True confession time — while Stephen King is probably my favorite author of all time, the majority of films, television shows and miniseries based on his voluminous canon of work have rarely matched the terrifying impact of his prose.
In fact, I can point to just five that lived up to their scary potential: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Misery, It (2017) and The Mist.
And while the original 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary, which King published in 1983, remains a true cult classic, even Mary Lambert’s film felt flawed at key points.
King’s book, which is my second favorite of his works (just behind The Stand), packed an unexpectedly visceral punch. The novel is as relentless as any horror work ever written, yet it resonates more deeply as a treatise on love, faith and mankind’s inability to resist our worst impulses. And those last two sentences, boy howdy, they still sting like a vicious combination thrown by a boxer in his prime:
A cold hand fell on Louis’s shoulder. Rachel’s voice was grating, full of dirt.
“Darling,” it said.
Maybe that’s why I exhaled a genuine sigh of relief, and then broke into applause, as the credits rolled Wednesday night after finally seeing the remake.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have not only delivered one of the best horror re-dos in recent memory, but also took King’s source material and made it better. And I couldn’t be happier, for fans but also for them, professionally.
Kölsch and Widmyer are true independent artists. They first landed on my critic’s radar back in 2014 with Starry Eyes, which is an amazing gut-punch of a film, and I was honored to not only speak to them about that work, but to champion them to anyone who would listen.
And now, with Pet Sematary, they have made the most of an opportunity that comes along too rarely for fledgling filmmakers: the chance to helm a big-budget Hollywood studio movie that doesn’t compromise its vision just to sell tickets.
Their Pet Sematary is both familiar and wholly new. It’s like slipping into your favorite pair of beat-up blue jeans only to discover a hidden pocket you never knew existed, and finding a treasure tucked deep inside that pouch.
The bones of the story remain true: Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel, their two children, Ellie and Gage, and family cat Church move to quiet, quaint Ludlow, Maine, for a fresh start. They meet their big bear of a neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), and Jud fatefully introduces Louis to the hidden burial ground deep in the woods behind his home as a means to save Ellie from heartbreak after Church is struck by one of the speeding Orinoco tanker trucks that haul ass past the Creeds' new home.
Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) is still dealing with the guilt from the death of her sister Zelda, but she remains committed to the idea that souls live on forever, even after death. Louis, a doctor, is much more pragmatic — dead is dead, nothing more.
Kölsch and Widmyer, working with writer Jeff Buhler, take their time exploring those themes. Each character is allowed to grow and evolve through their own substantial story arcs. And while Kölsch, Widmyer and Buhler tease events that longtime King fans know are coming, they also take sudden, unexpected swerves to goose the audience with a blast of frightful surprise.
The entire third act has been recalibrated in a way that both honors King’s work and expands upon the fateful, fetid steps that his Creed characters take when dealt a devastating blow that all parents secretly dread.
Such subtle but significant twists set the stage for an incredibly taunt and satisfying climax that lands with the precision of a world-class gymnast sticking the landing on her final vault.
Sometimes, dead is better, as Crandall ominously muses early on.
But, thankfully, as fans will discover with Pet Sematary, sometimes a new approach can breathe fresh life into a familiar story and make it more thought-provoking, and scarier, as a result.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.