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The ‘Pet Sematary’ Problem: How Do You Scare an Audience When They Already Know the Story?

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new horror movie is the second adaptation of Stephen King’s classic horror tale, and it asks fascinating questions about suspense and horror in the age of reboots and remakes

Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

You know the song: The cat came back the very next day. Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary took the premise of a century-old folk song about a death-defying feline and spliced its DNA with the cautionary fable “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a pair of grieving parents learn that the only thing worse than losing a child is getting him back again. Or, as one of King’s archetypally sage small-towners puts it in a monologue from the novel: “Sometimes, dead is better.”

The subtext here about letting sleeping dogs (or cats, or toddlers, or World War I veterans) lie is easily applied to the even darker art of remakes. Given that Mary Lambert’s 1989 Pet Sematary comfortably rests in the upper echelon of big-screen King translations—and easily tops the list as far as theme songs go—a case could be made against revivifying this particular piece of intellectual property. But 30 years is a long time (20 decades in cat years) and the story’s bones are strong enough to support another variation. As The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote yesterday, the book “terrorizes the reader not by pitting its protagonist against an iconic, corporeal villain but by channeling more mundane fears”—the kind that aren’t going away any time soon.

Ideally, you’d want a remake to be handled by skilled filmmakers capable and willing to take some creative liberties with the material. The paradox of Pet Sematary is that that’s exactly what it has going for it, and yet the overall result is strangely disappointing. The talent behind the camera is evident. Co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer made an auspicious debut with the Kickstarter-funded Starry Eyes, about an aspiring actress (Alexandra Essoe) who undergoes a behavioral and physical transformation after auditioning for a role in a mysterious film production. Deftly blending body horror, plausible psychology, and sly industry satire, Starry Eyes is exactly the sort of derivative but assured effort that gets its creators hired on a higher-profile assignment.

Mission accomplished. The duo’s chops are on display from Pet Sematary’s very first shot, which adopts a hovering, predatory perspective to map the boundaries of an overgrown forest before passing over a house on fire. It’s an arresting opening with stylistic echoes of The Shining (the cinematography is by Laurie Rose, the gifted British DOP who shot Ben Wheatley’s jittery genre masterpieces Kill List and A Field in England). There’s a very particular sort of pleasure in starting off a horror movie with the feeling that you’re in good hands, and for about 30 minutes, Pet Sematary gets by purely on those good-bad vibes.

For viewers familiar with the story, the suspense transfers from the question of what is going to happen to the city-mouse Creed family—Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their young kids Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie)—who’ve moved from bustling Boston to rural Ludlow (spoiler alert: what happens to them is bad) to how Kölsch and Widmyer are going to visualize it.

When Ellie spies a procession of neighborhood kids solemnly transporting a dead dog off to the makeshift graveyard on the edges of her family’s new property, it feels as if the directors have figured out a way to swap out the clunky, blunt-force shock tactics of Lambert’s movie for something more poetic and insinuating. The Wicker Man allusion of having the children don animal masks hints that the plot’s full folk-freakout potential might be exploited where its predecessor stopped short.

What’s richest in the Pet Sematary novel—and what Lambert didn’t quite capture the first time around—is the collision of Louis’s man-of-science outlook (he’s a hotshot doctor) with the supernatural realities he encounters in Ludlow, a town haunted by the specters of settler violence and something older and more elemental. King’s greatest strength as a writer lies in his ability to create thick, tactile layers of everyday reality and then peel them away to reveal a substratum of terror and decay: Something always lies beneath. In Pet Sematary, the metaphor is literally topographical, with Ludlow’s close-knit community existing on top of a Micmac Indian burial ground—the stomping ground for a Wendigo who takes any opportunity to possess the recently deceased. Louis’s struggle to comprehend how Ellie’s beloved cat Church could be rescued from its fate as roadkill only to turn demonic upon its return takes on a Lovecraftian dimension, as the larger implications of resurrection kick in. King ruthlessly exploits the setup to its most logical and horrifying conclusion; he’s said that Pet Sematary is the most disturbing book he ever wrote, and he may be right.

Kölsch and Widmyer understand the grimness of the novel and they don’t shy away from it. If anything, the significant change they’ve made to the story has been calculated for an even deeper bleakness. What they’re not quite able to do is tap the rich vein of emotion running through the material. For all the criticisms that King writes too much, and too long, and too overbearingly, he has an instinctive grasp on how to wring sentiment out of pulp, and Pet Sematary sits among The Dead Zone and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon on the short list of his most plangent work.

Watching Pet Sematary, I couldn’t help but think of Larry Fessenden’s gorgeously melancholy Wendigo, one of the great, underrated horror movies of the 21st century, which features the shape-shifting Native American spirit as its title character and antagonist. Fessenden’s conception of the Wendigo is more positive than King’s, which reduces it to a generic demon, and also more political: It appears as a kind of avenging angel on behalf of Mother Nature, wreaking vengeance against rednecks. The allegory is pure eco-horror (as it is in the director’s Wendigo-themed The Last Winter), but the film’s blindsiding power is located in the authentic love generated in its main father-son pairing of Jake Weber and Erik Per Sullivan. They’re beautifully drawn, both as archetypes and as characters, and the mix of myth and specificity gets channeled in the direction of genuine, unabashed tragedy. The movie isn’t scary, exactly, but it’s sad in a way that’s close to terror—its sense of loneliness like an open existential wound. In Fessenden’s masterpiece, monsters are real but so is loss. What’s dead stays dead, and so you learn to live without it.

There’s potential for Pet Sematary to be similarly wrenching, and Clarke and Seimetz do their best to inhabit their characters’ doubts and traumas. (Rachel’s backstory of feeling responsible for her terminally ill sister’s death when they were both children is one of the most punishingly grotesque King subplots of all time.) Yet their exertions are at odds with Kölsch and Widmyer’s weirdly and increasingly detached sensibilities in the film’s second half. Whether knowingly or not, they end up depicting events that should be devastating as something close to deadpan comedy.

If the hoots and giggles at my screening were what the filmmakers were going for, it strikes me as an unfortunate betrayal of a novel whose ironies don’t come at the expense of empathy. If the laughs were unintended, then it’s a sign of the filmmakers’ slackening grip on tone. Whatever element of surprise is gained by rerouting King’s plot gets evened out by some boringly generic staging and a cheap coda that lacks the B-movie integrity (and Monkey’s Paw pathos) of Lambert’s more faithful anti-grace note. Sometimes, remakes are worse.