Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY has never been a favorite film of mine. That’s not to say I think that the film is poorly made, it’s simply too effective. It’s one of King’s bleakest (the author considered shelving it, calling it dark and unenjoyable) tales and hit me hard at 9 years old when—much like Ellie Creed in the novel and film—the death of a pet or a loved one is harder to comprehend and accept than as an adult. This new take on King’s 1983 novel injects a pitch black sense of humor into the story that, while cutting some of the visceral, emotional horror of the original, makes for a more entertaining film.
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is a big city doctor who moves his family—wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), son Gage Hugo Lavoie and Locas Lavoie), and cat Church—to the countryside. It’s a big house, lots of land, and a pleasant neighbor in Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) who befriends young Ellie in the pet cemetery behind their new home. Jud explains that the local children have been burying their pets there for years. When Church the cat is run over by one or the speeding trucks that tear down the nearby highway, Jud offers an alternative solution to revealing the bad news to Ellie. He and Louis go far beyond the cemetery to bury the family cat. Coated in thick fog reminiscent of the moors from countless Hammer productions, the deed is done and hours later, Church returns to the Creed home..albeit changed. Tragedy befalls the family when Ellie is killed by a speeding truck in front of the house and while Rachel escapes to the city with Gage. Louis remains and makes an attempt to reanimate his dead daughter, but as Jud Crandall explains, “sometimes dead is better.”
PET SEMATARY plays like a great cover version of a classic song, taking elements of both the original novel and film, and putting its own spin on it to create something faithful to the soul, but just different enough to surprise and excite. Usually a second adaptation of a novel will attempt to be more faithful to the original book, SEMATARY plays with those expectations—at times going completely off book—providing surprises, jolts, and scares that audiences won’t see coming. The filmmakers utilize the familiarity that King fans have with the source material to play the audience like a fiddle. It’s a brave move for the filmmakers to make, making changes to a story that King fans hold in such high regard, but it pays off. In some cases, the changes improve upon the original novel. The death of Ellie provides more gravitas to the themes of grief and loss as she’s the one asking the questions before meeting her demise. Even with the changes made to the characters and sequences, the themes of loss, grief, and death remain. The best Stephen King stories play like classic E.C. Comics or Twilight Zone morality plays (and the worst ones wrap up with “and it was aliens the whole time. The end), taking human faults and utilizing them in ghost stories. PET SEMATARY leans into that with a tale of a man using powers he doesn’t understand for selfish—if relatable—reasons. Louis Creed is a man of science who takes to supernatural means to attempt to rebuild his crumbling family.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer along with script writer Jeff Buheler bring black humor—be it through the way shots are set up, the editing or the a script—that lightens the heavy load of the proceedings and keeps things from getting too bleak or dour . It’s a welcome addition. Some of the most timeless horror films from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, to the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, to SCREAM, feature some genuine laughs alongside the more terrifying moments. The filmmakers expertly utilize it as a catch and release, and it provides for a thrilling ride.
The climax of the film provides an unsettling—and darkly comic—final image right out of an issue of The Vault Of Horror or Tales From The Crypt that will remain with audiences long after they leave the theater. And yes, the credits smash to a cover of the Ramones classic.