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Pet Sematary (15)

Director: Kevin KölschDennis Widmyer

Screenplay: Jeff Buhler

Starring: Jason ClarkeAmy SeimetzJohn Lithgow

Review: David Stephens

Everybody’s favourite spelling mistake, “Pet Sematary” had a twofold impact on the genre community. One of Stephen King’s darkest novels, it represented a benchmark in his prolific wordsmithery, and is as highly regarded as any of his other shelf-fillers. Published in 1983, it was borne from his tenure as tutor in the University of Maine, and the fear he had of the busy road that existed next to his rented property. (NB: His daughter really did lose a cat called Smucky to an accident there). Dark thoughts about grief and loss made it a very personal writing experience and he went as far to call the book “the one which genuinely scared him the most”. He almost didn’t submit it for publishing, due to dubious feedback from family and friends. But it was released in 1983 and went on to become a bestseller. The subsequent movie adaptation from Paramount was nearly directed by George Romero but eventually fell to Mary Lambert and hit theatres in 1989. A mostly faithful and surprisingly successful take on the story, it cast a spell over horror fans for several reasons; Fred Gwynne’s performance as kindly ol’ Jud, the nightmarish flashback of Zelda, and the convincingly evil performance from little tyke Miko Hughes as Gage. This brand new version is not a “remake” of the 1983 film as such, but a “re-telling” of the story with several significant changes to the source material. Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, who made the hugely underrated “Starry Eyes”, the film is now in US and UK theatres. So YGROY says “Hello Kitty” and goes 6 feet under to take a look-see.

It opens with an ominous trail of destruction in several woodland homes, but it’s not made clear if this is the past, present, or future. With that cheery opener we meet the Creeds, a picture-perfect family unit and prime material for heartbreak and nastiness in any given genre movie. Dr. Louis (Jason Clarke) has moved away from the city to set up a medical practise in the local University Hospital. He’s accompanied by his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), along with their daughter children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (dual played by Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie), not forgetting the family cat named Church. After settling in, they find that their property includes a kid’s local pet cemetery (hence the misspelt title), but are otherwise happy. When tragedy strikes, it leads well-intentioned neighbour Jud Crandall (a twinkly John Lithgow) to reveal a dark secret that will transform the Creeds forever…

Let’s get the big annoyance out of the way immediately…. If you watched the trailer (or looked closely at promotional material), you already know that this adaptation does differ from the 1989 film and the novel in a significant way. It’s a fact that the film works better if you’re not aware of that narrative diversion, as it’s a neat (if not entirely subversive) way of changing the latter parts of the plot and provides the best parts of this version. (NB: Goddamn, Jason Clarke is a jinx! Was it not enough that he also spoiled the ONLY good parts of “Terminator: Genisys” in the trailers?). We won’t spoil the “twist” or dwell too much on it, but it’s something that undeniably hovers over the movie and could affect your opinion of it. It’s worth mentioning that the actor primarily involved with the plot change does excellent work and should be recognised for that. Be that as it may if you’re totally unfamiliar with the “Semetary” this won’t be an issue, and even if you have fond memories of either the book or the 80s film, this is still a solid horror that’s effective if not wholly outstanding. The first part of this cinematic interpretation is pretty much a like-for-like set-up for the tragic events to follow, and very close to its predecessor. Where it does improve upon that movie a little is with the supporting characters; Lithgow’s Judd hints at his questionable motives for revealing the secret burial ground (“It calls to you…”, “That dog always did have a mean streak”, etc), and Seimetz’s Rachel is nowhere near as cold and distant as she’s depicted in the book and previous film. But once Not-Church (the best evil cat for ages) appears and starts to manipulate events to a pivotal moment, “Semetary” spreads its undead butter generously over the toasty goodness of mainstream horror, and it makes for a highly watchable experience.

The film plays up the big moments in the novel in a clever way. Victor Pascow’s benevolent-but-gory spirit is used more sparingly, but Rachel’s fear of her dead sister Zelda is represented more as an actual haunting. And whilst it’s easy to write off this new King adaptation as a knee-jerk reaction to the success of “IT”, it actually slots in nicely with the current crop of “Evil Kids” that seems to be on the rise again (see the recent “The Prodigy” and the upcoming “Brightburn”), and in that respect it works very nicely indeed. The main motif within the narrative remains that of human grief/loss, and the terrible things it does to us, retaining that “Monkey’s Paw” edge to it. But the core cast bring the chilling aspects of those actions to life in a commendable way. The 80s film had a raw disturbing edge to it, and whilst this film improves on it in terms of gore and intimate violence, it also supplies a final act that is just as chilling but for different reasons. Despite all this though (and a wealth of positive reviews indicate that it should do comparatively well at the box office), it’s not destined to become a smash-hit or redefine its source material like “IT” did. Despite the sterling efforts of one performer (darn those spoilers!), there’s not anything new here that reinvigorates the concept or reimagines the story to any great extent. The 80s film had their traumatising version of Zelda and a bad-seed moment (“No Fair!”) which became an indelible part of peoples genre memories. Due to the plethora of scary kids and zombie movies in the intervening years, this isn’t going to have the same impact.

Not that it’s a bad film. It’s a perfectly well-made horror, with some good performances and themes, making it very enjoyable. But it’s unlikely that it will be spoken about in glowing terms a year from now, or referred to as being a classic 2019 film. It does create some fine atmospheric moments, with the night-time visits to the burial ground being wonderfully visual (if a little studio-bound). For all intents and purposes the vison and soul of King’s story is still in there, but you can’t help wishing that along with the slight reinvention there was more raw emotion and thinking-outside-the-book that had been pushed that little bit further before the final credits. Full marks however for keeping the Wendigo connection in there, as well as several other sub-texts and nods towards its inspirations (somebody under the bed with a sharp object you say?). Well worth seeing, but some may still wonder if this “Sematary” warranted another resurrection and if the promise of a prequel/sequel is really needed.

This is a solid King adaptation and a very creditable horror. Several members of the cast do some great things with their roles, and the divergence from the novel provides some innovation to the reheated narrative. However, there’s still not quite enough to make it a huge hit or help it stamp itself into pop culture like the Lambert film. Good and creepy, but not outstanding.
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