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Front Page - Friday, April 12, 2019

Critic's Corner: This resurrection of ‘Pet Sematary’ should be reburied

There was a time when it seemed like no one could make a good movie based on a Stephen King story. Recent adaptations of King’s work, including “Gerald’s Game” and “It,” have proven otherwise.

In the right hands, King’s solid character work and talent for writing imaginative horror can provide the foundation for a fun and frightful experience.

However, “Pet Sematary” reminds us that it’s still possible to make a bad movie out of a King novel.

The movie isn’t inferior from a technical standpoint. The cinematography, editing and sound work are fine. The acting is adequate, too. As real estate agents say when showing an old house, it has good bones.

But those bones don’t carry a soul. Rather, “Pet Sematary” lacks tension and atmosphere, and it’s not creepy or scary in the right ways.

In the movie, a big-city doctor named Louis Creed moves to a small town in Maine with his wife, Rachel, and their two young children, Ellie and Gage. Although Louis wants to reduce the stress in his life, he unwittingly buys a house near a patch of land that brings the dead back to life.

When the family’s cat is killed in an accident, Louis buries the animal in the haunted soil, hoping to resurrect it. While the cat does return to life, its reanimated self is uncharacteristically aggressive.

So, when a truck hits and kills one of the couple’s kids, it’s clear nothing good will come out of Louis burying the child in the cursed ground.

This might sound like the setup for a bone-chilling thriller, but the directors, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, weren’t up to the task.

Instead of making a suspenseful, unsettling movie that keeps viewers on the edges of their seats, they built a noisy, obnoxious carnival funhouse geared toward jolting audiences out of their chairs.

Take the tractor-trailers that roar past the family’s home, for example. Somehow, they make no noise until they’re passing the house, upon which they suddenly sound like a runaway freight train. The driver blares his horn for good measure each time this happens, startling everyone within earshot.

Once I realized Kölsch and Widmyer were going to use cheap tricks to scare viewers, my interest in “Pet Sematary” evaporated. When you have a burial ground that breeds killers, why would you need to rely on things jumping out of shadows and hands popping out of wood piles to scare people?

King’s strong character work failed to reach the big screen, too. The writers, Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg, kept a dead sister who haunts Rachel’s memories, but beyond the mentally and emotionally unstable wife, everyone has the depth and substance of a cardboard cutout.

Worse, the characters make one reckless decision after another. First, a local named Jud (played with a small measure of gravitas by John Lithgow) warns Louis to steer clear of the graveyard. Later, Jud does an about face and encourages Louis to bury his dead pet there.

After seeing that the cat has become evil personified, Louis abandons it far from home. No one, including Ellie, wanted to be anywhere near the animal.

But after the cat finds its way back, Ellie is thrilled and runs into the road to greet it. Of course, she doesn’t hear the tractor-trailer approaching because it’s not making noise.

Finally, after seeing what the cemetery did to the cat, Louis still buries Ellie there.

Maybe “Pet Sematary” is about reaping what you sow. Or maybe the creative team behind “Pet Sematary” didn’t respect the source material. The writers and directors made several arbitrary changes, none of which improved on King’s work, and jettisoned much of what makes a King book worth reading.

Published in 1983, “Pet Sematary” is ripe with material that should translate into a terrifying cinematic tale. Yet this is the second failed attempt at turning King’s classic into a good movie, proving that some literary nuts are indeed hard for filmmakers to crack.

King fans should not be disheartened by the shabby new “Pet Sematary,” as several projects based on the author’s novels are in the works, including a miniseries of “The Stand.” Here’s hoping the people leading those projects get the King revival back on track.