PLOT A man discovers an ancient burial ground that brings the dead to life.
CAST Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
RATED R (strong gore)
BOTTOM LINE A slick update of the campy 1989 release.
Now that horror has entered an artful, socially conscious phase with Jordan Peele’s “Us” and other boundary-pushing films, is there still room for an old-fashioned chiller with undead creatures, terrified women and buckets of blood?
“Pet Sematary” suggests there is. An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel, “Pet Sematary” works as both an update to the schlocky 1989 film and a throwback to the creepy horror-classics of old. The themes here are classic, too: decay, death and the unknown realm that lies beyond our own.
“Pet Sematary” is quintessential King, a campfire ghost-story about a doctor, Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), who leaves big-city Boston to live in rural Maine. In short order, we meet the principal players: His wife, Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) and their children, 9-year-old Ellie (a very good Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage. Their neighbor, Jud Crandall, is a gruff but kindly old feller who knows everything about the area, even the local legends. John Lithgow makes a worthy replacement for the great Fred Gwynne in the role.
The film does a good job of guiding us through a story that feels — not predictable, exactly, but inexorable. When Ellie’s cat, Church, is killed by a car, Jud shows Louis the pet cemetery. Not the one with the childishly misspelled sign, but an ancient one, deep in the woods, where buried things return to life. Church comes back, alright, but with snarled hair, a foul temper and the smell of death.
We all know one of the Creeds will be next, but — minor spoiler — fans of the novel and the 1989 film are in for a surprise. This “Pet Sematary” takes a major liberty with the source material and it pays off handsomely, allowing for newly sadistic twists and an added measure of psychological complexity. The screenwriter, Jeff Buhler, adds a zinger of a line when Louis says how nice it is to have his undead loved one back. The accusatory response: “Back from where?”
The strong performances (particularly from Clarke, a dependably intelligent actor) help make “Pet Sematary” feel like something better and more grown-up than just a gore-fest (though it has its moments). The directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (both Long Islanders) also strike a nice balance between back-of-the-neck prickles and whole-body jolts. “Pet Sematary” may not break any new ground, so to speak, but it’s a creepy good time at the movies.