Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, 101 mins, starring: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz and Jeté Laurence. Cert 15
Stephen King’s words have a power of their own. They leap off the page, crawling into our minds and forming the most grotesque of images. They make their home there, lingering long after the final chapter. There’s no wonder that King’s work has been translated to the screen more times than any other living author. Nearly 100 adaptations exist, with many more in the pipeline.
Yet while many versions, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, have their own place in history, we underestimate how tricky a job King’s work presents to directors. Veering too far from the source material risks losing the power of its ideas, while hewing too closely can get you bogged down in the vastness of King’s literary universe. The new adaptation of Pet Sematary, following on from Mary Lambert’s 1989 take on the book, attempts to find some kind of balance between these two extremes. The result, in turn, both upholds King’s work and betrays it.
The story follows Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor, and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) who, with their two young children, relocate from Boston to rural Maine – the setting of so many of King’s tales. Louis seeks peace and quiet, along with the opportunity to spend more time with his children. The family buy a big house with acres of land. But, as their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) soon discovers, their backyard hides a terrifying secret. There’s an old pet cemetery within the trees and their kindly neighbour, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), speaks of it in hushed, nervous tones. It doesn’t take long before we discover why.
Under Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s direction, Pet Sematary boasts intelligent scares. They’re well constructed, well timed and sometimes entirely unexpected. What the film does particularly well is to anticipate an audience’s reaction, so that it can either play into it or subvert it entirely. The family’s cat, which plays an integral role in the story, will leap into frame and screech whenever the tension’s been ramped up too high. You might chuckle after the third or fourth time, realising how consistently this little feline has made you jump out of your skin. But there’s a light touch of humour to the film that embraces the fact that laughter often accompanies a good fright.
Kölsch and Widmyer also do a good job of capturing the rampant weirdness of King’s work. This is the man, after all, who decided the face of ancient cosmic evil should be a child-eating clown. Pet Sematary is one of his more conventional concepts, but the film still has its surreal moments: a door floats in the middle of a sea of trees, while the night is pierced by the haunting call of the wendigo, an old superstition of the Algonquian people. Yet the film also falls foul of King’s greatest weakness as a writer: his tendency to be distracted by subplots, flashbacks and detours that never go anywhere. It comes back to the principle of Chekhov’s gun: don’t have a pistol hanging on the wall if it’s never going to be fired. Pet Sematary violates this golden rule several times. The children in eerie masks that dominate the posters are seen once and never again.
Unfortunately, the film’s attempt at tonal authenticity is rather undone by the major changes it makes to the book. What’s odd is that these decisions dramatically alter the core story, yet barely affect its themes or ideas. So, why make them in the first place? It all seems a little arbitrary, especially when it comes to the film’s final 10 (or so) minutes. There’s a distinct moment where Pet Sematary seems to collapse in on itself, as if there was a panicked realisation that the filmmakers had no clue how to end their own creation. The film might be able to offer a few surprises for those familiar with the book and its 1989 version, but it otherwise puts a dampener on what could have introduced a whole new generation to the chills of King’s novel.
Pet Sematary will be released in UK cinemas on 5 April
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