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Movie review: Whistling past the ‘Sematary’

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    CONTRIBUTED photo courtesy PARAMOUNT PICTURES
    From left: John Lithgow (Jud Crandall), Jeté Laurence (Ellie), “Pet Sematary.”

Published April 24. 2019 12:19PM

Novelist Stephen King is a master of invoking the superstition metaphor of whistling past the cemetery, whereby when one is afraid, one tries to calm one’s fears by whistling.

It seldom helps.

It also won’t help with “Pet Sematary,” the remake of the 1989 film (a sequel, Pet Sematary Two” was released in 1992) based on King’s 1983 horror novel of the same title.

The incorrect spelling of “cemetery” in the film’s title is intentional. The name “Pet Sematary” is scrawled on a sign at a cemetery where teens and children, who live in Ludlow, Maine, a town of 404 based on the 2010 census, have lovingly buried their dead pets. The cemetery is adjacent to a ceremonial burial ground of the Micmac, a Native-American tribe that settled in Maine, as well as areas of Canada.

The pet cemetery is near the house of Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor who moved with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and son Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie, who are twins) and daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) to Ludlow after he became director of the University of Maine health clinic.

The family’s cat, Church (a nickname based on the name Winston Churchill) dies after being hit by a vehicle on the busy highway in front of the house.

Louis Creed befriends a neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who tells him the legend of the Micmac burial ground where legend has it that, if a pet is buried there, it returns to life. Louis follows Jud’s instructions and Church reappears, not as the cuddly family cat, but as a vicious feline that lashes out at the Creed family.

It gets worse. The Creeds’ son Gage dies after being hit by a speeding truck on the busy highway out front.

Guess what dear old dad does?

No, ahem, family plot spoilers here.

“Pet Sematary” is creepy enough to please ardent fans of the horror film genre. To be sure, “Pet Sematary” is more of a suspense thriller than a horror film in that it’s sparing in its graphic representations of horror.

“Pet Sematary” co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer co-directed the horror film “Starry Eyes” (2014), and the thriller “Absence” (2009).

The “Pet Sematary” screenplay was written by Jeff Buhler (“The Prodigy,” 2019) based on a screen story written by Matt Greenberg, who wrote the screenplays for “Mercy” (2014), “Reign of Fire” (2002) and “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” (1998). The screen story and screenplay is based on the Stephen King novel.

The directors build the tension in “Pet Sematary” gradually and effectively. Though are you never completely caught off-guard, especially if you‘ve seen the original “Pet Sematary” films, you are constantly on guard during the film.

Moreover, the directors and the screenplay emphasizes the family dynamics and the horror of loss, guilt and remorse. The wife, Rachel, is especially vexed by the death of her sister, Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine). The horror becomes all the more real for its psychological roots.

The cinematography by Laurie Rose (”Free Fire,” 2016; “Kill List,” 2011) is intimate, dark and unsettling.

The score by Christopher Young (“Sinister,” 2012; “Entrapment,” 1999) provides some jump cuts of its own.

Jason Clark (“Chappaquiddick, 2017; “Mudbound,” 2017; “Everest,” 2015) is solid as the dedicated dad who becomes conflicted and increasingly unhinged after his son’s death.

Amy Seimetz (“Wild Nights With Emily,” 2018) effectively creates a range of emotions as a devoted mother who becomes increasingly concerned about her husband’s mental state.

John Lithgow (Oscar nominations, supporting actor, “Terms of Endearment,” 1983; “The World According to Garp,” 1982) is well-cast as the creepy older neighbor whose obsequious caring and concern for Louis Creed and his family makes him seem all the more creepy.

Jeté Laurence (“The Snowman,” 2017) is excellent playing both sides of the daughter, one sweet and the other scary.

“Pet Sematary” may not dig up all the thrills and chills of the original. Then again, the remake of “Pet Sematary” unearths some new turf.

The next time you walk past a cemetery, it may even make you put your lips together and whistle.

“Pet Sematary,” MPAA Rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for horror violence, bloody images, and some language; Genre: Horror, Thriller; Run Time: 1 hr., 41 mins.; Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Pet Sematary” was filmed in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The closing credits include a version of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary,” which was in the original 1989 “Pet Sematary,” sung here by Starcrawler. Five cats, all rescues, played Church.

Box Office, April 19-21: “The Curse of La Llorona” opened at No. 1 for the Easter and Passover weekend, with $26.5 million, one week, ending the two-week No. 1 run of “Shazam!,” $17.3 million, $121.3 million, three weeks, as “Breakthrough” opened at No. 3, with $11.1 million, weekend; $14.6 million, since opening April 17.

4. “Captain Marvel” moved up two places, $9.1 million, $400 million, seven weeks. 5. “Little,” $8.4 million, $29.3 million, two weeks. 6. “Dumbo” dropped one place, $6.8 million, $101.2 million, four weeks. 7. “Pet Sematary” dropped three places, $4.8 million, $49.5 million, three weeks. 8. “Missing Link” moved up one place, $4.3 million, $12.9 million, two weeks. 9. “Us” dropped two places, $4.2 million, $170.4 million, five weeks. 10. “Hellboy” dropped seven places, $3.8 million, $19.6 million, two weeks.

Unreel, April 26:

“Avengers: Endgame,” PG-13: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo direct Brie Larson, Scarlett Johansson, Karen Gillan, Paul Rudd, David Bautista, Robert Downey Jr., Tessa Thompson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Evangeline Lilly, Josh Brolin, Tom Holland, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Don Cheadle, Letitia Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tilda Swinton, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Winston Duke, Katherine Langford, Pom Klementieff and nearly the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the sci-fi action film. At 181 min., that’s three hours and one minute. Better not get the large soda at the concession stand. The Avengers gather once more to battle Thanos and restore order to the universe. Look for one of the biggest weekend openings ever in the movie box-office universe.

“The White Crow,” R: Ralph Fiennes directs Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann and Adèle Exarchopoulos in the biography drama about Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union to the West.

“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” No MPAA rating: Pamela B. Green directs the documentary about pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché.

Two popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

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