First published in 1983, Stephen King’s supernatural chamber tragedy “Pet Sematary” was a dark tale of terror Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch both devoured growing up separately as budding filmmakers and horror fans in Long Island, N.Y.
Like scores of King devotees around the globe, they’d read the book as youngsters and pored over the 1989 film adaptation directed by Mary Lambert, which sealed a frighteningly adorable psycho toddler and a cat named Church into the horror cinema lexicon.
Kölsch remembers seeing its cult sequel “Pet Sematary II” in theaters in 1992, a few years before mutual friends would introduce him to Widmyer. They were the only two guys in their circle of friends so utterly obsessed with making movies, they’d type out screenplays on word processors at parties. Maybe they’d get along?
Cut to a year ago this month: After making a splash with their 2014 indie thriller “Starry Eyes,” the directing duo had landed their first studio job — remaking “Pet Sematary,” based on the King classic. Naturally, they felt a mix of pressure and excitement as they headed to Montreal to scare up their own telling for Paramount, which releases the R-rated film this weekend 30 years after the first hit theaters.
That’s because, in addition to being a story horror fans already know inside and out, “Pet Sematary” is also — famously — the most frightening story the bestselling author says he ever wrote. And nobody wants to let Stephen King down.
“I think Stephen King likes to let people take liberties,” Kölsch said appreciatively of the author during a chat inside Burbank’s Dark Delicacies horror bookstore. “But it’s a really nerve-wracking thing to go off and make something based on somebody else’s material without them having any say, and then when you’re done, presenting it like, ‘Here’s what we did!’”
He and Widmyer flashed back to the day they heard King was in the middle of watching their film, their nerves rightfully jangled. Scripted by Jeff Buhler (“The Prodigy”) from a screen story by Matt Greenberg, “Pet Sematary” closely follows King’s original novel — with a twist.
The story — inspired by an incident that happened to King — begins when a doctor named Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), move with their 8-year-old daughter Ellie and 2-year-old son Gage to a sleepy Maine town populated by friendly neighbors like Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) and the occasional fast-zooming semi-truck, hurtling down an adjacent highway.
In the woods on the edge of their property resides a makeshift pet cemetery frequented by local children, hence the “Pet Sematary” spelling of the title. And just beyond the cemetery lies an ancient burial ground pulsing with an immense and terrible power, tempting lost souls to make irrevocable choices.
The film follows the events of the book in similar fashion to the pared-down narrative path of the 1989 film. But Buhler, Widmyer, Kölsch and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, best known for producing Paramount’s “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” blockbuster franchises, made the arguably risky move of changing one major plot turn, subtly altering the dynamic of how the Creed tragedy unfolds.
Later that night after watching the film in a private screening in Florida, King passed along his seal of approval. “He appreciated that we kept all the family stuff and he found it really scary,” said Kölsch. “And then he tweeted about it the next day, which was really crazy.”
In true King style, his tweets of support have been short but sweet: “This is a scary movie,” he posted in February. “Be warned.”
The “Pet Sematary” remake spent nearly a decade in development before getting the studio greenlight, although Di Bonaventura estimates that they came close to getting it going twice amid various executive shuffles. The success of Warner Bros.’ record-breaking 2017 horror hit “It,” part of a wave of King adaptations sweeping TV and film, helped push “Pet Sematary” over its final hurdle, he said.
“One of the things about the new Paramount management is their willingness to try ‘new,’” he said, “which I think has been sorely lacking both at Paramount and in Hollywood. And in a marketplace that is saturated with material, streaming or otherwise, one of the ways to stand out is [by being] bold and new.”
In a post-“It” marketplace where studio horror and more mature R-rated genre fare are commercially proven, he added proudly, the “Pet Sematary” remake was better positioned to bring not just dark, but the darkest of subject matter to a hopefully receptive movie-going audience. The material goes beyond scares and bloody violence to achieve under-the-skin frights that seep into your soul and ask deep, troubling questions.
“We never would have gotten that ending through many different incarnations of studio executives, partly because it’s the darkest version you could possibly come up with,” he said with a laugh, teasing the spoilery secrets of this latest “Pet Sematary.” “I guess we could have killed [character name redacted] on screen, but, you know.”
The resurgence of the R-rated studio horror film is a boon for filmmaking, said former Warner Bros. executive di Bonaventura, who produced “Pet Sematary” with Mark Vahradian and Steven Schneider and calls Hollywood’s thinking that younger viewers can’t handle more challenging fare “puritanical.”
“I feel we have let down the younger audience by not making more R-rated films, period, whatever genre,” said Di Bonaventura, whose films include “Constantine,” Stephen King adaptation “1408,” five “Transformers” movies and the recent hit spinoff “Bumblebee.”
“R-rated films for whatever reason tend to be a closer approximation to life, in some respects,” he added. “Life’s tough, you know what I mean? The movies I grew up with, whether it’s ‘French Connection’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ were tough movies, and you were seeing life in a very extreme way.”
It was the project’s embrace of difficult themes — death, loss, grief and guilt — that drew filmmaker and actress Seimetz to the role of Rachel, who spars with Louis over how to talk to their kids about death and harbors deep traumas of her own.
She’d read “Pet Sematary” at the age of 8, and loved Widmyer and Kölsch’s “Starry Eyes,” which brought to its genre thrills a sense of humor and self-awareness. “They didn’t want to ignore how gut-wrenching losing a child is,” said Seimetz. “That’s what grief looks like … and also, it doesn’t go away.”
Alongside Clarke and Lithgow, Seimetz anchors the intimate ensemble drama, filmed in Canada with cinematographer Laurie Rose (“Kill List”) lensing the Montreal countryside for rural Maine. Production then moved to a massive soundstage that housed the mythical burial grounds where Jud shows Louis the inexplicable place that will be his undoing.
On set Seimetz found herself sharpening her linguistic skills with the twin toddlers, Hugo and Lucas Lavoie, who played her son — and only spoke French. “They were 2 when we started and they turned 3 while we were shooting, so I’d do a lot of, ‘Qu’est-ce que? Le nez? Le bouche?’” she laughed. “My French got really good when we had to get into emotional scenes. I would say to the crew, ‘How do you say, “Grab my neck”?’ Or “We’re playing!”’ ‘Je ne suis pas triste’ – I’m not sad!”
“Kids are such sponges for tone and mood,” said Seimetz. “It’s chaos on set and suddenly someone goes, ‘Action!’ Try to explain that shift in energy to a kid. ‘It’s playtime!’”
Portraying the other Creed sibling, meanwhile, was 11-year-old phenom Jeté Laurence, whose portrayal of curious and precocious young Ellie has earned critical raves. “Everybody says never work with animals or kids, but we worked with both and we had a better experience than we thought going in,” said Kölsch.
Also crucial: Finding the right Church, or, rather — multiple Churches — to play the family pet whose untimely demise is central to the events of “Pet Sematary.” “They say you can’t train a cat, I’ve got two and Dennis has three and we thought that to be true, because look at my furniture,” joked Kölsch.
Modeling their Church after the cat on the novel’s book cover, one of their many nods to the source material woven into the new film, the directors cast two Maine coon cats named Tonic and Leo, respectively, as pre- and post-transformation Church.
All members of the Creed family, including its beloved four-legged member, play a crucial part in the events that transpire. King’s metaphor for what happens when we suppress and deny grief — and his terrible, personal meditation on the lengths we all might go to save the ones we love — are what the filmmakers ultimately hope follow their audiences home.
“The theme of the film was communication,” said Widmyer of the Big Talks the main characters are constantly putting off. “Everything has a chain reaction. Everyone continually pushes the conversation away, and it just grows into its own beast. ... There’s something almost Shakespearean about ‘Pet Sematary,’ and it’s kind of an ageless theme.”
To that end the “Pet Sematary” remake remains true to the lessons and tragedy of King’s story, even if Widmyer and Kölsch’s approach and changes from previous iterations lend this version a different flavor from the book, the 1989 film and its sequel.
Thursday night, another tweet from the King of Horror himself underscored that truth: “ ‘Pet Sematary’ opens tonight. They don’t come back the same.”