On stage in front of a South by Southwest crowd that had just been laughing, gasping and cringing to the wildly dark premiere of Pet Sematary, director Dennis Widmyer said, “What do you think? Feel good movie of 2019?”
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura had no use for sarcasm. He was blunt: “How f–ked up is this movie?”
For the last several years, a Pet Sematary remake had been kicked around as an idea by di Bonaventura and producer Mark Vahradian. The hype kept mounting through the release of two trailers the last few months and a tweet from Stephen King saying, “This is a scary movie. Be warned.” And on the final night of South By Southwest, Widmyer and fellow director Kevin Kolsch delivered their finished product to an entranced — and freaked-out — audience that included stars Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz and Jeté Laurence but not John Lithgow.
The Paramount film, written by Jeff Buhler, hews close to the 1983 King novel and the 1989 Mary Lambert movie in the general plot: A family moves to a rural town in Maine and the father discovers a burial plot that brings a dead pet back to life. But as was revealed in the trailer the family’s 9-year-old daughter, Ellie, rather than 2-year-old son dies, like in the book and first movie.
“If you’ve read the book, Ellie is the character in the book that is asking these questions about death. She’s asking about mortality,” Widmyer said. “We found that fascinating, then when she comes back to show the other side of that conversation, to mirror that in a very corrupt way and have that psychology in the end of the film, which was really exhilarating for us… If you have the same book and 10 different directors you’re going to have 10 different interpretations of that. So this is our interpretation.”
Clarke was known as “the archivist” on set because he had read the novel so often. Seimetz said she first read the book when she was eight. She and a friend had gotten on an R.L. Stine kick and then turned to Christopher Pike before taking the next step and reading “Pet Sematary,” as well as “Cujo.”
Widmyer said they wanted to respect King’s novel while refreshing the movie for a new audience.
“It was really validating for us then when he saw the film he was such a fan of it,” Widmyer said. “I think he saw we kept the essence of the novel.”
For the directors and producers, that essence dealt with getting under the skin of the question of death. The mystery of where we go after we die and how to deal with a close one dying endured throughout the film. Pet Sematary, of course, offers a frightening scenario for what happens when a father doesn’t properly process these questions.
Laurence, who has also appeared in TV shows Jessica Jones and The Americans and played 9-year-old Ellie, didn’t come away too shaken, however.
“I wasn’t that scared,” she said, “because I was one of the scary ones.”