The renaissance of the Stephen King adaptation is well and truly upon us. Adaptations of the ‘King of Horror’s novels and novellas have been prevalent in cinema since the late 70’s and it would be fair to say the results have been a mixed bag (for every Carrie ‘76, there’s a Carrie 2013). Yet, lately, we have seen somewhat of a resurgence in both an interest in King’s properties and the quality of those adaptations. The Stranger Things effect cannot be underestimated, but the likes of 2017’s It and Gerald’s Game demonstrate that Stephen King’s mind is one well worth mining.
A remake of Pet Semetary was probably inevitable. One of King’s most beloved novels, the material has been adapted once before in 1989. That version, which boasted a script penned by King himself, while entertaining, has somewhat aged into kitsch. The ground was ripe for this property to be brought back from the dead and the results are delightfully devilish!
Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), have grown disillusioned with life in the big city. Together, they decide to move to their family (daughter Ellie and son Gage) to rural Maine. Once there, their idyllic ambitions soon become distorted with the discovery of a mysterious ‘Pet Semetary’ burial ground within the woods in their backyard. When tragedy pushes them towards the darkness that lies between the trees, the very souls of the Creed family are put on the line.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (making the leap from their indie horror-hit Starry Eyes) enter into Pet Semetary well in the knowledge that this is a story that many in the audience will be familiar with. With this firmly in mind, the duo set out to make this an adaptation that plays with expectation in a manner which feels dangerous, dastardly gleeful and often on occasion shocking. King-purists may light their torches at some of the changes that occur here, particularly in the finale, but for those open to change, Kölsch and Widmyer sure know how to stage a fright.
Largely sticking close to King’s text for the first two thirds, the film is very effective at establishing a sense of dread. The atmosphere feels uneasy from the very beginning as we are teased with the film’s outcome. From there, the film mounts up the unease, making it quite clear that there’s something not quite right about the property that the Creeds’ now own.
Once the dark energy of their new home starts to stir up the darkness that already exists within Louis and Rachel, the themes that have so occupied King’s mind throughout his work very much come to the forefront. Here is a picture perfect nuclear family in crisis, both affected by past traumas and something else unseen. Characters in the work of King often have their own traumatic baggage that is used as fuel for the sinister fire, and the story of Louis and Rachel’s family is no different, adding that element of dread to be laid on with unsettling ease. This chilling atmosphere is further enforced by the gothic textures of Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Christopher Young’s spine-tingling score.
There is always the risk of these supernatural stories becoming unintentional silly if not played with a sense of canny awareness, but thankfully this cast is more than up to the task. Clarke and Seimetz have a very easy-going chemistry as the leads, both very convincing in moments where they grapple with grief and madness. John Lithgow adds the appropriate amount of minous gravitas as the elderly man next door who knows more than he is letting on, while the performance from the young Jeté Laurence is brilliantly game, particularly once the crazy the final act kicks in.
Some King fans may take issue with the changes made to the final act of this story. But it fits wickedly well with this remakes M.O: to toy with your expectations. Kölsch and Widmyer aren’t letting you get away with the fact that you may be familiar with this story. Quite the contrary, they’re going to use that knowledge against you to deliver something surprising and haunting all a-new. This is a well acted and atmospheric horror flick that drips with dread, delivering the frights while cackling with demonic glee. Sometimes, remade is better.
Dir: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer
Scr: Jeff Buhler, story by Matt Greenburg, based on a novel by Stephen King
Cast: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, John Lithgow.
Prd: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Steven Schneider, Mark Vahradian
DOP: Laurie Rose
Music: Christopher Young
Run time: 100 mins
Pet Sematary will be released into UK cinemas on 5th April.