“Did we make the feel-good movie of 2019?” director Dennis Widmyer asked the South by Southwest film festival crowd who had just watched the world premiere of Pet Semetary, a bold new take on Stephen King’s ultra-dark classic horror novel.
You probably know the basic story: Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) and toddler Gage move into a rural Maine home with a rather large backyard that includes a pet burial ground. When Ellie’s beloved cat Church gets run down in the road, a neighbor (John Lithgow) lets him in on a secret way to bring the cat back to life — but they don’t come back the same. The fateful decision sets into motion a series of escalating tragic events and this new version does not pull any punches.
“It was always a tough difficult film, it deals with grief and very mature emotional issues,” said Widmyer, who helmed the movie along with Kevin Kölsch. “It’s not about vampires or werewolves… but [Paramount] got behind it and saw it as a very elevated horror film. We fought for it and they fought for us and in the end we’re really proud of it.”
Here are some early critic reviews and fan reactions and then we have a bit more insight from the directors about that big change:
Collider: “Pet Sematary evokes the feeling that Widmyer and Kölsch knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this adaptation and fully committed with confidence. I applaud them for the vision and dedication, and I also applaud the studio for letting them just go for it. Again, Pet Sematary isn’t striving to be an easy communal crowdpleaser. Just like the source material, it’s a movie with a real thoughtful mean streak that’ll chill you to the bone, and ensure you remain sufficiently on edge well after it concludes.”
THR: “…a solid if not earthshaking horror pic built around notably good performances… Unfortunately but not fatally, the film soon makes this reanimated loved one more monstrous than unsettling, possessed of unlikely strength and a little too similar to the growling monster-people found in garden-variety horror films.”
Bloody Disgusting: “… they give us a story so bone-chilling, so substantial, and even with a little bit of humor to alleviate the brutal blow of abject terror. It honors every bit of King’s meditation on death and grief while retaining its own identity …Go in fresh, and let the exhilarating tale of primitive dread and anguish wash over you. It’s shocking, heartbreaking, freaking scary, and even funny. It’s worth it.”
As first reported by EW, the film makes a big departure from the original 1983 novel and 1989 Mary Lambert film in that — major spoiler alert — the Creed family’s pivotal mid-film tragedy isn’t Gage being killed but rather daughter Ellie, which gave the film’s final act some very different (and arguably creepier and more unsettling) material to work with.
“If you’ve read the book, Ellie is the character in the book asking these questions about death, about mortality, about why cats don’t live as long as people,” Widmyer said. “So we felt it would be fascinating, when she comes back, to show the other side of that conversation, and mirror that in a very corrupt way. To have that psychology at the end of the film was really exhilarating, that we could go full circle with that.”
Added producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura: “When we first started talking about this, it was [a conversation about] let’s get under the question of death, and a sense of how a family is disintegrating, it’s super hard to do that with a three-year-old.”
The filmmakers added that King himself has seen the film and given it his blessing. “He saw we kept the essence of the novel, the things we were changing we weren’t fundamentally changing from the source material … it was validating to hear he was a fan of the film.”