Bruce: It's kind of pointless to call Pet Sematary a remake, since no one remembers the 1989 adaptation of this 1983 Stephen King novel. Fans of the book will find an extremely streamlined retelling with some chilling surprises. And what say you on behalf of viewers new to the story?
Edwin: I say prepare yourself for a freaky, atmospheric story with plenty of quality jump scares and eerie sound manipulations that build to a fascinating and sustained existential nightmare. The directing team of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (2014’s forgettable Starry Eyes) delivers a style of moody, throwback horror that’s been missing from many recent King adaptations (namely It) and which reminds viewers of the author’s imaginative talents from his prime. I’m surprised how thoroughly I went for it.
Bruce: It was wonderfully moody, even if my reaction was more dispassionate, since I knew more or less what was coming. The movie's major swerve from the source material is well played, and I was pleased with the adaptation by horror specialists Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler. The book is stripped down to its essentials, focusing on physician Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), pre-teen daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage and next door neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), who shares dark secrets about a cemetery in the woods behind the Creeds' new home. I think Jud's signature line — "Sometimes dead is better" — sums up the premise pretty well.
Edwin: King in “message mode” is OK me if his takeaways are wrapped up in such strong imagery and overall cinematic feel. This morality tale of accepting death and being more open about discussing it as a natural, inevitable part of life works increasingly well as Louis gets himself into a dangerous situation and has to figure his way out. Is that theme also nicely explored in the source material?
Bruce: Very much so, and with arguably more-shocking imagery that might have been hard to pull off credibly onscreen. I think it's also more generally about the human tendency to desire the forbidden at the expense of morality and common sense. All that's well encapsulated in the new movie, which adds its own scary imagery to underline both Louis's and Rachel's guilt over their inability to save doomed people. I don't think I can name another movie with a menacing dumb waiter.
Edwin: Perhaps Crock-Pot haters from the This Is Us viewer set will gravitate toward the devices as the new most dreaded home fixtures/appliances in pop culture. Rachel’s psychological woes, stemming from using a dumb watier in her youth, provide steady terror, right up there with the Creeds’ resurrected cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill). I figured the evil animal would grow tiresome in a hurry, but he remains an effective force thanks to infrequent yet well-timed usage.
Bruce: It's been a good year for cats, what with the Sphinx cat in Gloria Bell and the super-powered feline in Captain Marvel. Jason Clarke, on the other hand, needed this movie to redeem him after the mess that was Serenity. His performance in Aftermath, which also opens in Asheville this weekend, will be the make-or-break for him. Why do you think this ordinary-looking Aussie actor has become so many filmmakers' choice for The Decent American? His Serenity villain notwithstanding...
Edwin: I’m still smarting from his involvement in last year's Winchester, forgettable as it otherwise proved. But I think you answered your own question by identifying Clarke as “ordinary-looking.” Onto that stoic yet vanilla face one can project nearly any scenario, be it post-WWII Southern race relations (Mudbound), Ted Kennedy’s poor choices (Chappaquiddick), the Apollo space program (First Man), or the dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Directors typically don’t get a whole bunch in return, but Clarke brings a certain reliable and relatable presence to each role, existing just above “that guy” status.
Bruce: Well, he's rightly cast in Pet Sematary, as Louis has to evolve from Best Dad Ever to someone unhinged yet still, as you rightly put it, relatable. I expected a little more quirk and charm from Lithgow, which is not to say he was bad, just not as incredible as he can be.
Edwin: I think Lithgow gives the role what it needs, imbuing Jud with a mystery concerning just how much he knows about what happens in the woods and how deeply involved he is with it. He had all sorts of theories floating in my head! The generally subdued performance is also a nice shift from his fun, showier turns in Beatriz at Dinner and Daddy’s Home 2, the combination of which showcases his still impressive all-around talent.
Bruce: And what did you think of Miss Laurence as the preteen daughter?
Edwin: Are you asking because I don’t suffer bad child performances easily? She’s fine, but I like her a lot better once Ellie begins exhibiting signs of the property’s effects.
Bruce: The whole family cranks it up several notches as the movie goes on, another aspect of what you rightly termed the movie's "throwback horror," in the best sense. Although significantly revised from the original King, it shares with that author's best works the horrorfication of the everyday, the inversion of family bonds and King's signature "I can't believe you went there" twists, all with what I'd term judiciously employed gore. It's an effective creep-out. It may not have the resonance of, say, Carrie or even that ultimate King tribute band, Stranger Things, but it's in the upper tier of King adaptations. I'll give it a high B.
Edwin: It’s set a high bar for a year that’s slated to bring It: Chapter Two and a take on his Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep. If either of those come close to delivering the level of sophisticated eeriness on display for much of Pet Sematary, it’ll be a major accomplishment. I likewise give it a strong B.
Grade: B. Rated R. Playing at AMC River Hills, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark.
(Photos: Paramount Pictures)