2019, R, 101 min. Directed by Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer. Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, John Lithgow.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., April 5, 2019
There may be more iconic Stephen King books than Pet Sematary, but almost none of his works so thoroughly captures the imagination of non-King readers. As Hollywood struggles to adapt or re-adapt as many of King’s novels as they can, Pet Sematary was always a natural fit for a big-budget revival. It also happens to be one of the better adaptations to hit the big screen.
After years of struggling to balance family and work, Louis (Clarke) and Rachel (Seimetz) move from Boston to a small town in Maine. Louis hopes that his new job as a college physician will mean shorter hours and less stress – that is, until a dying student issues a cryptic warning about the decades-old pet cemetery on his plot of land. Turning to his new neighbor Jud (Lithgow) for help after a family tragedy, Louis soon discovers that not every creature that dies in his new hometown stays dead for long.
If nothing else, Pet Sematary proves that Jason Clarke was born to play the father in a King adaption. Many of King’s characters allow themselves to be dragged into darkness by their guilty consciences; what makes someone like Louis Creed or Jack Torrance so terrifying is not the monster they become but the loving parent they once tried to be. With a filmography that is equal parts empathy and dull violence (he’s as prone to playing kindhearted leaders as he is domestic abusers ) Clarke is the perfect actor to make the transition from doting father to grief-stricken Frankenstein.
He’s not alone, either. Rachel’s traumatic childhood may still work best on paper – literary interiority does not always translate well to film – but Seimetz helps turn these series of flashbacks into one of the movie’s best sources of scares (one particular sequence involving a medicine cabinet will be remembered among the best of the year). And while Lithgow is unsurprisingly excellent as Jud, it’s the young actress Jeté Laurence who nearly steals the show. Pet Sematary puts a lot on her shoulders, but Laurence creates a rapport – with Lithgow especially – that roots everything that follows in a place of genuine love and affection.
These performances are especially crucial to this version of the story. As the duo behind 2009's Absence and 2014's Starry Eyes, Kölsch and Widmyer’s roots as independent horror filmmakers shine throughout the movie – for a big-budget film, this one moves with gleeful sadism that would be the envy of any festival darling – but the filmmakers never quite manage to connect the threads between grief and resurrection. We’re meant to feel this trauma as a poison that slowly infects the family as a whole. Allowing the pain to fester a bit more might have given the film the emotional push to match its impressive scares, but the cast is always present to pick up the slack.
It may seem damning with faint praise to call Pet Sematary just a pretty good horror film, but given how many years we’ve been devoid of quality Stephen King adaptations or wide-release genre films, fans should be pretty thrilled with what Kölsch and Widmyer have accomplished. There’s more than enough here to please horror enthusiasts and die-hard King fans alike.
For an interview with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, visit austinchronicle.com/screens.