By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
At what was probably way too young an age, I read Stephen King’s horror novel Pet Sematary and was definitely spooked. King’s fresh spin on “the living dead” gave me chills and frights that probably kept me awake on some nights. I was also rather taken with how the book deals with the subject of grief and how that emotion can drive people to some very bad places. When the first adaptation hit theaters in 1989, I had already turned fifteen years old. As a result, its dark imagery didn’t have quite the same impact as the book had on a child’s imagination. Still, the movie does deliver some frights, but for me just doesn’t quite nail the mood, tone, and scares like King’s novel. Well, a new adaptation is in theaters now and I was given the opportunity to screen the movie at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. The verdict: Pet Sematary (2019) is a more effective horror film that nails some of King’s main themes, but does make a few missteps of its own.
Jason Clarke and Amy Semeitz star as Louis and Rachel Creed. This married couple and their children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie), have opted for a simpler, quiet life and move to a house in the woods near Ludlow, Maine. Louis works as a doctor at a university where he gets shaken by an unexpectedly traumatic experience. Student Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), dies on Louis’s exam table after suffering fatal injuries caused by a vehicular accident. However, this is only the first of a series of disturbing and horrific events that Louis and his family will encounter and will rob them of the peaceful life they are seeking.
With an adapted story and screenplay by Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer do exceptional work in delivering creepy chills with some solid emotional beats, but the development of one key character simply comes across as stupid. The character of which I speak is Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) and the choices he makes and his motivations for doing them make absolutely no sense. This really took me out of the dark mood and somber tone, as I couldn’t help but find all of this laughable. These feelings did subside a little as the movie continues, but in the end, it makes the entire movie a bit unstable.
Still, the filmmakers do succeed in captivating, disturbing, and frightening their audience. They even have a few unexpected tricks up their sleeves. The cinematography by Laurie Rose, the production design by Todd Cherniawsky, and the music by Christopher Young all add wonderfully to the tone and mood of the piece. The performances by the cast also hit their intended marks.
Jason Clarke gives a particularly exceptional turn as Louis Creed, a strict man of science, whose world is being turned upside down by supernatural horror and obsessive behavior caused by grief. Amy Semeitz is also superb as his wife Rachel, a woman who has some serious emotional baggage of her own. Though I despise the writing and development of his character, I still feel that John Lithgow deserves some praise for his portrayal of Jud Crandal, a socially awkward, but good-hearted older gentleman who befriends the Creed family. I was also tremendously wowed by Jeté Laurence who gives an extraordinary performance as Ellie Creed. As her journey takes a rather dark turn, the young actress holds her own just as well as her adult co-stars.
So even though this version of Pet Sematary has a writing problem, it still mostly works as a descent horror adaptation. The directors and writers do manage to deliver a frightening movie with some of the intelligent insight on grief and its effects on people. Though it doesn’t quite live up to the power of King’s novel, it does come much closer than the previous adaptation.