Author Stephen King is arguably one of the most well known and beloved writers. Often called the ‘King of Horror’, his work is familiar to countless audiences (be they avid readers or not) and he is the living author with the most film adaptations to his name. So it is no new event to see a King story being adapted for the screen again but after Andrés Muschietti’s record-setting success with 2017’s IT: Chapter One (the eagerly awaited Chapter Two lands later this year), there is no doubt as feverish as ever a taste for some of the author’s stories to make the jump to the big screen. However, this is not the first time his 1983 novel Pet Sematary has being adapted for film, see Mary Lambert’s 1989 feature, but the story this time around is a little different from the source and the aforementioned movie.
Sticking very much to the crux of King’s chilling tale of life, death and the unknown territory beyond, this adaptation instead swaps up the central character tragedy and the plot’s conclusion with some success. It might have been more successful had the far too revealing trailers for this film, not have already given this fresh spin on the characters away. That said, this film is still a worthwhile take on the story but it admittedly works better when building on the dread and making full use of the imposingly atmospheric settings than it does in the latter stages of payoff.
Unlike King’s text or – to some extent – Lambert’s film, this movie kind of comes apart a bit in the final stretch, as the good concept gets a little overdone with a very by the numbers finale that borrows from literally every other supernatural horror film ever and thus has splashes of predictability (unlike the fresher spins earlier on). These moments still offer some horror fun but lean a bit more into exorcism horror movie-esque tropes and instead of embracing the methodical air of evil that earlier moments relish, this goes over the top and in your face and it does not satisfy half as much.
In spite of this, the feline-driven frights of the first half are very well delivered and this film’s incarnation of Church the cat is fantastic and the role he plays in the story once again is excellent. Meanwhile the human characters are good enough, with much of the source material also translating to screen with them, however the best performance by far is offered by the ever-reliable John Lithgow, as old local Jud. He plays the cautionary part superbly and almost bleeds into the grey backdrop that is Ludlow, Maine becoming one of its tales and a part of its ambiguous history. And when we speak of the backdrops, this is arguably the greatest asset this film has.
The ‘Pet Sematary’ itself is amazingly realised, evoking a keen Wicker Man meets Evil Dead edge and the mystic and ungodly foggy swamplands and lightening lashed rock settlements that lie ahead of this burial ground is amazingly atmospheric on the big screen. Plus the dark, almost gothic, shots of something potentially demonic lying in wait among the sinister trees are some of the most effective moments in the film (and one part heading towards the final act even gives us a brief glimpse). Cinematographer Laurie Rose has done a great job here, as has Christopher Young with an effective accompanying score and the make-up team with some gruesome gory effects.
Pet Sematary may not fully conjure the same haunting power of the book on which it is based but it is a good take on King’s terrifying tale of spirits and death and absolutely looks the part. Plus, it was nice to see a little IT reference there too, dare we hope for a new universe?
- John Lithgow is reliably excellent, the slow building dread is when the film is at its best, the mist-laden and greyish settings are brilliantly constructed and atmospheric, Church the cat is awesome!
- The final act is by-the-numbers, the alterations to the source would have worked better had the trailers not given them away and the film really overdoes its strong concept come the end.