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Grave consequences – ‘Pet Sematary’

April 10, 2019
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Considering Hollywood’s concurrent current trends toward embracing reboots and Stephen King properties, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that a number of the Master of Horror’s past filmic adaptations are ripe for revisitation. Particularly when you take into account the runaway critical and commercial success of 2017’s remake of “It” and the notorious unevenness of previous screen adaptations.

This brings us to the latest King remake “Pet Sematary.” This new film – based on King’s 1983 novel of the same name – follows the 1989 version helmed by Mary Lambert. It tells the story of the Creed family and their move to rural Maine, where in the woods behind their new home, they stumble upon a dark place – a place where death is no longer an end, but rather the beginning of a much more horrifying tale.

However, while the assembled cast is stellar and co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer are not without skill, the end result doesn’t quite clear the bar set by either the novel or the original film. That isn’t to say that this version is without merit, but those with a deep-seated affection for those previous works will likely find themselves a little disappointed.

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke, “Serenity”) is a doctor from Boston who has decided to move his family to the small Maine town of Ludlow and go into practice there. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, “Wild Nights with Emily”) and his children Ellie (Jete Laurence, “Night Comes On”) and Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie in their debuts) join him as they move from the bustling city streets into a massive old farmhouse set on a huge tract of land.

Not long after their arrival, the Creeds witness something strange – a processional of children, all wearing masks, making their way into the woods behind the Creed home. They soon learn that their property plays host to the town’s “pet sematary,” a place for locals to bury their departed pets, information that comes their way courtesy of crusty neighbor Jud (John Lithgow, TV’s “The Crown”).

But there’s something else in those woods, something buried deep within the trees. And when Ellie’s beloved cat Church is hit by a car on the too-close nearby road, Jud takes Louis on a journey that reveals just how powerful the forces in the forest are.

How powerful – and how sinister.

And when a horrifying tragedy strikes, Louis is drawn to the woods once again, woods filled with whispers. There’s something in the ground in those woods, something that reopens doors that are meant to remain forever closed. Something that turns endings into twisted, terrifying continuations.

As Jud himself says, “Sometimes dead is better.”

This version of “Pet Sematary” is a subtler take on the story than either the novel or the previous film. In some places, that works, undergirding the narrative with quiet moments that amp up the tension. In others, however, we miss the broad strokes of the earlier works; there’s more than a little Greek tragedy in this story, but that sweeping sensation is more or less absent in this version.

It’s a well-made film, with some solid aesthetic choices (with the exception of one featured location that reads like an abandoned “Star Trek” TV set from the ‘60s on a soundstage). The pacing is solid and the scares are there for the first part of the movie, but the film’s third act is both too fast and not fast enough; the end of the movie also sees some changes that King purists will likely find less than ideal.

None of the film’s issues are the fault of the cast. Jason Clarke holds it down as Louis Creed; it’s a tough role to handle, but he manages to give us a sense of the internal conflicts faced by this man of medicine faced with a world where death is not the end. Amy Seimetz is very good as well, though the narrative’s structure means that hers is a mostly reactive performance. The kids are solid; Laurence is a young pro who manages to elicit a degree of real emotion and pathos from a role that could have easily devolved into hammy campiness. And John Lithgow is wonderful as the grizzled Jud, offering a glimpse of the quiet, lonely sadness that makes the man so vulnerable in ways both good and bad.

(Note: Shout out to Fred Gwynne, whose Jud in the 1989 film was one of the first representations of a certain kind of Mainer I’d ever seen on film. The accent was ridiculous and the performance was over the top and the whole thing was perfect and you’ll never convince me otherwise. The rest of that movie was good, but Fred Gwynne was exceptional.)

It’s strange to think that the original film came out 30 years ago. But while the world’s appetite for all things King has grown ravenous, perhaps this particular property wasn’t the one to tackle again.

This new “Pet Sematary” is scary in its way, with strong performances and an interesting look. But it’s also strangely paced with some jarring changes from the source material. All in all, it’s pretty good, but not good enough to bump its predecessor off its pedestal.

[3.5 out of 5]

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