Movie review: 'Pet Sematary' remake resurrects Stephen King horror tale

 
By Jake Coyle
Associated Press
Updated 4/5/2019 9:09 AM
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  • A doctor (Jason Clarke) unleashes terror when he ventures into a strange burial ground in "Pet Sematary."

    A doctor (Jason Clarke) unleashes terror when he ventures into a strange burial ground in "Pet Sematary." Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

"Pet Sematary" -- ★ ★

Hollywood, in its infinite irony, has resurrected a tale about the unholy perils of resurrection.

The mean roads and mangy cats of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary" are back from the dead in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer's vividly acted, blandly condensed remake of Mary Lambert's 1989 movie, adapted from King's 1983 novel.

King famously voiced trepidation about what he unearthed in "Pet Sematary," a book he has said that he initially put away in a drawer, thinking he had "gone too far." But the book is a kind of perfect summation of King: equal parts schlock and gothic terror. If the new "Pet Sematary" is solid enough, it's due in large part to the sturdiness of its source material: a darkly honest New England parable of grief.

Working from a script by Jeff Buhler, the directors make quick work of the first act. Within minutes, the Creed family -- father Louis (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage -- is driving up to their new colonial home in Ludlow, Maine, and Ellie is ambling into the nearby pet cemetery. Its name is accidentally misspelled by the kids who solemnly parade their dead dogs and cats there, most of them victims of the Orinco oil tankers that whoosh menacingly through the woodsy town.

When the family's pet cat, Winston "Church" Churchill, is found dead roadside, Louis and Rachel debate whether to tell Ellie, who will surely be crushed. They ultimately agree to tell her that Church just ran away.

Ellie (Jeté Laurence) finds her cat much changed in "Pet Sematary."
Ellie (Jeté Laurence) finds her cat much changed in "Pet Sematary." - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Creeds' neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) helps Louis to the cemetery for Church's burial, but leads Louis deeper into the woods to an ancient burial place. Louis goes along with it. The next day, to Louis' surprise, Church is back -- Ellie's confrontation with death avoided -- but the now far-crankier feline has picked up a different demeanor on account of having been raised from the dead.

Things get worse from there. The speeding trucks claim another victim, although not the same one as in the book. The twist is of little solace; tragedy comes just as surely, as does Louis' misguided temptation to deny it.

It's not plot deviations that hamper "Pet Sematary." It's that Kölsch and Widmyer rely less on the detailed accumulation of atmosphere that King built his tale on, than jump cuts and music cues to build suspense. By the film's final scenes, "Pet Sematary" has been reduced, subtly but substantially, into a more standard-issue zombie movie.

Still, I wouldn't want to level the tale's most lingering line -- "Sometimes dead is better" -- on this "Pet Sematary." The actors are too good. I guess even when slightly mutated, some stories are just too hard to say goodbye to.

• • •

Starring: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence

Directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer

Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated R for violence and language. 101 minutes

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