For the forty years that Steven King’s novels have been translated to film, my home state of Maine has been his primary setting. Maine, as interpreted by King, is a land of many terrors: telekinetic prom queens, sewer-dwelling clowns, rabid Saint Bernards. Perhaps it’s the fact that ninety percent of the state is covered by forested land, amplifying that innate human fear of the unknown and unknowable wilderness, that makes Maine such a suitable setting for King’s horrors to unfold. There’s something inherently spooky about the woods that even as a kid, growing up on property that ran aground dense second-growth forest, I was able to tap into. I remember dragging my younger brother or helpless elementary-school friends deep into those woods, conjuring up faux-folklore about past peoples, haunting spirits and killer cryptids.
There was an old plot of land, roughly a half-mile back from the house in Falmouth where I first started collecting memories, that remains lodged in my mind. Covered by a thick canopy of tree cover, the remains of what must have been an 18th-century settlement – just rough foundation, cut away by the entropy of nature – lay totally untouched; collecting moss, withering away with time. I felt drawn to the place – its feral mysteries and odd placement – and would terrorize anyone willing to venture out there with me with some cooked-up plot intended to spook them into believing in something more than the known and knowable. The Maine woods are scary folks. Especially when you set out to make them so.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer do exactly that with their adaptation of King’s Pet Sematary. The film even begins with an overhead shot craning over an impenetrable forest below before arriving on a blood-stained scene; a crimson handprint, a locked car, a burning house. The woods watching. The dangers of the forest is suggested early and often, foreshadowed as a place of great power even before the art department blast everything with fog-machines (playing up the 80s B-movie vibes) and through the starry eyes of Kolsh and Widmyer, the wooded setting takes on a malevolent, moody character and seeks to root out and destroy its newest residents.
Them’s Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and wee little Gage (Hugo Lavoie) and the family of four has relocated to a 50-acre plot in Ludlow, Maine, a deeply rural setting with a census-confirmed population of 377. The screenplay from Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) evokes familial trauma before we ever get to the buried bodies and evil resurrection stuff, giving Rachel a back story (literally) about a twisted sister and using that as a fulcrum for the Creed family mom and pops to express their faith – or lack thereof – in something beyond life.
Awkward family conversations revolve around how to broach the ever-difficult subject of death with their doting daughter, exacerbated when the beloved family cat Church is run down by a blaring semi. Longtime Ludlow resident and neighborhood Jud (John Lithgow) twists Louis’ ear about native folklore and the spooky power of the land they just bought but only after he’s taken the good doctor under cover of night to an incredibly eerie slice of nightmarescape to bury Church. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the source material knows that that isn’t the last we see of the once-friendly kitty and that things only get darker from there.
It’s a shame that the trailer for Pet Sematary reveals what should be a left-field twist – and for the sake of those that haven’t been exposed to it, I won’t do so further here – because Buhler does a great job of flipping the plot beats as written by King to keep the material fresh without sacrificing deeper themes of the all-encompassing power of grief. Rather than try to spring load the same old trick up their sleeve, Kölsch and Widmyer steer their creation in a different direction, relying on dreamlike surrealism and haunting flashbacks to dig deeper into the film’s thematic position and burrowing further into the character’s deteriorating headspace.
As a remake, Pet Sematary succeeds by virtue of retooling what’s already been served; slicing it up and playing around in the guts. It’s a remix on the classic bonfire tale with enough unexpected detours to keep things involving and interesting. When the road forks and the map says to veer left, Kölsch and Widmyer hang right and pummel into whatever may lay in those tracks. They tempt and play with the audience, a cat batting at a stringed toy. Explosions of gruesome imagery are as startling and effective as the occasional jump scare. Kölsch and Widmyer are horror fanatics that have sharpened their craft and, by extension, have become funnier yarn-weavers in doing so. The pair batter us with foreshadowing so obvious that it becomes a sort of in-joke every time an 18-wheeler goes screaming past.
The performances are generally noteworthy all around. Clarke is well-suited to a man of science tempted by dark magic, his cloudy-eyed grasp on reality ever slipping as he becomes more of a hollow shell with every sacrifice he makes. Lithgow is perfectly suited to the tempted but spooked old man gig and Seimetz is effective as a mother shielding her children from a traumatized childhood to call their own. But it’s young Jeté Laurence who really steals the show, her Ellie the perfect foil that brings the dark soul of Pet Sematary to life in all its twist glory. Also, be sure to mark your ballots for Church the Graveyard Cat when voting for best villain of 2019; that disheveled feline is a spooker through and through.
While Pet Sematary isn’t the most artful or deep Steven King adaptation to date but – very much in line with 2017’s hugely successful It – it’s a reimagining with actual imagination, that takes the source material and puts an interesting spin on it, modernizing the material with whizbang effects and an eerie, and at times entirely scary, tone. In the firefighter world, forested area take on an ominious quality. They’re not called woods. They’re called fuel. It would only be right then to refer to the Maine woods as what they truly are: nightmare fuel. Welcome home.
CONCLUSION: Eerie but playful, ‘Pet Sematary’ knows what it is and plays to its strengths by embracing the B-movie qualities of the hellraiser but by then elevating it with majorly effective production value and over-the-top but hugely entertaining performances, it becomes a horror film not to be missed.
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