Filmmakers have been adapting Stephen King’s work for years, but ever since IT dominated the box office in 2017, the pressure to duplicate that astronomical success has been a mighty hot topic with a whole slew of adaptations going into development. Fear of a rinse, wash, repeat approach or sheer desperation to hit it big again, possibly at the expense of quality, has been a major concern for this big Stephen King fan, but I am beyond thrilled to tell you that the first wide theatrical release since IT, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch’s Pet Sematary, isn’t merely a solid entry to the long list of films based on King’s work; it joins the ones sitting at the top as one of the very best.
The movie centers on the Creed family. In hopes of spending more time with his children, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) opt to leave big city living behind and move into a rural Maine home with their two kids Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). Little do they know, the property extends well beyond their expectations. The land includes a cemetery for local pets that’s been used for generations and also something else – something with the ability to bring things back.
Jeff Buhler’s screenplay excels on so many levels. The Stephen King source material digs deep into grief, the scars trauma and loss leave, and the impossible questions surrounding our own mortality, and Buhler, Widmyer and Kölsch embrace it all. Pet Sematary is highly engaging and entertaining, but it isn’t a rollicking ride that dishes out jump scares followed by a quick breather courtesy of comedic relief. It’s a layered, deeply sinister family nightmare that, yes, is packed with scares, but also a significant amount of complexity that takes those scares well beyond fleeting thrills. Pet Sematary digs its claws in quickly, injects the threat and uncertainty of impending death in your veins, and then challenges you to hold on tight as the characters are consumed by loss, desperation and violence.
The beating heart of Pet Sematary is the Creed family, and the phenomenal cast is key to the film’s success. It’s abundantly clear right from the start that they’re a loving family, but there are certain wrinkles to their relationship that make their lives feel messy and real, that are also extremely well woven into the narrative as things get increasingly dangerous. A scene during which Louis and Rachel attempt to assuage Ellie’s concerns regarding death is an early standout. Louis, a man of medicine and science, has no problem telling his 8-year-old that death is natural and finite, whereas Rachel is determined to shield Ellie from that alarm and uncertainty. It’s a scene that plays extremely well in the moment – nailing some of the strongest comedic beats in the film – but it’s also key to building the character-driven foundation that supports the rest of the story.
Clarke makes for a rock solid lead, maneuvering between Louis’ steadfast and more manic moments quite well, but the undeniable gems here are Laurence and Seimetz. Think you’ve seen enough creepy kids on the big screen? Laurence takes that genre stereotype, enriches it tenfold and turns Ellie into an unforgettable, extremely chilling force. The range the role requires is extensive to say the least, and Laurence works the entire spectrum from sweet and curious to true terror brilliantly.
And it’s about time that Amy Seimetz become a household name, widely in demand, or whatever it is that you’d deem a major industry success. She’s already got a lengthy resume with one impressive credit after the next, and a good deal of directing experience at that, and the way she amplifies this character with such raw passion and intensity is further proof she’s one of the best of the best. It feels as though the script is designed for Louis to assume the “main protagonist” designation but whenever Seimetz is on screen, she commands every ounce of your attention with undying dedication to her family and ultimately, fully tapping into the sheer nightmare that threatens to consume it.
More time with John Lithgow as Jud Crandall, the Creed’s kindly but curious neighbor, could have served the film well to more firmly establish the friendly codependent relationship that forms between the two of them, but this is John Lithgow we’re talking about here. It’ll probably come as no surprise that even with less time to build that connection compared to the book, Lithgow still shares a very convincing chemistry with both Clarke and Laurence. Somewhat similarly, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), a young patient of Louis’ who tragically passes, might have benefited from more screen time as well. But unlike Jud, Victor’s involvement in the story can’t really lean on strong chemistry; it’s much more so about the script for him. The way he’s incorporated in it works well enough – especially with the remarkable make-up effects – but a little additional clarity on his agenda might have made his involvement more impactful.
But those two light criticisms almost feel inconsequential in the middle of a highly effective and deeply chilling feature. The visuals are stunning across the board but boy do Widmyer and Kölsch know how to craft a wide array of creative set pieces. Everything is beautifully shot by cinematographer Laurie Rose. There are a number of vision-related camera tricks that work exceptionally well, the coverage and timing of the more violent scenes are spot on and significantly enhance the suspension and tension, and when it comes to the story’s big accident, they make it feel truly epic. And another standout here is Christopher Young’s score. It’s raw, carnal and beautifully restrained, rearing its head at just the right moments.