I know there are those who consider Stephen King’s 1983 novel “Pet Sematary” to be so chilling that it’s the embodiment of horror-story perfection.
As a non-reader of King’s books (I’ve read just one; nothing personal, just not my cup of tea), I won’t try to speak for that group. As a movie watcher, and a viewer of my fair share of horror films, I will say that the latest adaptation of King’s creepiest misspelling delivers more dread than scares.
The Creed family — husband Louis (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Lawrence), and toddler son Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) — have left the fast pace of Boston for a quieter life in Ludlow, Maine. The family buys a big rustic farmhouse with a massive wooded backyard, which includes an old cemetery for the locals’ pets. Louis takes a job running the campus clinic at the University of Maine, which is far less demanding than his old job on an emergency-room graveyard shift.
It doesn’t take long, though, for the Creed family to start feeling something is off about their new rural life. Louis has bad dreams about Victor (Obssa Ahmed), the college student who dies gruesomely in his clinic after a car accident. Rachel is also troubled by bad dreams, haunted by her late sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), who died years ago after years being crippled and contorted by spinal meningitis.
Then Ellie’s cat, Church, dies along the road by the Creeds’ house — a road where tanker trucks drive past at frighteningly fast speeds. It’s the Creeds’ neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), who shows Louis a way to ease Ellie’s heartbreak. Beyond the pet cemetery (or “sematary,” as a ramshackle sign reads), there’s a place where Jud tells Louis to bury Church. Louis does, and the next day, Church is back. But he’s different, nastier and scarier.
Jud acknowledges to Louis that it was a mistake to show him where to bring Church back to life. “Sometimes, dead is better,” Jud declares, though without the Pepperidge Farm inflection that Fred Gwynne brought to the role in Mary Lambert’s 1989 version.
The directing team of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer aren’t great at jump scares, as the first few attempts put the viewer off when they try again later. And the script by Jeff Buhler has a habit of telegraphing its punches. But, boy, do the directors know how to set a disturbingly creepy mood, whether in the Creeds’ suddenly spooky new home or the dank landscape beyond the pet cemetery.
Clarke (“The Aftermath”) is soulfully sympathetic as the rational man trying to keep his world from unraveling. Young Lawrence has serious chops, particularly in the movie’s nastier back half. And Lithgow, who can chew scenery with the best of them, nicely underplays the role of the avuncular old man who knows the town’s darkest secrets.
But the performance I keep coming back to in “Pet Sematary” is that of Seimetz. The indie darling’s character is the movie’s heart, mixing motherly love with survivor’s guilt in an explosive combination. One moment, involving a very creepy hug, prompts a cascade of emotions to play out on Seimetz’ face in about two seconds, which is a scarier special effect than any amount of fake blood can produce.
Opens Friday, April 5, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language. Running time: 101 minutes.