A rule of thumb, where Stephen King is concerned, seems to be that brevity is the author’s friend. When the writer keeps things short (short in King terms) he tends to be onto a winner. When he allows the myriad subplots and narrative cul-de-sacs to get the best of him, things tend to fly to pieces in laborious style. His 1983 novel Pet Sematary, clocking in at a relatively svelte 374 pages, is an unusual beast. It tends to be held in fairly high esteem among genre fans yet it has been close to disowned by the man himself. Inspired by events in king’s own life, the themes of infanticide and resurrection were thought to be perhaps too unpleasant even by him and the book only saw the light of day as a means of fulfilling a contractual obligation. Nevertheless it seems to have endured
in its own way with a 1989 adaptation that, like the book, clings to life with a cult following.
Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book right up until the moment it isn’t. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) a Bostonian doctor moves to a small town with his family and their cat. Their house is adjacent to dangerous road frequently taken at high speed by the passing truck drivers. The road has caused the deaths of so many local pets that the town’s children have constructed a “pet sematary” in the nearby woods. Serendipity has seen the animal graveyard located in the shadow on an ancient burial ground that holds a foreboding power. Although warned not to by local elder Jud (John Lithgow) Louis buries the pet cat there when it is flattened by a truck on the road and soon after, a seemingly resurrected cat appears back at the house, although its demeanour has unquestionably changed.
There’s certainly something to be said for the relatively mature approach to horror on show here, particularly in world splattered with movies that are happy to indulge in increasingly meaningless shrieking jump scares – at least for the first hour or so. There is a lightness of touch shown by directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer in the attempts to build a creeping sense of dread, rather than resorting to bells and whistles fun house horror. This works best when it casts its eye over the themes of grief, loss and guilt, particularly as the plot unfolds and more than just the family cat end up in the ground. There’s a look at fragile masculinity and bone-headed patriarchal stubbornness to think about, along with some genuinely excellent cat acting. But Kolsch and Widmyer seem to lose their nerve at the death and fail to hold their line of unfussy chills, dipping little toes into more spectacular waters without fully committing. The end result is a final act that feels simultaneously hysterical but also muted and lacking in any real commitment either way.
Chris Banks | ★★ 1/2
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Horror | USA, 2019 | 15 | Cinema | 4th April 2019 (UK) | Paramount Pictures | Dir.Dennis Widmayer, Kevin Kolsch | Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Siemetz, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie