Pet Sematary

Assessing the overall value of a horror movie is easy. Basically, how scary is it? There are other factors to consider (intent, theme, production values, performances, sustained tension, etc) but really, when you get down to it, did the movie achieve its most transparent goal of unnerving its audience? I will admit that, in addition to losing sleep after seeing it, the new “Pet Sematary” truly frightened me. Consider that a hearty recommendation for those who love horror movies and a severe warning for those who don’t.

Louis and Rachel Creed (played by Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) have moved their family of four (five if you count Church the Cat) into a rustic country home in Ludlow, Maine. Because this is a Stephen King story, things immediately go wrong- their daughter, Ellie (played by Jete Laurence) discovers a creepy pet cemetery in the woods behind their home. Jud, an odd but caring neighbor (played by John Lithgow) informs the Creeds of the cemetery’s bizarre history but gradually reveals a dark secret.

I’m fond of King’s novel, which was the first of considerable length I ever read (my Mother didn’t seem to mind that, while my friends were devouring Beverly Cleary, her 10-year old was reading King). The 1989 film adaptation was “The Exorcist” for my generation, a movie my classmates were too afraid to openly discuss; reports that kids were crying as they fled the Maui Theater during screenings only added to the lore…and reminded me that, like the Creeds, parents sometimes do very stupid things. Like, for example, take their children to horror movies (seriously folks, just don’t do it).

This jolting and atmospheric remake is an improvement over Mary Lambert’s still-effective original. To compare the two versions- Clarke and Seimetz give harrowing performances and, unlike the appealing but in-over-their-heads Dale Kidkiff and Denise Richards, are up to the emotional challenges of their roles. Lithgow makes an excellent, if surprisingly edgy Jud- I missed the late Fred Gwynne’s folksy warmth and definitive Maine movie accent (“Loo-wes, duhn gah dahn bah the rahwd!”). The eerie Victor Pascow is a one-man Greek chorus that the new version wisely uses sparingly and the four felines who portray Church are collectively the Meryl Streep of cats.

The directing team of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer offer no comic relief (or relief of any kind). By the second act, they relentlessly go for the throat and bludgeon the viewer with nightmarish dread. It faithfully retains the queasy allure of King’s novel, which explores our inability at dealing with death and our failure to protect our children and ourselves from the ache of grieving. As horror films go, this “Pet Sematary,” like the one before it, is stylish and skillfully made but never fun.

The third act is drastically altered from King’s novel. Surprisingly, it’s a real step up, as it extends the horrific implications of King’s scenario. Like the climax of “The Mist” (another great King adaptation), the punishing but clever third act takes this as far as it could go.

The editing is occasionally a problem, as the first act is too tight and a few subplots are malnourished (we’re left to guess the origin of the fire that bookends the film). A few familiar and overdone horror tropes surface, though the screenplay (by Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg) finds ample opportunities to add another twisted detail. There’s a bathtub scene (and a moment in bed that follows it) that couldn’t possibly be more unsettling. Then there’s the final moment, a disturbing, punishing closer that firmly emphasizes what King’s story truly is- an American gothic and a tragedy.

This would make an intriguing (if exhausting) double feature with Jordan Peele’s “Us,” another gruesomely imaginative horror film about sinister doubles within an American family. While “Pet Sematary” lacks a sense of humor and Peele’s more playful approach, it’s much scarier than “Us.”. Horror fans, brace yourselves. For everyone else, enjoy “Captain Marvel.”

Three and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly