Directed by Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Rated R for horror violence, bloody images and some language
1 hr., 41 mins.
I don’t know why a fine writer like Stephen King has had such bad luck with films based on his books. Not that I blame him for being paid for his film rights. But beyond the economics, with some exceptions such as Stand by Me and Misery, most of his works end up being overhauled and butchered by film producers and directors.
It’s particularly disturbing in this production of his 1983 novel Pet Sematary. Truly one of the creepiest and best novels that King has written, neither this film nor the 1989 version do him justice. Call it a lack of imagination, innovation or the ability to retell a fine story. It just goes to show that King, the tale spinner, has few equals, especially within the film community.
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved with their children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie) to Ludlow, Maine, a small university town. Their dream is to escape the distractions of Boston and live a quieter life as a family.
Still, even in this sedate setting, tragedy follows them. Louis is shaken after a university student, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), is run over and killed by a truck. Later, he sees Victor in visions as the specter leads him to haunted places on his property and warns him to stay away. Rachel is disturbed by memories of her sister who died horribly from spinal meningitis.
When their beloved cat, Church, is killed on the nearby highway, Louis’ neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) leads Louis to a high point beyond the pet cemetery (misspelled “sematary” on the sign). Louis buries the cat, only to have it reappear the following day as a muddy, nasty creature who refuses to go away. When Louis corners Jud, he discovers that his property is inhabited by a spirit called a wendigo.
After Ellie dies in a horrific truck accident (notice the recurring theme), Louis decides to exhume his dead daughter and bury her on the same haunted mountain as Church. If you thought the resurrected cat was bad, wait until you meet the revamped daughter.
Of course, this film is a mishmash of the original story. If you’ve read the novel, you’re going to have trouble following this story. But let’s assume you haven’t and this is your first time wandering through the pet sematary.
I’m not certain why a film like this called for two directors, a screen story credit and a screenwriter, or why the film took nine years to produce and release. It may explain why Pet Sematary feels like a grade B horror film, with predictable scare tactics and some less-than-stellar special effects. Even Church appears in some scenes to look like a hand puppet.
Still, the film does capture some of the original flavor of the novel, thanks particularly to the talent and hard work of Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, and Jeté Laurence, who does a credible job of turning from a sweet daughter into a murderous hobgoblin. The ending is also haunting, if not controversial.
If you’re just hoping to be frightened, Pet Sematary will probably fit the bill. If you’re looking for horror inspiration, a sense of King transference, you’ll have trouble keeping track of all the pieces the writer and director try to stuff into their standard bag of tricks. Plus, the side story with Rachel and her sister feels like an unfinished plot, a movie in waiting, so to speak.
Horror master King still waits for the right person to take this story where it deserves to go. Read the novel and see what I mean. King turns a cat into more than just a pet, and a resurrection into more than just a reanimated body. Unfortunately, this version of Pet Sematary is simply meant to scare you. Nothing more. In this case, that’s just not good enough.