“Sometimes dead is better.”
The most memorable line in Stephen King’s 1983 novel “Pet Sematary” is a warning offered far too late. Tragedy has already befallen Louis Creed and his family, who live near an especially permeable boundary between the living and the dead — not just the dangerous road running alongside their house, where enormous trucks race past at terrifying speeds, but also the ancient Mi’kmaq burial ground in their backyard. If things look grim now, a neighbor reminds Louis, they can always get worse, and it might be best for him to leave bad enough alone.
The new “Pet Sematary” movie proudly refutes this common sense, even as it follows a familiar chain of Hollywood logic. Thirty years have passed since Mary Lambert’s 1989 hit movie adaptation, during which there have been countless film and television adaptations of King’s work; several of them (including “It” and “The Dark Tower”) have arrived in the past year or two, suggesting a resurgence of interest. It was likely only a matter of time before Paramount Pictures exhumed this particularly venerable old property and checked for signs of life.
And up to a point, it finds them. As adapted by Jeff Buhler (with a story credit for Matt Greenberg) and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, this “Pet Sematary” is a swift and efficient delivery system for mechanized jolts and pummeling thrills. It features fine performances from a cast that includes Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow and, crucially, the eight Maine coon cats playing the Creeds’ ill-fated feline. The actors are better and subtler than their earlier counterparts; the gore effects, too. Moviegoers looking for an excuse to grab their companions’ arms for two hours could certainly do worse.
They could also do better, though, by going back to the novel, which famously so repelled its author that he almost didn’t submit it for publication. “Not as good as the book” is both a tiresome assessment of an adaptation’s quality and, unfortunately, an often accurate one. I lift up King’s doorstop of a book not to bludgeon this movie, but rather to draw a crucial distinction in form, approach and effect.
King’s story was an intimately detailed portrait of a happy, complicated family rocked by a series of unimaginable, exponentially compounded traumas. It achieved the full weight of not just horror but tragedy, sidestepping gratuitous shocks and unleashing a devastating rush of emotion.
Kölsch and Widmyer, who previously directed the indie thriller “Starry Eyes,” do not have the benefit of the novel’s measured pace and lengthy duration, but they have attempted, with some success, to turn that narrative economy into a virtue. Like the novel, “Pet Sematary” begins with Louis Creed (Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Seimetz), arriving at their new home in Ludlow, Maine, where Louis has landed a job as a doctor at the nearby university. They arrive with their young daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and their toddler son, Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), as well as Ellie’s cat, Church.
Within a few minutes one of those big trucks has whipped noisily past, providing some violent foreshadowing. Within a few more minutes the Creeds have met their neighbor, an aging widower named Jud Crandall (Lithgow), in a nearby animal graveyard marked by a sign that reads “Pet Sematary.” The cutesy misspelling offers a subliminal clue that something is wrong here, but just in case you weren’t sure, there are some creepy kids in animal masks, walking to the cemetery in mock-menagerie procession.
Jud’s friendly-crotchety demeanor hints at the very bad things he’s seen, both in the past and on the horizon. An accident involving a student (Obssa Ahmed) casts a bloody pall over Louis’ operating table his first day on the job. It gives nothing away to state that Church isn’t long for this world, or to point out that the animal will make a singularly unpleasant return. Some unnervingly realistic hellcat hissing and scratching ensues, nicely counterbalanced by the steady emotional conviction of Clarke and Seimetz, both playing decent, likable characters who don’t realize they’re on a fast-moving conveyer belt to every family’s worst nightmare.
Buhler’s adaptation sleekly updates that nightmare, making one major plot detour that introduces some ghoulishly inspired comedy, and amping up the nasty childhood flashbacks that have filled Rachel with a deep fear of death and a raging sense of guilt. And Kölsch and Widmyer tackle their hair-raising assignment with lean, no-nonsense proficiency.
Shooting in muted gray tones (the cinematography is by Laurie Rose), the directors clearly know their way around dank basements and doorways that lead to nowhere, and they handle the genre mechanics — the large-scale set pieces, the come-from-behind slasher attacks, the near-constant child imperilment — with swift, breathless aplomb. Their command of the grammar of the mainstream horror movie is more than solid. The problem is that said grammar ultimately feels crude and disproportionate to the story they’re trying to tell.
King’s language was subtle and patient enough to evoke something deeper and essentially unrepresentable: Let’s call it the replacement of one unthinkable nightmare with an even more unthinkable nightmare, all in the name of love. He also managed to implicate his Everyman hero in every one of his bad decisions, making it clear that Louis was ultimately inviting the worst upon himself. The ruthless glee with which this “Pet Sematary” races toward its climax achieves the opposite effect. The fallout feels less tragic than sadistic, and leaves you feeling more wrung out than disturbed.
Rating: R, for horror violence, bloody images and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes