Grief is a powerful emotion. It can cause the most crippling loneliness and make us seek out all possible alternatives to fill the gap that is left when a loved one is gone. But what would it take to bring something back and if they do come back, will they ever be the same? This is the main theme running through Pet Sematary, one of Stephen Kings most acclaimed and celebrated works.
Like nearly all horror movies this opens with a family, in a car, moving to a new home. There is the father Louis (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavourie) and cat Church, these are the Creeds. They are moving away from the city to Maine where life is less busy and simpler. They arrive at their new home and take it in along with the forest behind it, that is cut short when a speeding truck rushes pasts them.
One day while walking through the forest they hear a bang of some kind, then they see children walking inline, one has a little drum, they all have masks of animals on and one is pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead dog in it. They follow the children and see that a few trees have a spiral carved into them and they come to a place called “Pet Sematary” where the local children bury their departed pets. This is when we also meet Jud (John Lithgow). An old man that lives in the house next to them, he’s lived around here all his life and knows about some of the ancient traditions and lore of the land. He quickly becomes a friend to the family.
One day Jud needs to have a private word with Louis, Church has been killed in a road accident. They decided to keep it from Ellie deciding to tell her that he ran away. They go to bury him amongst the other pets but Jud says he knows a better place to bury him. So they climb a wall of trees behind the cemetery, walks through a swamp and climb up to a hilltop where he tells Louis to bury Church and mark it with stones. The next day Louis and Rachel tell Ellie about Church but she says he hasn’t run away, he came back yesterday, he’s in her closet right now, which indeed he is.
We learn that, for whatever reason, when you bury something in that hilltop they come back. There are ancient folklores about a creature called the Windego and other stories and theories but it doesn’t matter, the cat has returned, but not the same, more violent. And so begins the whole macabre affair and the ultimate sentence of the movie “Sometimes dead, is better.”
This is a world of old, dark trees, where mist rolls in and things can emerge and disappear within it, where much is primitive so crosses and signs are held together with knots. it invokes an ancient, ritualistic atmosphere to the whole movie. But keeps it’s shaping simple so they are easily recognizable and can become symbols for the movie.
King wouldn’t be so celebrated if his work didn’t have some kind of merit. He has produced his share of goofy or even not very good products but he is still undeniably a man of talent. He works best when he creates characters with deep emotional problems and a situation that highlights human insecurities and layers it with something supernatural. This is such a material.
As an adaptation, I cannot speak for because at the time of writing this I have yet to read the book. However, I don’t believe this is a detriment to my ability to review the movie. A product should be able to stand on its own, a novelisation of a play should be perfectly enjoyable as it is and not have to depend on its source material. This is a complete story as it is, there may be more details in the book and it may, in fact, be the more well crafted and better version of this tale or maybe the movie improves upon it, I don’t know but either way, it doesn’t matter.
Ironically I recently reviewed Us and wrote about how horror at its best is not like a hatchet but like a scalpel. Well, I would say that there are moments of shock within this movie and they did indeed make me jump with fright. This isn’t the worst thing but it won’t age the movie well, shocks work once and maybe two more times after initial watching but after that, you know what’s coming and can prepare yourself for them. What lingers with you in horror movie, or really just movies in general, is the buildup and the unseen and the feeling of dread and anticipation before anything happens. This has those and they rely upon what the characters have said, the sound and the unseen before something comes out of the dark and goes bang.
This is a horror movie with a chilling concept at its center, some creepy visuals and terrifying moments, other times when it just goes all out and yells at you with something gross on-screen. King fans will either like it or nitpick the way the material was handled. But from the acting to the production, to the sound and even the ideas that fester within you afterward, I say this is a solid piece of work.