“Sometimes dead is better.” Words of wisdom from Stephen King, back on the big screen yet again with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary, from Paramount, in cinemas starting April 5.
Based on one of King’s best-loved books—not to mention the one that is said to scare the author most—Pet Sematary tells a story of family tragedy. A couple—Louis and Rachel Creed, played by Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz—move into a new town with their two young children, toddler Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and older sister Ellie (Jeté Laurence). The family meets their new neighbor, Jud Nelson (John Lithgow, taking over from Fred Gwynne, who gave an all-timer of a performance in Mary Lambert’s 1989 Pet Sematary), who introduces the happy family to two nearby cemeteries. One is for pets. The other, an ancient Micmac burial ground, was for people. (Was because the people buried there had the pesky habit of coming back, possessed by some sort of demon. After that it kind of lost its appeal.) However, when one of the Creed children runs into the road and is hit by a truck, Louis is willing to risk the potentially deadly consequences to bring his child back to life.
Pet Sematary was a “very personal” book for King, Kölsch says, as it was based on an incident from the author’s own life, when his son was nearly hit on a busy road. Though King isn’t directly involved in all the adaptations of his work, he was involved here, reading the script and seeing the trailer and the finished film before anyone else. (He gave it his seal of approval via Twitter: “This is a scary movie. Be warned.”) “He had notes for us,” says Kölsch. “He enjoyed what he saw. You have to be respectful of the guy who created all this. We were, and I think he appreciated that.”
It also means King was fully aware of a change to the original book that shook up the horror community when it was revealed in the second trailer: This time around it’s Ellie, not Gage, who dies and comes back. “We were a little nervous” about King watching the movie, says Widmyer. “Not about how it would play, but because of how it was changed; it was no longer King’s personal experience on the screen. But when he came out of [the screening], he still did really like the movie.”
Kölsch and Widmyer inherited the switch from Jeff Buhler’s script, but all the same they stand behind it as a logical extension of the themes presented in King’s original book. There, as well as in Lambert’s earlier adaptation, it’s Ellie, worried that her cat might die, who questions her father about death. “She’s the one who really carries the conversation,” says Kölsch. “If you have her dying and coming back, you echo that same conversation, but in a very different way. It’s full circle. That’s something you can do with Ellie that you can’t do with Gage.”
Little Gage going full-on creepy in Lambert’s film adaptation is certainly a terrifying image—even if the doll they used in place of the human actor for key scenes doesn’t look all that great by today’s standards—but switching him out for the elder sibling allows Kölsch and Widmyer to carry through on an element from the book that wasn’t in the previous movie. Put vaguely so as not to spoil, when corpses come back to life in King’s book, their malevolence doesn’t stop at physical violence. They also like to “psychologically torment with words and the things that they do,” says Kölsch. That, the directors argue, just plain works better with an older actor. “In the movie, you see how effective it is.”
The switch of which child is killed and brought back to life exemplifies Kölsch and Widmyer’s approach to the project as a whole. They wanted to “refresh and reboot,” says Widmyer, while at the same time getting the movie “closer to the essence of the book … You have to make sure that these really iconic elements, like Victor Pascow [one of Louis’s patients, who comes back as a ghost to warn the man who tried to save his life] and Zelda [Rachel’s late sister, who died of spinal meningitis while just a child], are included.” At the same time, “we wanted to have some surprises that would give something new to the fans. [The goal was to create] a unique experience, but also not go so far away [from the books] that the fans would reject it.”
Kölsch and Widmyer count themselves among those fans; the latter describes himself, as a child, rushing to get through assigned reading so he could read a few chapters of King as his “fun reading.” Widmyer loves The Stand, while Kölsch was always more partial to the author’s short stories and novellas. As for film adaptations of King’s work, of which there have been dozens (at least two more out this year—It: Chapter 2 in September and The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep in November), Widmyer prefers the ones that “treat the material in a very adult way,” like Misery or Stand by Me. “They don’t focus on just scary concepts. They focus on the characters. That’s something Kevin and I always respond to. You should be able to take any of these stories and strip out the supernatural and still have, at the root, a scary, dramatic film. There should be a story told through the trauma.”
The pair got some of their own horror bona fides in 2014, when the feature Starry Eyes, which they wrote and directed, made waves on the indie circuit. Moody, brutal, and thoughtful, the film is a cynical Hollywood horror about an aspiring actress who discovers the bloody underbelly of the movie industry. “Starry Eyes was one of those films that got us into a lot of rooms,” Widmyer recalls. Afterward, “we spent about three years in development hell with three different horror projects that never ended up going anywhere.” It was only when they got to the point of “Eh, screw it, let’s just make something on our own” that Paramount reached out to meet about Pet Sematary.
There’s an intelligence to Starry Eyes that makes Kölsch and Widmyer a good fit to adapt one of King’s bleaker books. In Pet Sematary, “there’s no monster that you need to beat at the end,” says Widmyer. The “monster,” if there can be said to be one, is death itself. “It’s universal. It’s something we all have to face. There’s no beating it.”
The story of the Creed family, Kölsch elaborates, “is about grief, and how people deal with it and don’t deal with it. When you don’t deal with it—when you decide to push the conversation away and not accept that death is a natural part of life—then you don’t grow. At the heart of this movie is a guy who thinks he has death figured out. He’s a doctor. He sees death every day. He thinks he understands it. Then it comes to his doorstep, and he realizes he doesn’t understand it. It’s very sensitive and emotional. At the end of the day, that’s what we always knew we were making: a movie about people unable to deal with death.”