s works that It heralded if not quite getting that mix of crowd-pleasing and scaring quite right.
“Sometimes dead is better” poor Jud Crandall proclaimed both then and now. Sometimes remakes are too. But not quite this time. Maybe 2049 will deliver the ultimate adaptation, and if some of us are not around, we could leave instructions to our loved ones to bury us in a certain somewhere so we can come back and see for ourselves.