“There’s more than one way to bury a cat,” mutters one of the very many traumatised characters in this movie: an uproariously lairy, nasty new version of Stephen King’s uncanny horror masterpiece of 1983, last adapted for the cinema by King himself in the version directed by Mary Lambert in 1989 and now disinterred once again, written for the screen by Jeff Buhler and directed by scare-specialists Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer.
It’s a supernatural chiller about our fear of death – and our longing for death as an end to this fear. This brutally effective and convulsively disturbing story is something to compare with WW Jacobs’s classic Edwardian ghost story The Monkey’s Paw or maybe even Franz Kafka’s stage-play The Guardian of the Tomb, in which the guardian realises his job is not to keep the trespassers out, but the inhabitants in.
Pet Sematary has all the time-honoured and perhaps even cliched tropes of King’s golden age: the creepy kid’s drawings, the sacred burial grounds, the happy family car-journey through deceptive rural loveliness at the very beginning, the habit of stepping outside your house when you hear a strange noise and looking around while incautiously going out far enough to allow some demonic figure to nip into your house unseen behind you. This version of Pet Sematary has iPhones and plasma TVs and Google searches but it could as well be happeningduring the Carter or Reagan presidencies.
Crucially, it is about the vulnerability of animals, whose short lifespan is an instructive lesson in death and grief for so many of us growing up. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is a hardworking hospital doctor who is disenchanted with big-city life in Boston and has taken his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and two young children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie) to live in rural Maine where he has a new emergency room job.
They have found a lovely tumbledown old house to live in, with what appears to be a huge forest forming their very own backyard. But the family is disconcerted to discover that by long-standing convention, local children are allowed to bury their dead pets in a special clearing there, an eerie space marked by a misspelled sign “Pet Sematary” – funerals distinguished by weird quasi-pagan ceremonials. And the subject of death is difficult for Rachel, haunted by a bereavement in her own childhood. A kindly old neighbour tells them all about this: Jud Crandall, played by John Lithgow, about whose past acting career there is a cheeky in-joke.
Young Ellie is devoted to the family cat, Church, and twinkly-eyed old Jud can’t bear it when Church is killed on the highway by a truck and he wishes to shield Ellie from the grim fact of the pet’s death. So he persuades Louis to help him sneak Church’s dead body to Pet Sematary and bury it there, and Louis plans to tell Ellie some story about the cat having just run away. But this place has a sinister effect on the pets buried there. Church returns – as a malign, dishevelled, violent cat. And the awful question is: might this place work on dead humans
Kölsch and Widmyer contrive some high-voltage jumps: it’s very disturbing when Louis is awoken one night by weird noises from his backyard forest, then opens the door to see the moonlit trees are uncannily much closer to the property than originally appeared to be the case, crowding right up to the porch. And it’s a jolt when Louis has to tend to a young student, horribly killed in a car wreck, who becomes an undead warming of Louis’s own terrible future.
As often with King stories, I find something a bit counterproductive in the sheer plethora of scary things and frightening plots and subplots – and I couldn’t help thinking that the flashback memories of Rachel’s tormented sister were a bit broad in horror terms, and superfluous dramatically. But this story keeps efficiently turning the screw, and famous misspelling itself has a power of its own. It conveys an oppressive state of wrongness: it is the non-cemetery where dishonest Louis once tried to deny death, to conceal death, and where the dead also refuse to accept their status. The final image of family togetherness is an exhilaratingly nauseous lurch.