'Pet Sematary': Film Review | SXSW 2019

One of King's best-loved books gets a creepy second big-screen life.

Amy Seimetz and Jason Clarke star in Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 novel.

The Stephen King revival continues in Pet Sematary, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's take on a novel many consider to be a highlight of the prolific author's career. Already the subject of a not especially well-liked 1989 adaptation by Mary Lambert, the book's creepy premise justifies this modern second look, which proves to be a solid if not earthshaking horror pic built around notably good performances. It should benefit from the attention paid to King properties like It, though this film, happily, is more self-contained in its nasty drama.

Amy Seimetz and Jason Clarke play Rachel and Louis Creed, young parents who've fled Boston for a quieter life in rural Maine. Louis is a doctor, and viewers who know what's coming might giggle when he sighs that he's happy to be escaping the "graveyard shift" he was stuck with in the big city. Graveyards are going to occupy a lot of Louis' time out here.

Eight-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) has barely even unpacked her toys when she discovers a plot on the family's sprawling property where local kids bury their pets. (And from the look of the funky collection of grave markers, those kids were all raised by Hollywood art directors.) She attempts to climb a massive pile of branches on the edge of the cemetery, but is stopped by a friendly old neighbor, a widower named Jud (John Lithgow). The two take to each other, and Jud quickly becomes a friend of the family.

But something about that area behind the pet cemetery isn't right. Louis is having nightmares about it, or maybe sleepwalking there, haunted by the memory of a patient whose life he couldn't save. "The ground is sour," the ghost warns him. Louis keeps these visions to himself, preferring to offer comfort to Rachel, who's plagued by guilty, traumatized memories of a disfigured sister who died young. With both the sister and Louis' patient, Kolsch and Widmyer emphasize the gore in their pain, showing more than is necessary without appearing sadistic.

By the time Ellie's beloved cat Church dies (short for Winston Churchill), Jud is fond enough of the girl that he does something very unwise. He introduces Louis to the place beyond that mountain of wood scraps — a misty, soundstage-y hilltop where lightning flashes in the distance and dead things come back to life. Just not the way you remember them. Ellie (who hadn't heard about the cat's death before all this reanimation stuff went down) knows something's wrong with Church — you'd have to be blind not to — and the cat is soon making himself a very unwelcome presence. Jud tries to explain what's going on to Louis — it has to do with Native Americans and a mythical beast called the wendigo, and none of it is very satisfying, except as it relates to Jud's own childhood experience with the place.

Before a second (wrenchingly depicted) family tragedy occurs, the film has done a pretty good job of spreading out the layers of old trauma that will make a new loss especially painful — and make the action to come feel like more than just an icky ghost story. The directors and screenwriter Jeff Buhler have tweaked the novel's plot substantially, and we should let surprises be surprises. But as any viewer will assume, a human being is going to be buried out there soon, and the result won't be pretty.

The rest of the pic is strongest when it lets its very fine cast explore the difficulties their characters already have along with the ones they're hiding from each other. Not everybody knows about this place of rebirth; not everybody would agree to use it if they knew. And there's a compelling mix of fear and poignancy in the reunion of a surviving family member and one who isn't quite as alive as you'd hope.

Unfortunately but not fatally, the movie soon makes this reanimated loved one more monstrous than unsettling, possessed of unlikely strength and a little too similar to the growling monster-people found in garden-variety horror films. A more eerie approach would have been welcome, and more in keeping with what Church has taught us to expect from those who come back from the hilltop. That said, Pet Sematary's final scene captures the ambiguous creepiness of the novel's end while totally reinventing its content.

Production company: di Bonaventura Pictures
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, John Lithgow
Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Screenwriter: Jeff Buhler
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian, Steven Schneider
Executive producer: Mark Moran
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: Todd Chemiawsky
Costume designer: Simonetta Mariano
Editor: Sarah Broshar
Composer: Christopher Young
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

100 minutes