Pet Sematary ’s return to the screen has been almost 10 years in the making.
Jeff Buhler, who has also worked on new adaptations of the classic thrillers The Grudge and Jacob’s Ladder, was given the task of writing the screenplay.
Buhler, whose parents gave him a King novel every Christmas, was already an avid fan.
“Once it came across my desk, I never wanted to let go,” says Buhler. “It was an essential part of my childhood, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that the real power of it struck me. It keeps getting scarier, because the horror isn’t simply derived from the supernatural events.”
“The monster in this film is loss and what that does to people.”
“Stephen King gives you characters that seem so real, they could live next door to you. And then he sets them on a path where they start to make impossible choices. You’re screaming, ‘Please don’t do that!’ but you know they will. That’s what makes it really fun.”
Creating a film that retained the attributes that made the earlier cinematic incarnation a cult favorite — and one of King’s top grossing films — required a deft hand.
“Horror movie audiences, and film audiences in general, have become more sophisticated,” says Buhler.
“They want character development and emotional engagement. The original film fit that time period so perfectly, but we wanted the filmmaking style and the characters to be totally contemporary.”
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer brought their own ideas on how to achieve that.
“Part of the decision-making process was hearing their reaction to the script we had,” says di Bonaventura . “They gave us a lot of interesting input. I was impressed with their boldness and originality.”
“Dennis and Kevin had such clarity about what people love about King’s work,” Vahradian concurs. “They knew the book inside and out, including the things that would be significant to fans and how to fit in what was missing.”
For Kölsch and Widmyer, the key was finding a balance between the real world and the supernatural.
There are significant changes to the story that will surprise longtime fans.
“For the audience that knows the book or the movie, it should have some shock effect,” says di Bonaventura. “But it also allowed us to delve deeper into the idea of evil and discuss some existential ideas.”
Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary has riveted generations of enthusiastic readers as a prime example of the writer’s gift for melding the everyday with the extraordinary to create supernatural thrillers that explore our darkest impulses and is now unleashed with fury on the Big Screen with the release of a superb retelling on the big screen.
Poignant, petrifying and impossible to put down, the saga of the Creed family is a dark and terrifying parable about love and loss from one the most popular fiction writers in history.
The continued popularity and timeless themes of the book made the story ripe for a new adaptation, according to the film’s producers the challenge would be to make a movie faithful enough to the original text to please any nostalgic fan, but with a fresh enough take on the story to stand alone as an original thriller.
“I grew up reading Stephen King,” says producer Mark Vahradian. “Pet Sematary was one of my favorites. It left an indelible image, so for me this was personal. It’s about real human drama and family tragedy — dynamics that I think everybody understands.”
This was the second time adapting Stephen King’s work from page to screen for producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, having produced the psychological thriller 1408, “I’m a big fan of psychological horror and Pet Sematary is an emotional story that at its core explores the deeper themes of how we deal with death and grief.”
According to di Bonaventura, the search for the right director ― or, as it turned out, directors ― to helm a modern-day re imagining of King’s novel was extensive and included a number of box-office legends.
“We met a lot of people, some of them very well known,” remembers di Bonaventura. “We watched a lot of films. But Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s movie Starry Eyes made them stand out in a crowded field. That film is surreal as hell. It’s scary as hell. It is twisted and so distinctive. We knew we had to work with them.”
Kölsch and Widmyer’s 2014 thriller Starry Eyes premiered at SXSW and earned awards worldwide for its perverse take on Hollywood stardom.
For these die-hard horror mavens with a passion for King’s work, tackling one of the master’s classic tales was a dream come true. “When we heard they were developing a new take on Pet Sematary we definitely wanted in on it,” says Widmyer. “It was a really arduous process. We had to pitch the producers quite a few times, but they agreed with our vision for it, especially because we wanted to go back to the novel for guidance.”
The filmmaking partners were attracted to the fact that the story never loses sight of the characters’ humanity in the face of its startling supernatural elements.
“That’s a constant in King’s work,” Widmyer observes. “It is definitely frightening, but even if you take the horror out, it serves as a solid drama and that is what we look for. Out of all of Stephen King’s books, this is the one that deals with the most human emotion of all: grief.”
Widmyer remembers reading the book as a teen and being terrified by it. “It deals with a very human element. It is a man’s willingness to do the unthinkable to save his family, not some outside force, that starts everything. It felt like a very dangerous book to read, and it definitely stayed with me for a long time.”
The new film is the co-directors’ interpretation of King’s novel rather than a remake of the earlier movie, says Kölsch.
“We see it as an entirely new adaptation. I am a big fan of the earlier film, but it exists for what it is,” he says. “We wanted to tell our version, and that includes some things that were in the book, but not the movie. There are some surprises for longtime fans, some things people won’t see coming, but we have stayed true to the essence of the book.”
Even before things begin to go bump in the night, a creeping sense of dread becomes key to the horror in Pet Sematary .
“You are gradually realizing what could happen,” Widmyer observes. “I love horror movies that take domestic issues to another level and King excels at that. For example, The Shining is really about a family falling apart because of alcoholism and abuse. Horror movies that deal with real human issues are always the most interesting.”
Kölsch and Widmyer appreciate the support they received from di Bonaventura, Vahradian, producer Steven Schneider and executive producer Mark Moran as they made their first major Hollywood film.
“We are working with really smart guys who have been in this industry a long time,” Widmyer says. “From the beginning they have been behind our vision for this film. They not only understood that we were not trying to do a traditional horror movie, they specifically picked us because they knew we had a different take on it. We wanted it to have something sort of dangerous about it, and to their credit they have really let us run rampant.”
The key to horror films is tapping into the audience’s deepest fears, according to Kölsch. Creepy crawlers and demonic visitors have their place, but it is what lies within that is truly terrifying. “There are lots of great movies with far-out supernatural premises, and I enjoy many of them, but not necessarily for the same reasons this touched me.”
Vahradian agrees that the real horror is not the monsters that lurk out there in the dark but what despair can bring into the heart of a family. “A lot of horror movies are really only about the scares, but this one gets underneath these kinds of tragedies that befall families. That gave it another layer.” Widmyer is excited to be part of what he considers the renaissance of Stephen King that is currently under way. “We are looking at his work with fresh eyes and realizing a different approach is warranted. I’m so grateful this has happened or we would never have gotten a chance to make this movie.”
Widmyer is excited to be part of what he considers the renaissance of Stephen King that is currently under way. “We are looking at his work with fresh eyes and realizing a different approach is warranted. I’m so grateful this has happened or we would never have gotten a chance to make this movie.”