Stephen King adaptations are a hit-or-miss affair. For every Carrie or Misery, there’s a The Dark Tower or Dreamcatcher misrepresenting the author’s work. Thankfully, Pet Sematary, the second adaptation of King’s 1983 novel of the same name, falls firmly into the former.
Pet Sematary, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, stars Jason Clarke as Louis Creed, a doctor who moves his family away from the big city to the sleepy town of Ludlow, Maine. Little do they know that on their property is “Pet Sematary”, a burial ground where local children bury their pets. The ground beyond the cemetery holds dark secrets, secrets that Creed must contend with when tragedy strikes in his family.
Said tragedy takes a while to get to, however. Pet Sematary plays the long game, front-loading the film with a ton of information on the Creed family, the cemetery, and everything in between. It can often be clunky, especially for those who haven’t read the novel, since the film throws a lot at you at once.
For this part of the film, it benefits hugely from John Lithgow’s Jud Crandall. As the elderly and wise neighbor, Lithgow is an inviting, enigmatic presence that carries a constant sense of mystery. Whenever he dumps information, you lean forward because you sense that this man has seen a lot in his life.
The rest of the cast does just fine in the first half of the film, with Clarke and Amy Seimetz, bringing a harrowing vulnerability to her role as Louis’s wife Rachel, doing great jobs in their role of two loving parents. The series of cats portraying the family’s reanimated feline Church (short for Winston Churchill) must also be commended for giving creepy, multi-faceted performances in their own right.
Nevertheless, when the aforementioned tragedy kicks in, all bets are off and Pet Sematary truly begins. The incident, depicted in particularly gruesome fashion, launches each of the characters into an existential crisis of sorts. Louis must debate doing the unthinkable as a feeling of unshakeable dread sets in.
This dread permeates every frame of the film until its closing shot. Every character has to contend with their relationship to death. It almost reminds me of the stellar first half of last year’s Hereditary in that way. In the midst of all this, Jete Laurence gives a tour-de-force performance as the family’s daughter Ellie. Without going into spoilers, her performance is an unspeakably upsetting symbol of what trying to cheat death will reap. Simply put, it’s as hard to look at as it is fascinating.
At the end of the day, while there are jump scares and gore effects, Kölsch and Widmyer concern themselves with the hard facts of life and the unknown that operates outside of those facts. Despite a series of numerous changes to King’s novel in the adaptation process, they nailed the core, and that makes this a film well worthy of his name. – James Preston Poole
Pet Sematary is now in theaters.
The film stars Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, and Alyssa Brooke Levine.