Handsomely produced and atmospherically shot, this re-adaptation of Stephen King’s powerful exploration of grief serves to underline the key message of the original novel: it’s best to let dead things rest.
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor from Boston, moves to the small town of Ludlow in Maine to enjoy a quieter life and spend more time with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two young children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie/ Lucas Lavoie). Whilst exploring the woods surrounding their new home, Ellie discovers a ‘Pet Sematary’ but is warned by neighbour Jud Crandall (Jon Lithgow) that the woods are not safe to venture out alone. When Ellie’s beloved cat Church is found dead, Jud tells Louis of a secret place in the woods which has a special power to bring Church back to life. But when Louis suffers a devastating loss of his own, the lure of the woods’ dark power becomes irresistible.
There’s a lack of certainty of purpose in this latest version of King’s novel in that it never really seems to be sure if it’s a remake of the original movie adaptation or a new adaptation of the book itself. The screenplay only exacerbates this, relying so heavily on you having seen the original movie for one of its main twists to work that it ends up feeling deeply derivative. It’s blessed with understandably superior production values to its thirty-year-old forebear and spends so much time revelling in these that it forgets to move the story forward enough, resulting in a film which simultaneously feels too slow and far too rushed. It’s a story which requires a slow, inexorable descent into the pitch-black depths of loss and grief and it’s always going to be a big ask to portray that on screen, but it would have been nice if the screenplay had even attempted it.
Lithgow’s kindly neighbour is less immediately congenial than Fred Gwynne’s take on the character, which strengthens the film but also makes his impulsive decision to reveal the secret of the woods all the more bafflingly. So much so, that the script has to have him explain it later on. It’s in Jason Clarke’s character, though, that the film suffers the most. The super-rational uber-sceptic’s damascene conversion to spiritualism is so abrupt and out of character it never feels justified or authentic. Not that it’s Clarke’s fault per se, his performance is strong – as are all the performances of the main cast – but the script lacks life and nothing short of burying it in the woods and hoping for the best will solve the problems.