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Pet Sematary breathes new life into King’s classic horror novel

Kerry Hayes
Courtesy of ian Boyd

Pet Sematary is often heralded as the scariest Stephen King book ever written. As such, a movie adaptation seemed inevitable upon the novel’s initial release. Sure enough, a film of the same name hit theaters seven years after the book hit shelves in 1983. Though it had developed a cult following over the years, the 1989 movie garnered mixed reviews from critics and was largely overshadowed by many of the other iconic Stephen King adaptations of previous and subsequent years.

Now that the world of cinema is hot on both horror films and remakes, a 2019 reimagining of Pet Sematary seemed like a great idea. The film won’t go down as one of the best Stephen King films ever made and likely won’t come close to the success of the reimagined It franchise — also adapted from a Stephen King novel — but it was still impactful enough to leave the majority of viewers feeling satisfied upon exiting the theater. Still, the movie is far from flawless and will certainly leave more than a few zealous readers and horror savants longing for more.

The story begins with the timeless horror cliché of a family moving to a new house where something evil lurks close by. What happens next, however, is anything but commonplace.

Though many of the trailers have already spoiled what should have been an unexpected twist midway through the film, the aftermath of the big reveal is still enough to keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats all the way up until the even more shocking finale.

The best way to go into a flick like this is with a completely open mind. As is often the case when adapting from such rich source material, the movie falls short in capturing the shocking darkness of the book.

That is not to say that the movie itself is not unsettling and eerie, just that it pales in comparison to the original novel.

As a standalone feature, Pet Sematary is sinister and unnerving in its own right. Fans of the book, however, may feel disappointed that it does not measure up to the idea they have conceived in their heads while reading Stephen King’s work.

Similarly, horror enthusiasts may balk at the film’s surprising lack of pure terror, jump scares and overt brutality. This movie instead prides itself on the unnatural atmosphere it creates. Much like Jordan Peele’s work, Pet Sematary generates a lot of fear not from blood and gore, but instead on subtlety and foreshadowing.

The audience can tell something abnormal is going on long before the climax actually occurs. While hardcore horror buffs may roll their eyes at the absence of in-your-face terror, others will appreciate the bone-chilling buildup that culminates in the scariest outcome a parent can ever endure.

The film’s main strengths lie in its performances, anchored by Jason Clarke as Louis Creed, the father and main character of the movie, and the always marvelous John Lithgow as the Creeds’ helpful neighbor, Jud Crandall. Amy Seimetz also thrives in her role as the matriarch of the Creed family who is dealing with a devastating backstory of her own.

All of these actors effortlessly play off of each other and are able to create a close-knit group of adults whose love for the eldest Creed child ultimately yields their downfall.

The problem with many movies, perhaps scary movies in particular, lies in the oft-underwhelming portrayals by child actors. That is fortunately not the case in Pet Sematary. All of the children, mainly Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed, embody their characters with such a believable nuance that it can be easy to forget they are even acting.

Laurence in particular, much like the children in the recent Us, displays a maturity beyond her years by playing what essentially amounts to two very different characters that ignite the second half of the plot.

Another strength of the film is its script, which doesn’t slow down for a second. The whole affair builds steadily from the very first scene, establishing the picturesque family’s deep bond while never becoming too sentimental or unrealistic.

Unlike most horror movies, every character is multifaceted and deserving of sympathy. There are no unnecessary roles that exist only to be killed off and there are no ghastly death scenes that are written solely to shock audiences.

At its core, Pet Sematary is a film that explores unprocessed grief in the face of inconceivable trauma. Even though the audience can essentially tell how ill-fated many of the decisions are, it’s easy to understand why the characters make them. Love can cause people to do crazy and occasionally horrible things.

The movie takes a few liberties that vary from both the original book and movie, somehow resulting in an even bleaker climax and ending.

Though the film is far from perfect, it has enough strengths to make it worth the watch. In a landscape filled with unnecessary remakes and reboots, one line from the movie rings the truest: “Sometimes dead is better.”

When it comes to Pet Sematary, it is a movie worth bringing back to life.

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