The best kind of horror films take old recipes, throw in some fresh food with a couple new details in the preparation, and hold the viewer’s attention for a couple hours.
In order to scare someone in the audience, one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel of doom, just find new ways to present it. After all, people don’t start fearing new things, instead being moved uncomfortably by the same idea, thing, or premise.
The haunted house is a time-honored tradition in cinema. Find a film with “haunted,” “ghost,” or “devil” with a building description in the title, and you can predict if new underwear will be needed when you get pie and coffee after the show.
Stephen King gave you that and something more with his novel, Pet Sematary. He gave you a large house with some haunt in it, located next to the vicious freeway and a sacred burial ground of pets. Throw in a family member with a dark past, and the table is set for mayhem.
Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake of the 1989 original adaptation takes the old tale and spins a few different grooves into its rhythm. There’s the young doctor (Jason Clarke) and his family: Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jete Laurence), and Gage (Hugh and Lucas Lavoie). They escape the turbulent nature of Boston life for a large house in a secluded countryside, which happens to contain dark, creepy woods right outside. John Lithgow is the token neighbor that will make you uncomfortable here.
The movie isn’t even 30 minutes old before bad things start to happen to the family, starting with a pet dying and endless bad decisions being made soon afterwards. The key here is Rachel’s past, which includes a late sister who suffered from an ugly case of deformed limbs that left her looking like the stunt double for the demon girl in The Exorcist. Clarke’s Louis also has a weird encounter with a patient, and the kids are definitely not alright. Oh, and Lithgow’s neighbor is just kind of off.
I don’t need to reveal anything else, because you should see this film and find out for yourself what it feels like to be glued to the screen. I really enjoyed this remake, because it did a few things very well.
First, it has a series of genuine scary moments. Jumps, shocks, and the kind of sudden bursts that will make you spit beer all over the floor. Sip carefully here, because the directors are trying to startle you. I love a good old fashioned horror film that just keeps your attention.
Second, the majority of the performances are solid. Clarke is always dependable, playing a variety of characters, but excelling at capturing unlikely men of action on screen. His work in the recent Planet of The Apes trilogy was strong, and he bring some of that urgency here. Lithgow doesn’t stretch from his usual old wired man persona, but it fits the character you shouldn’t trust. The twins that inhabit Gage do a fine job.
The standout here is Laurence, playing the adorable, alert, and presumptuous young girl who makes her way to the center of the story. The young actress goes through many stages of haunt here, and she brings you along for the ride. You may not always like what she is doing, but Laurence holds your attention. Keep an eye on her.
The only true misfire is Seimetz, who fails to register as the matriarch of the family with inner demons clogging her head. She has the big backstory, but only has a couple expressions and fails to hold your attention. It’s a one note performance that brings the film down a bit.
Third, the makeup and sound effects in this film are on point. If you have cats, prepare yourself for something wicked. Just look at the amazing poster for the film. The makeup for Ellie especially is just top notch and should receive some late year awards attention.
Credit Kolsch and Widmyer for taking Jeff Buhler’s screenplay adaptation, and giving us something different. Some hardcore fans of the original film and source material don’t like the changes, but whenever I see filmmakers remake a film and change a few things, I am a happy critic. Why bother if you are just going to do a blueprint of the other film? Just don’t.
I could dazzle you with a bunch of fancy words that I once read in a New York Magazine article, or I could simply tell you this film is terrifying, well-rounded, and leans into the bizarre twists and turns of King’s story. The final scene will mess you up. You’ll sell the country getaway home after seeing this film, or at least cancel the summer vacation.
Horror films don’t need a lot of formula alteration; just an oil change every now and then. Taking the fundamental aspects that frighten, and tightening the screws a bit.
Pet Sematary did what it set out to do: scare me, keep me guessing, and make me check my stairs and basement when I got home.