Pet Sematary review: Clever revival of Stephen King classic may put you off cats for life
Also reviewed: Shazam!, The Sisters Brothers, and The Keeper
Future generations may discover that the whole Stephen King persona was a hoax, and that not one man but a small army of hired writers had knocked out the 60-odd horror and sci-fi novels that bear his illustrious name. It's as good an explanation as any for the staggering fecundity of King's imagination: since breaking through with his chilling high school melodrama Carrie way back in 1974, the man from Maine has produced bestseller after bestseller, packed with originality and invention.
His work combines the American gothic tradition stretching back through Shirley Jackson to Poe with elements of 1950s and 60s pop culture, and King's stories often include connections with his country's violent past. That's certainly true of Pet Sematary, his 1983 novel in which ghastly things befall a doctor, his family and, most particularly, their cat after they move into a house built too near an ancient Indian burial ground.
A film version which appeared in 1989 was dismissed by snooty critics, but has since become a cult favourite. It had a schlocky, b-movie aspect, but was pretty terrifying, and unstintingly faithful to the splendid nastiness of its source. This stylish remake has less violence, most atmosphere, better production values and a stronger cast. It may in fact be better all around.
Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is determined to see the upside when he and his family move from Boston to the wilds of Maine. He was a busy ER doctor who worked long hours in the city, and now intends to spend more time with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their children Elie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie). But Rachel is uneasy and finds that the new house raises a memory she'd long managed to suppress.
As a child, she witnessed her elder sister endure the horrors of spinal meningitis and played an accidental role in her tragic death. She now has constant flashbacks and becomes convinced something is amiss with their new home.
Balderdash (I paraphrase), says her no-nonsense doctor husband, who looks like he's settling in for the long haul. But sneering men of science tend to fare badly in Stephen King stories and, meanwhile, Louis's daughter Elie is having odd experiences of her own. She's wandering in the woods near their home one day when she sees a strange procession: a group of local children who sport creepy animal masks troop silently past on their way to bury a dog. She follows them to the 'Pet Sematary', a local resting place bearing a wooden sign misspelt years before by a founding child.
There she meets Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), an affable elderly neighbour who fills her in on the local lore. Townsfolk, he tells her, have been burying pets here for years, his own dogs among them. And behind the cemetery sits a high barrier of logs and sticks erected by the departed Micmac tribe whose lands these once were. Jud doesn't tell Elie why they built it - we soon find out.
When the family cat Church is flattened by a speeding truck, Louis fears Elie will be devastated, and Jud persuades him to bury the animal in the hills behind the Pet Sematary. The next day, Church returns, miraculously alive, but changed. The once docile moggy is now a ratty, matted beast that clings to the shadows, ever poised for attack. Louis is perplexed, and this won't be the last ill-advised resurrection the Creed family endures.
'Sometimes dead is better', says the poster tag line, and the wisdom of that statement is pounded home here by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, a directing team with a solid background in horror. If atmosphere is not properly established, crazed pets and other undead things are prone to look silly, but Pet Sematary is nicely charged with undercurrents of mystery and menace.
There are moments of comedy involving that cat, which keeps turning up like a bad penny in ever worse states of disrepair, but these are probably intentional, and the film never really loses sight of its principal purpose - terror.
Most horror films don't have the luxury of actors like Jason Clarke and John Lithgow, and Clarke's urbane sceptic is the drama's lynchpin. Lithgow underplays it nicely as the knowing, kindly neighbour, and stylishly fields a Winston Churchill joke, and young Jete Laurence is also impressive.
Gore should never dominate good horror films at the expense of mood, and Pet Sematary gets the balance spot on.
(16, 101mins) 4 stars.
Also releasing this week:
Shazam! (12A, 132mins) ***
A kind of giddy cross between Superman and the 80s comedy Big, Shazam! is one of DC’s more competent superhero outings. Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a teenage foster kid, has just been taken in by new surrogates when a subway portal leads him to a mystical wizard, who gives him superpowers.
When he says a magic word, Billy turns into a grown-up superhero called Shazam (Zachary Levi), who can fly and punch holes in walls, but isn’t very good at it yet. Which is a pity, because a one-eyed villain is on his tail. Shazam! makes the most of its child-in-a-man’s-body theme, and only wears out its welcome in a messy finale.
The Sisters Brothers (15A, 122mins) ****
French auteur Jacques Audiard takes a colourful diversion in The Sisters Brothers, a grungy, amusing western based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt. Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix) are bounty killers, who prowl the American southwest in the service of their shady employer, The Commodore.
He’s ordered them to hunt down Hermann Warm, (Riz Ahmed) a boffinish gold prospector, but things get complicated when a detective called Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes Warm’s side. Reilly and Phoenix make a great double act, and Audiard’s film highlights the bravery and stupidity of the men who settled the west.
The Keeper (15A, 119mins) ***
My father used to tell me stories about Bert Trautmann, the legendary Manchester City goalkeeper who played through the 1956 FA Cup Final with a broken neck. These days, players go off if their hair is out of place, but Bert’s toughness was only part of his incredible story, as this enjoyable biopic explains.
David Kross is Trautmann, a Luftwaffe paratrooper who’s languishing in a Lancashire PoW camp in 1948 when a businessman called Jack Friar (a splendidly hammy John Henshaw) spots him playing football. Jack manages a local team whose goalie is crap, so he drafts in Bert, to the horror of the locals. It’s a lot of fun.