Pet Sematary review: The directing team behind the fantastic Starry Eyes tackle their biggest project yet as they take on one of Stephen King’s most beloved books. Expect thrill, chills and even some tear spills, in this tone perfect adaptation.
Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer are two of the best directors working in genre cinema. Their first film Starry Eyes, a body-horror Faustian tale of one actress’ determination to be a star no matter the cost, instantly hooked this writer, and it’s easily one of the best modern day horrors. They followed this with an eye-catching Valentine’s Day segment in horror anthology Holidays, perfectly capturing the deadly nature of teenage girl obsessive lust. Now, for their biggest project yet, they tackle Stephen King’s most personal (in in this writer’s opinion best) novel, Pet Sematary.
The film tells the tale of Doctor Louis Creed and his family as they relocate from busy Boston to the sleepy town of Ludlow. Their new house is the perfect family home surrounded by picturesque woodland. There are a couple of drawbacks though. The road outside, though generally quiet, has a nasty speeding truck problem, oh and there’s also an ancient Indian burial ground hidden behind the local pet cemetery that has rejuvenating powers. After the Creed’s beloved cat, Church, falls foul of one of those speedy trucks, guided by elderly neighbour Jud, Louis finds himself on a dangerous collision course with madness. He soon learns that sometimes, dead is better.
Those thinking that know what they are in for because they’ve already read the novel, or seen Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary, are mistaken. Kölsch and Widmyer, both self-professed lifelong fans of King, have managed to capture the pure, terrifying essence of the book, whilst adding their own slant. It’s a rare example of an adaptation that changes the source material without alienating the fans. The changes make total sense within the narrative that they have built. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know what the biggest deviation is, but trust us, it’s totally the right decision. Kölsch and Widmyer also sneak in some other aspects of the novel, for fans of the book, and get in a couple of Kingverse nods, the most noticeable being a road sign for Derry.
The power of King’s novel stems from everybody’s ability to identify with grief and loss. It’s an incredible emotion, and having that option to take it away and bring back someone or something that you love that is gone, is a very tempting proposal for some. It obviously goes wrong here, but it’s that exploration of the taboo that gets the skin crawling. It does make for a tough task to bring to the screen though; this isn’t a tale about a killer clown or invading creatures from another dimension, it’s about how to handle a very human emotion. In that respect, Pet Sematary isn’t your typical modern horror film. This is much more than a load of cheap jump scares stitched together. Rather, the duo focus on misdirection and an uncomfortable amount of silence to bring the frights. There’s an intense heavy sense of dread that permeates every frame, and from the opening sweeping shot of woodland, Pet Sematary pulsates with terror.
One of the big baddies of the book is harmless tomcat turned feline from Hell, Church, and King’s vision is perfectly executed here. As what is termed ‘a crazy cat lady’, I can honestly say that there were moments during watching Pet Sematary when even I was wary of Church. Angry Church is full of feral ferocity, and he’s certainly one kitty you don’t want to pet. The performance from the team of cats is seamless, it’s pretty hard to tell that it’s more than one cat, and their handlers have clearly done a superb job.
It’s not just the cats that put in a stellar performance, all the acting is top-notch. Jason Clarke leads strongly from the front, his Louis Creed is the true every-dad. His descent into insanity is delicately handled, and happens so slowly that the audience is almost unaware that it’s happening. Amy Seimetz is great as Rachel, a character I personally feel is under utilised in the first Pet Sematary film. Her scenes of being haunted by her sister Zelda offer some of the more traditional scare moments, and they are creepy as Hell. John Lithgow is typically brilliant, his version of Jud slightly more unsettling than his predecessor. Hugo and Lucas Lavoie, the twins who play Gage, are suitably cute and innocent. Somehow they are almost spitting images of original Gage – Miko Hughes. But this film belongs to the young Jeté Laurence who plays Ellie. There’s a lot of material for someone so young, but she manages the role beautifully and has that rare, wise beyond her years quality. She’s sure to become the new young actor to watch.
For all of it’s horror elements, Pet Sematary is also a very emotional watch. Upon reading the book, and watching the previous film, I’ve always been upset by the passing of Church, but the subsequent death (in the other film at least) never quite landed with me. This time around, that scene is brutal and heartbreaking, and induced a smattering of tears. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare come to life, and though they thankfully don’t dwell on any gore of the incident, there’s a tremendous sense of loss that bursts through.
With Pet Sematary, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have crafted a tone perfect recreation of Stephen King’s best work. This is a film steeped in darkness from its opening to closing moments. It’s one film that you won’t soon forget.
Pet Sematary review by Kat Hughes, March 2019.
Pet Sematary is released in cinemas on Thursday 4th April 2019.