Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary flips the Creed family narrative, breathes delectable darkness and while Act I takes its time building backwoods tension, once the tale’s famed “incident” occurs, it’s all-aboard this speeding vessel into an undead abyss. Stephen King adaptations are thriving as of late – It and Gerald’s Game, off the top of my head – and Pet Sematary does the prolific suspense author proud. Some might balk at the “switched” narrative, but there’s so much more to embrace about a rebirthed ballet-dancing daughter and Rachel Creed’s bolstered presence. And that’s all on top of the fact that Kölsch and Widmyer *earn* their jump scares.
Sometimes dead is better – but this mean-spirited remake isn’t one of those instances.
We pick up with the Creed clan having just moved to sleepy Ludlow, Maine as an escape from Boston’s hectic madness. Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo/Lucas Lavoie) take to their quiet country life, but discover their property comes with a melancholy local landmark – a “Pet Sematary.” Neighbor and lifetime local Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) warns that some places shouldn’t be explored, but when tragedy strikes the Creed family – first when Church the cat dies, then worse later – Louis harnesses the power of his inherited urban legend to make things right…or so he believes.
Pet Sematary oozes menace, choreographs a macabre family-terror waltz, and stakes through the heart when grief reaches its pinnacle. Kölsch and Widmyer understand horror; you’ve seen Starry Eyes and their Valentine’s Day Holidays segment, no? Foggy Wendigo-teased bogs and Native American mysticism drench moody bumpkin-happy terrains as blackened tones contrast more porch-rockin’ happiness before “the moment” occurs. Cinematographer Laurie Rose beholds the secrets that lay in Ludlow’s dense woodland, and nightmarish provocation is not an issue. Overhead tracking shots, muddy six-feet-under digging, paranormal hallucinations and all.
If you’ve seen any trailer for Pet Sematary, you know where we’re going next – but just in case, do note that spoilers are about to follow. Turn back now, ye who desire.
Jeté Laurence’s transformation into Kölsch and Widmyer’s knee-high killer – instead of even tinier Gage – permits the film a more potent punch of evilness. Adult performances are somber, torn-open and haunted by “choices,” but Laurence’s dead-eyed reanimation is hands-down the film’s crowning signature. Whether she’s sitting in a bathtub – detailed by rigor mortis cadaver makeup and stapled-shut scalp stitching – or twirling around, smashing home decor while the Nutcracker score plays, me oh my does Laurence pose childhood corruption alongside some of the genre’s nastiest, vilest youth-based murderers.
Poor Jud Crandall – still slain in brutal fashion, but not without a nice fakeout by Kölsch and Widmyer as an animal-masked Ellie summons one painful remembrance before driving a scalpel deep into a muttering Lithgow’s flesh.
Driving into even more profound realms of visceral horror, Kölsch and Widmyer *do not* skimp on gore and savagery. This ain’t your mama’s made-for-TV Pet Sematary, made ever evident once Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) wheels into Louis’ operating room. We can glimpse his brain pulsating, fleshed peeled back, as the boy appears to have been chewed up and spit out by Satan himself. Blood spurts from open wounds, Jud’s Achilles suffers the same grotesque fate, and Act III’s climactic turn will have many a viewer wincing. There’s no playing around between this roguish cemetery’s walls. The horror hits swiftly, sensationally and without warning. Just how it should.
All this stated, Pet Sematary does take a hot second to catch momentum. Clarke plays an understated fish-out-of-water who takes more to Seimetz’s slice of humble living than quieter office days, but it’s not until supernatural offerings start tempting fate that the film reaches its chilling apex. As Louis is summoned to the basement by mangy zombie Church – phenomenal animal acting, by the way – and Rachel’s bathroom medicine cabinet transforms into Zelda’s dumbwaiter (the spine-twisted, contorted sister played by Alyssa Brooke Levine), deadly decadence mounts. Once Ellie dies, morose mysteries strike like a bat out of hell. It’s a slow and steady build, but once agitated, Pet Sematary grows monstrous and lights-out sinister while still being powerfully effective in terms of Rachel’s grip on morality, Louis’ building grief, and everyone’s view on that damned “sematary.”
No need to mince words: Pet Sematary is a terrifically scary Stephen King adaptation that finds steady footing and incinerates the sanctity of family systems. What a wonderfully wicked turn by Jeté Laurence, and how destined for underage genre stardom this little monster becomes. Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have already proven that they know the horror genre inside and out, but more than ever, the duo showcase how their cinematic manipulation carries voice and trademark. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a village and all that – strength in acting, Christopher Young’s noteworthy and deceptively comforting score – but if Starry Eyes was Kölsch and Widmyer’s “coming out party,” this is nothing but a ravin’ continuation. No slump here, get ready to scream and shout as the good horror lords intended.
Pet Sematary is proficiently tense, dashingly macabre and soaked in nightmarish tones that thrive on audience screams.