In 2017, the Bill Skarsgard-helmed adaptation of Stephen King’s best-seller It vastly improved on the 1990 Tim Curry-led miniseries that made Pennywise famous. By isolating the narrative so that the young protagonists took center stage, the film elicited greater empathy for the kids — who, to be fair, were only hoping for a relaxing summer vacation — while also making the conflict darker and more disturbing.
It overhauls the execution of the first print-to-screen attempt and gives the story legs to stand on its own. The latest theatrical Stephen King adaptation, Pet Sematary, fails to do any of this. Instead, it comes off as, at best, a slightly polished remake of the 1989 version.
Pet Sematary stars Jason Clarke as Louis Creed, a doctor who, along with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move to a new home in Ludlow, Maine. Behind their property lies the infamous local burial ground known as the “Pet Sematary,” where for generations Ludlow children have ceremoniously laid their animal companions to rest. But something evil resides beyond this piece of land where “the ground is sour,” and spirits prey on the grieving to violate the laws of nature and God. It is only when tragedy strikes that Dr. Creed realizes the truth about his new home.
Those familiar with King’s narrative won’t find much shocking about this adaptation. But even theatergoers new to the story should be able to piece together, rather quickly, how the events of the film will transpire.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer foreshadow the tragedy of the film’s narrative with the grace and subtlety of a shotgun blast. Within the first minute of setting foot on their new property, the Creed family is shaken by the sudden rush of an 18-wheeler speeding past them. While settling in, Rachel and Ellie discover the procession of kids about to bury yet another dead pet in the “pet sematary," a child-like misspelling of "cemetery." Returning home, Ellie watches an episode of Spongebob Squarepants where Spongebob and Patrick fear that Squidward has died and has returned to haunt them. On his first day at his new job, Louis fails to save the life of a car accident victim.
While it’s understandable for the creative team to communicate that death is inescapable, this foreshadowing becomes overbearing and even suffocating. It might have been more subtle to have a young Adelaide Langdon stand outside the Creed home telling the family, “You’re going to die in there.”
As alluded to earlier, Pet Sematary’s most glaring issue is that, unlike 2017’s It, the film does not really set itself apart from the previous adaptation. Although the acting is certainly leaps and bounds above its predecessor (Clarke and Laurence being two of the standouts), in terms of plot there are almost no significant changes from the 1989 iteration in the first two acts. There is one major change near the conclusion of the film’s second act, but it both fails to match the devastating impact of the original, and it feels poorly executed. It is only when the film reaches its climax that this plot point finds some redemption.
Omitted from the 1989 version, neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) sits Louis down and explains to him the evil presence he believes inhabits the “sour” ground beyond the “pet sematary," known as the Wendigo. Included in King’s original novel, the Wendigo feasts on the grief of those who foolishly fall in its path and convince them to do the unthinkable. This is only after Jud himself falls victim to the entrancing presence of the spirit on more than one occasion.
Although the Wendigo receives more attention here than in the first adaptation, it still feels lacking in significance, especially considering how the same creature has been used in remarkable ways on shows such as Hannibal and Over the Garden Wall.
The source material remains one of the standouts in Stephen King’s catalog, but Pet Sematary, as a film adaptation, feels like a retread rather than a reimagining. There’s little reason to fork over the money to see it on the big screen when, for the most part, you can already rent it at home. It’s not bad, but it's nothing new; you might even still recognize the soil stains.