Stephen King’s ‘Pet Sematary’ Returns With Menacing Atmosphere and Terror

Sometimes it is better to just leave the past buried. That remains the seminal idea of “Pet Sematary,” one of Stephen King’s best known fables about ordinary lives clashing with dark, supernatural forces. The first adaptation of King’s novel came in 1989, quickly becoming a cult classic with its ghoulish visual effects and theme song by the Ramones. Even in its wicked campiness, it retained the essence of what King’s story was trying to convey. The same goes for this new, updated version which stays even closer to the book, ratcheting up the scares, atmosphere and overall dread.

The story begins with the Creed family. Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz), who along with their two young children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and little Gage (played by Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), are moving from Boston to rural Maine. They have a new home in the sparse town of Ludlow, which is mostly composed of forestland. As soon as they unpack Louis and the kids notice a group of children wearing strange animal masks, burying a pet in the woods. Neighbor and lifelong resident Jud (John Lithgow) shows the family the local “Pet Sematary,” a misspelled spot where for years the locals have buried their departed, beloved animals. Louis, a doctor, has been hesitant about discussing the issue of death with Ellie, but the topic becomes urgent when the family cat, Church, is run over by one of the tanker trucks that constantly race down the nearby highway. Jud guides Louis to a spot a little further beyond the Pet Sematary to bury Church. But the next day, Church returns to the house, alive but moodier. As Jud explains to Louis, there are strange forces at work in the land near the Sematary, capable of brining life back to the dead. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is tempted to go even further, to the horror of Jud.

One reason Stephen King’s novels and short stories have been the basis for endless films and TV adaptations is because he is above all a fantastic storyteller. His work applies horror to characters that could be any of his readers. This new “Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, a directing duo at home with the menacing. Until now their most recognized film has been “Starry Eyes,” a dark fable about the murderous Hollywood underworld. Working from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler, they stick to the essentials of King’s vision while adding a few, quite good twists. It would be somewhat pointless to nit-pick the differences between this film and the 1989 version memorably directed by Mary Lambert, because nothing can diminish its cult status. “Pet Sematary” the 2019 edition merits being considered on its own terms. But like the first movie, Kölsch and Widmyer understand that this tale works best as a small story. The very idea of reanimating the dead is creepy enough. Instead of taking it over the top, the directors infuse the narrative with rich, ominous atmosphere.

One of the real stars here is cinematographer Laurie Rose, who keeps the King tradition alive of turning Maine into a shadowy, foggy place hiding terrors in the woods. The inside of the Creed house always seems to be shadowy, even in daytime, and when Jud joins Louis to bury Church, the horizon is full of lightning and approaching storm clouds. There’s nothing pretentious here, these filmmakers are setting out to deliver an old-fashioned, classic scary movie. Even as we wait for the main scares, Kölsch and Widmyer delight in unsettling the audience with sudden, morbid shocks. Louis treats a patient caught in a terrible accident, and the camera can’t help but show us his exposed brain (the patient will then appear to Louis as an apparition). Rachel is haunted by the death of her convalescent sister, who suffered from a twisted spine. Her flashbacks are pure macabre, each one slowly revealing how the sister met her fate in front of Rachel. Yes, visions, corpses and dangerous feline jump or leap out at us, but these directors do it with style. The music by Christopher Young creates a growing wall of dread, using scratches and screeching to keep the blood pressure up. And if Church the cat felt too much like special effects in the first movie (especially his glowing eyes), in this one he’s well-cast as a strange, disturbing little pet lurking in the corners after being resurrected. He belongs next to Black Phillip, the Satanic goat from “The Witch.”

“Pet Sematary” does justice to its source material by building it all up to a spooky story that is about more than just gore and fright. The ads have given away a major twist, but for those unawares, the film slightly changes the climax where Louis deals with a family tragedy by using the Pet Sematary to bring back a loved one. Yet the story’s same, unnerving and meaningful effect is still there. Louis is only fooling himself into thinking he can resurrect what has been lost, and the results are monstrous and deadly. The final shot is brilliantly intense and merciless.

King’s horror endures because he has an actual voice. This is why good filmmakers have always managed to mine him for excellent material.  A lot of “Pet Sematary” functions as just a good popcorn entertainment. This is an ideal date movie. But like any good scary story, it disturbs us because beneath the ghouls and black magic, the message is more recognizably human.

Pet Sematary” opens April 5 in theaters nationwide.