- Pet Sematary
- Directed by: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
- Written by: Stephen King (novel), Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler
- Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz and John Lithgow
- Classification: R
- Length: 101 minutes
Stephen King will never die. Though he fought to take his name off a few of them, the Master of Horror boasts over 76 film adaptations of his short stories and novels, including this summer’s highly anticipated It: Chapter Two, starring Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader, as well as Canada’s own Xavier Dolan and Finn Wolfhard. His body of work is immortal and when his movie adaptations are successful, deservedly so. Films like Misery, Stand By Me and The Shining stand the test of time, not only for their deeply realized characters and unforgettable plots, but because they understand how King uses the real psychological underpinnings of grief, childhood trauma and abject loneliness to tell a terrifying story.
But in 2019, the age of the reboot, what will we do with the off-brand King properties? Should we all be anticipating a Cujo Netflix series, or an edgier mumblecore take on Sleepwalkers? (Actually: not a bad idea.) Is there a non-problematic way to resuscitate Thinner? I only ask because 2019’s remount of Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary is one of the more dull and needless movie adaptations to exist, yet I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s also going to make millions of dollars. The state of Maine is up for sale. Steel yourselves for a Firestarter anthology series.
Mostly staying true to its source material except for one pivotal deviation not taken in the book’s original 1989 film adaptation by Mary Lambert, co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (yet more lucky male directors making their huge studio debut after their low-budget indie, 2014’s grisly Hollywood horror satire, Starry Eyes, played well at festivals) do a fine, generic job with their high-profile opportunity. With The Girlfriend Experience’s Amy Seimetz, as well as Jason Clarke and John Lithgow as the leads, Pet Sematary boasts interesting casting and a rain-slicked pastoral setting. It gets its screams from well-constructed jump scares, very convincing cat acting and one hallucinogenic moment of pure anticipatory fear. (A scene in which Seimetz sees through her medicine cabinet to the dumbwaiter which killed her sister as a child is the scariest visual depiction of family trauma since Hereditary.) But unlike King’s book, which was deeply committed to fleshing the details and lived experience of an isolated family coping with the death of their family cat, Pet Sematary’s script is so flighty, plot-driven and expositional that the movie barely has time to catch its breath, let alone wallow in the graveyard.
It’s an insult to one of Stephen King’s most intriguing premises, in which an exhausted doctor named Louis (here, Jason Clarke), tired of working the graveyard shift at the E.R., decides to move his wife (Amy Seimetz) and two young children (Jete Laurence, tasked with playing a sweet little girl and essentially Linda Blair in The Exorcist, plus twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) to a big house in small town Maine, not realizing their property backs onto the haunted ruins of an Indigenous burial ground. When the family’s beloved cat Church dies, a kind neighbour (John Lithgow, in one of his best performances) encourages Louis to bury their dead cat deep within the property. The next day it comes back ... different. There’s an unexpected family tragedy, and Louis next tries burying a body, leading to a grisly, familial blood bath, a classic trope in the King canon.
Hidden within the deep recesses of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmye’s not-that-scary movie is a really compelling film about death, unfortunately they’re tasked with a bland, way too literal script to be able to make it. As a novel, Pet Sematary investigates our cultural relationship to loss, how grief defines us, as well as a white man’s complex to act as a saviour, as well as a cultural oppressor. The evil spirit lurking within the family’s expansive property, located on ground first owned by the Miꞌkmaq, is the Wendigo. It’s a shapeshifting human/animal and a figure in Algonquin folklore that’s often used in the writer’s work as a metaphor for insatiable greed, blood lust and gluttony.
Louis wants his family’s love, as well as their respect. And so, if you did have the ability to bring back all the pets and people you ever loved and not have to face the horrifying loss and loneliness of death, wouldn’t you at least consider it? Next time, don’t ask indie directors who will work for cheap to tackle the King. I would’ve loved to see the Pet Sematary Lynne Ramsay would’ve made instead.