The latest Stephen King adaptation takes on the great author’s most grim tale with both a deft hand and a ham fist, though the performances and the creep factor outweigh its faults.
I have a confession to make: I love Stephen King. I love his books–even when they’re bad (and they can be bad)–but especially when they’re good. I really enjoy the film adaptations of his books, which range from nearly unwatchable (I’m looking at you, Creepshow!) to masterful (hello, The Shining!). In the midst of a veritable glut of excellent Stephen King adaptations and inspirations, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have taken on Pet Sematary, to general success.
The plot is pretty basic: Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved with their two young kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie), to Ludlow, Maine. They’re hoping to get away from the stress that comes with living in the big city. A tragedy strikes the family cat, Church. So, the Creeds’ neighbor Judd (John Lithgow) shows Louis where to bury Church.
“What are we doing here tonight, Judd?”
“Burying your daughter’s cat.”
“And that’s all?”
“That and nothing but.”
Turns out, what returns from beyond the Pet Sematary isn’t the same thing you bury.
Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s darkest novel, one which he hesitated to publish because of the heavy dread that permeated from it. That’s saying something coming from the master of modern horror. But that’s what makes the novel so moving and readable. It’s horror, but not the stereotypical horror that people ascribe to King. It’s not a slasher; there aren’t rabid dogs (though the movie references a crazed St. Bernard); and there aren’t even ghosts–except those we take with us in our minds or those we bring back. There’s gore, but that’s not the focus. The novel focuses on the deep existential dread innate to the human condition. We all wonder, speculate, argue about death. We can understand everything there is to know about the biological process but we cannot step beyond the veil and return. But what if there was a thinner section to that veil? The book delves into those questions, wrestling with them, along with engrossing grief and terror associated with even the prospect of losing a child.
And the film tries to go there. It has many moments of success as it attempts to grasp at what King has kept out of its reach. “Places in the world that are older than either of us. Places that your doctor’s mind can never understand. What we did last night we did for your daughter. But that cat’s yours now.” They have to live with their choices. What’s more, we cannot hide from the realities of this world. We cannot deny their existence. And I applaud the filmmakers for trying to do in the short runtime what King does in more than 400 pages, even though they barely can scratch the surface of the answers to the deep questions they ask. Maybe take more than 1 hour and 41 minutes? Take a cue from the IT filmmakers. But I’m the guy that thinks most book adaptations should be epic in length.
Great atmosphere, both in production design and music, foreshadowing and underscoring everything that is to come.
I always like Jason Clarke, and he plays Louis Creed with a good balance of gravity, sincerity, and raw emotion. He’s the pragmatic scientist facing the realities of death while his wife cannot bring herself to discuss death and its implications because of her guilty past. “Anything but dead.” Their roles reverse and he becomes the believer in the supernatural while she knows that the dead must remain that way. Even more kudos go to newcomer Jeté Laurence, who takes on a seriously scary, intense role. They do a great job of truly creeping us out with her otherworldly self.
My main criticism comes from the heavy-handedness that comes with a horror film when they should’ve drawn more from the source material. Criticism: the house is a bit too much like The Shining hotel or like a haunted house from The Conjuring. The horror is too heavily supernatural, even body-horror inspired rather than drawing from the purely existential dread with the single supernatural element from the book. For instance, random creepy kids with drums and masks (reminiscent of moments from this first season of Castle Rock) march through the Creed property at the beginning, something that’s called back later with no connection made–it’s an eerie image, for sure, but because it wasn’t rooted in King’s book, it made little sense. There’s one major twist that I think many King fans will be up in arms about, but I actually like it!
This is perhaps one of the darkest of Stephen King’s adaptations—not in terms of the gore (though it possesses that), but in terms of raw, brutal emotions. As always, I highly recommend that you go see the movie, then make sure you read the book. You’ll get a deeper, more richly developed tale spun by a master storyteller. Pet Sematary is a decent enough film, with excellent acting from Jason Clarke and Jeté Laurence in particular, along with solid support from the inimitable John Lithgow, but it should be stronger, overall.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.