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'Pet Sematary' is best when it explores the destructiveness of male fragility, not zombies

It wouldn’t be a horror story by Stephen King without men making unilateral, dangerous decisions about what’s best for their families.
Jete Laurence as Ellie in Pet Sematary, from Paramount Pictures.
Jete Laurence as Ellie in Pet Sematary, from Paramount Pictures.Kerry Hayes / Paramount Pictures

“Pet Sematary,” like the best Stephen King books, is frightening because it’s rooted so deeply in universal anxieties — nature’s power, grief, the destructive power of male fragility. The new movie version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer, works far better when it focuses on those themes rather than on violent jump scares and zombie babies.

It still cannot match the 1983 book — it’s as much a part of Gen X and millennial adolescence and childhood as "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" — but it’s more polished and quieter than the 1989 movie, even if the 2019 ending is as absurd and laughable as the sight of evil toddler Miko Hughes modeling a top hat and a scalpel was 30 years ago.

[Spoilers below, unless you've seen the trailer.]

Kolsch and Widmeyer have made major changes to the plot of the book, but the basics remain the same. The first mistake the Creed family — Louis, Rachel, their daughter Ellie and son Gage — makes in all three versions is buying a house without doing any research into what their property includes or what kind of rural highway on which it fronts.

Louis, played in this version by perpetually suffering patriarch Jason Clarke, moves his family to rural Maine from Boston in search of a quiet life surrounded by Restoration Hardware furnishings and an older neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), whose New England gruffness includes an aversion to transparency about the area’s history or pet death.

When Ellie’s beloved cat Winston Churchill dies, Louis and Jud skip the locals' traditional ceremony at the pet cemetery in the Creeds’ woods and take the poor creature to a less peaceful, more sinister resting place.

Pet Sematary, from Paramount Pictures.
Pet Sematary, from Paramount Pictures.Kerry Hayes / Paramount Pictures

As Jud says when he explains why the cat has reappeared with a new personality, “sometimes dead is better” — but never really explains why. But then, it wouldn’t be a horror story by Stephen King without men making unilateral decisions about what’s best for their families.

There is also an interesting story to be told about the ways that parents try to shield their kids from the reality of death, and how damaging it can be when those kids realize that adults would often rather lie than have a difficult conversation. And Kolsch and Widmetter try to tell it — but "Pet Sematary" doesn’t spend enough time developing that part of the plot to make either Ellie's vague understanding of what happens in death or the betrayal inherent in her parents' fairy tales truly pay off.

By the time plot reaches its dark and bloody conclusion, the movie has lost every trace of the atmospheric mystery established in the film’s first half. But that first half is full of beautifully shot, well-acted scenes, and Clarke manages to make Louis’ utterly idiotic decisions believable and sad. And anyone who grew up afraid of the VHS box for Mary Lambert’s 1989 version (with the face of Brad Greenquist as Victor Pascow, covered in blood with a hint of viscera, ready to haunt them) will appreciate the character's appearance here.

Three decades of improvements in technical effects and makeup make Pascow’s ghostly presence and Rachel’s memories of her dead sister much more visceral and frightening than either were the first time around. But the heart of the story remains where it was buried in 1983 and 1989 — with family and with forces we can’t explain but also can’t resist trying to exploit, rather than in gruesome effects and gnarly-looking cats. And, it’s wonderful to see horror move away from gruesome torture porn and back towards the "Twilight Zone."

That's part of why many of King’s tales have never gone out of fashion, though only a handful have translated to enduring, successful films. Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” will always be terrifying and better than the ABC miniseries version, while “Maximum Overdrive” (and its wall-to-wall AC/DC soundtrack) will forever be hilariously awful even if self-driving cars one day start plotting against humans.

Where this "Pet Sematary" lands on a comprehensive list of King's adaptations will depend somewhat on how the special effects age because there are so many of them, and they hold the least lasting power over the audience; a pet funeral procession full of children is eerie and upsetting while using only masks, but the scowls from CGI-enhanced, reanimated cat are more likely to elicit giggles in perpetuity than dread.

More adaptations (and re-adaptations) of stories and novels are in the works — a chance for a new generation of writers and directors to adapt their King-induced nightmares for an audience — but producers should take the success of the “It” reboot and the unsettling fun of this "Pet Sematary" as a reason to look for new voices in horror fiction rather than repeatedly going back to King’s abandoned mine shafts and mills.

There is great new horror out there by artists raised on King’s stories and writing advice. Joe Hill, King’s son, has several adaptations of his work in progress; Ridley Scott’s production company has purchased the film rights to “The Hunger,” a supernatural retelling of the Donner Party voyage by Alma Katsu; and Blumhouse and A24 studios are building empires by seeking out young and first-time filmmakers, from the United States and all over the world. Some things, as great as they were at the time, are better buried.