It’s been reported that Stephen King never wanted his 1983 novel Pet Sematary released, only filing to his publishers to fulfil a clause in his contract with them. His wife Tabitha said it was too dark to be enjoyable. His friend and fellow horror author Peter Straub said much the same. King himself said that of all the books he’s written, Pet Sematary is the one which genuinely scares him the most. “It just spirals down into darkness,” he said. “It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that”.
An extremely personal work; the story was reportedly based on a near death experience King’s own son, Owen, had once had.
Released in 1989 and directed by Mary Lambert – who, in her prior role as a music video director had seen her positioned behind the camera for Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ video – the first film adaptation of King’s story is a relatively faithful adaptation of King’s original text, at least in tone. The story concerns the Creed family – Louis, Rachel, their young children Ellie and Gage and their pet cat, Church – who we join upon them relocating from Chicago to rural Maine (this being a story set in Stephen King’s world, after all) after Louis is offered a job as a doctor at the local university. They came for a quiet life. They stay for the variety of tragedies that unfold.
The first Pet Sematary film isn’t a great movie. It’s fine. Kooky late-night TV movie fodder, really. It’s perhaps more notable for the inclusion of The Ramones’ great single, also called ‘Pet Sematary’, written specifically for the film and included in the end credits. A band called Starcrawler rework said song on the credits of the new film in quite a confused glam rock fashion. There’s something in that, there really is. After the success of 2017’s It – another second cinematic outing based on a King story – it’s somewhat inevitable that we arrived here. In 2019, Hollywood feels dreadfully short of ideas. And Stephen King has never, ever been short on them.
The twist in this new adaptation has been widely reported already. In case you’ve missed it, we won’t repeat is here. And yet the most surprising thing about the new movie – directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and written by Jeff Buhl – is the tonal inversion it applies to the entire premise of King’s story. It’s a horror movie, yes, in that there are things that make you jump, things that are unsettling to look at, and ultimately, it’s about things being buried in the ground that then come back to life and do horrible things. And sometimes it’s very effective at being so. But 2019’s Pet Sematary is much closer to being a black comedy than it is a horror movie.
This is only a criticism depending on your expectation of what you wanted this new Pet Sematary to be. Viewed as a comedy, albeit one dark of heart, the film is often extremely enjoyable. A highlight is the performance of newcomer Jeté Laurence in the role of young Ellie Creed, who herself appears to be having the most fun any child actor has ever had on a movie set since the days when Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin was allowed to play with marbles and BB guns all day. Ditto the really quite camp woodland scenes where Jud and Louis (Jason Clarke) explore the ‘spoiled’ soil which reanimates the dead things buried there. There’s creaking branches and cooing owls. It’s spooky, but only in the way a walk-through Disney’s Haunted Mansion is. It’s the kind of place where you’re more likely to be tickled by an evil spirit than scared to death.
And yet this confusion about tone – with what the film itself wants to be – is something it struggles with from the get-go; though it’s not until a very meta joke involving John Lithgow (cast as the Creed’s neighbour Jud) 40 minutes or so in that it takes a diversion it never really recovers from. It’s a joke too funny and too knowing (and too distracting from the immersive quality all great horror movies require) for the film to be truly scary from that point. This makes some of the material that follows feel extremely disjointed, particularly when it comes to telling the genuinely harrowing backstory of Rachel (Amy Seimetz). It also stops the viewer feeling the sorrow that’s expected of them when the major plot point arrives. The film’s last scene is a hoot, really quite clever, and neatly concludes the comedic mayhem of the movie’s final act. But you’d find more of value being said about death in a Goosebumps book than here.
God knows what King makes of the new film his book has inspired, but this Pet Sematary spirals down into silliness more often than darkness.