After the success of It: Chapter One, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is next up for a reboot. Carolyn Percy casts a critical eye over Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new adaptation.
The Creeds – Louis, a doctor, his wife Rachel, their children Ellie, Gage, and cat Church – have just moved from Boston to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine; a quiet place where they can slow down, Louis can be home more, Rachel can leave behind the traumatic memories of her sister and the kids can grow up closer to nature. The immediate revelation that the road running by their house is used frequently by large, articulated tanker trucks is an early hint that all may not be as idyllic as it seems. Then Rachel and Ellie catch sight of a strange procession of children wearing animal masks making their way into the forest behind their house, so far so Wicker Man.
This procession leads them to the delightfully misspelt “Pet Sematary”, a local landmark where the children of Ludlow have been burying their dearly departed pets for generations. But beyond it is a place that is far, far worse, and the secret it conceals will tear the family apart.
Originally published in 1983, Pet Sematary is the novel Stephen King famously worried might be too dark to publish. Yes, that’s right. A novel that Stephen King thought might be too dark to publish. Allow that to sink in and brace yourself because, unlike It: Chapter One, there aren’t going to be many moments of levity here. It’s been adapted for film before, with the 1989 film – directed by Mary Lambert from a script penned by King himself – celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
This second adaptation, like the first, follows the book’s plot fairly closely: a family move to a new home that’s near an eldritch location that has the ability to bring the dead back to life, except that they don’t come back the same as they were before, something they learn the hard way when they use it to bring back the family cat. Then one of the children is killed in a horrific accident and, in his grief, the father reasons that, if it can bring animals back to life, it can bring humans back too. The major difference (and this isn’t a spoiler as it was revealed in trailers and other promotional material) is that it is nine-year-old Ellie that is killed and brought back to life instead of four-year-old Gage, a change made by writer Matt Greenberg, who wrote the first two drafts of the script.
This was done partly because it was felt there wasn’t much more that could be done with the character and that a toddler running around with a scalpel wouldn’t work with the more down to earth tone they were going for. But you know what? It works really well. Ellie is at the age where she is just starting to become aware of things like death, asking the kinds of questions every parent dreads, such as, when she discovers the pet cemetery, “why don’t animals live as long as people?” This allows the film to explore the theme by revealing her parents’ very differing attitudes to death. Rachel has a complete aversion to the subject, traumatised by the gruesome accidental death of her bedbound sister Zelda, who took out her misery on her little sister.
Rather than leave them behind, moving to this new house seems to have brought the memories to the fore. Louis, as a doctor, takes a completely rational view on the subject and believes Ellie is old enough to be told the facts. He finds his scientific understanding tested by the escalating supernatural events.
This brings us to the performances. All the performances are excellent, from Amy Seimetz as troubled Rachel to John Lithgow as avuncular neighbour Jud Crandall, but special mention must go to Jason Clarke (Louis) and Jeté Laurence (Ellie). Laurence has perhaps the hardest job, having to portray both sweet-faced innocence and demonic, scalpel-wielding maniac, without making it look ridiculous and which she manages with aplomb. And Clarke turns in a brilliantly affecting performance as a man who is slowly losing his mind. Because that’s another thing: Pet Sematary is a story about grief. The burial ground feeds off of it, working on people’s minds so that they come up with the “sweetest smelling reasons” to go back there. The loss of something or someone too soon is something anyone can relate to, and the temptation of being able to bring them back, despite terrible consequences, is an interesting, as well as scary, thing to contemplate.
The accident and subsequent funeral scenes, filmed with as little sound and flash as possible, are gut-wrenchingly emotional.
It also delivers solid creepy atmosphere and scares, making good use of a mixture of tension and jump scares, even managing to end in a bleaker place than both the first film and the book, whilst still maintaining some of the book’s ambiguity. Keep an eye and ear out for a couple of almost-blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to other King titles (which you will definitely feel pleased with yourself if you get). They’ve even kept The Ramones’ song ‘Pet Sematary’ used in the original film, here covered by Starcrawler, providing a catchy accompaniment to the end credits. Sing along with me now, “I don’t wanna be buried in a pet sematary, don’t want to live my life again…”
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Carolyn Percy is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.