The more one thinks about it, the more one comes to the conclusion that there are two ways of looking at “Pet Sematary,” a new spin on the grim and genuinely frightening Stephen King classic from directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”). It hits theaters this week after closing South by Southwest Film Festival on March 16.
For some, the first two acts will feel a little ponderous and occasionally (inadvertently?) very funny before the tone shifts in the third act, the gore ramps up and it ends on a potentially savage note. For others, the first two acts will feel almost thoughtful, a meditation on the nature of grief with occasional (inadvertently?) very funny moments and a third act that feels excessively graphic and a little like a punchline.
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Screenwriter Jeff Buhler has taken many liberties with the original story — some work, some don’t. Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) move from Boston to Ludlow, Maine, for a taste of the quiet life with their two kids, 8-year-old Ellie (an excellent Jete Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). They crave the quiet, but all is not as it seems. They soon meet Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), a kindly widower who seems to know the ins and outs of the Creed family's (insanely large) property.
If you know the King book or the movie, you know a bit of the rest. The Creed's cat, Church, gets hit by a truck. Jud mentions the land beyond the pet “sematary” that happens to contain a Native American burial ground (not a trope that has aged all that well, to be honest) that brings the once-living back from the dead. Louis buries the cat there, and well, this was not the best idea ever. As the famous line goes, “Sometimes dead is better.” Does Louis heed this warning after one of his children dies horribly? He does not.
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Clarke is a talented actor who sometimes gets a bum rap because of the material he chooses. He was excellent in Showtime series “Brotherhood,” as well as in the brilliant and controversial “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Western flick “Lawless,” which nobody saw. But between this and the utterly insane “Serenity,” the man needs to start questioning his representation.
Seimetz (whose Rachel is haunted by the death of her older sister when they were young) and Lithgow are rock solid, but this movie belongs to Laurence, who has to carry entire scenes and does a remarkable job. Occasional moments could use a little less fog — is this supposed to be Maine or another dimension or what? — and, again, the third act will polarize. Depending on how you feel about what came before, things get either grim or silly. Kolsch and Widmyer either find new takes on old tropes or run into cliche.
All of that said, do not do not do not ever cover the Ramones. It'll make sense when you see it.