Winston Churchill in Pet Semetary. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

 

Burying the Past in the New Pet Sematary

Does even Stephen King fear this year’s Closing Night Film?

For horror fans, a warning from Stephen King also serves as an endorsement, and in February, he tweeted the just-released trailer for the new adaptation of his Pet Sematary with a warning: “You might consider skipping this movie if you have heart trouble.”

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were gleeful. “It’s pretty surreal,” Widmyer says. Obviously, he admits, they were hoping for King’s approval, “but it’s so intangible in your brain that if you think about it too much, you drive yourself crazy, thinking about something you worked on, and your hero is actually sitting in a theater and watching and having thoughts and commenting on it.”

“You can’t ignore the first film, but we really tried to put it out of our heads there for a while and just went back and read the book a number of times …”

And their hero is not the only one. Since Kölsch and Widmyer made waves in indie horror circles with their sophomore feature film Starry Eyes, they’ve been embraced as an exciting choice to adapt what many people call King’s most frightening book. After Mary Lambert’s beloved 1989 film adaptation of Pet Sematary, how do the filmmakers intend to distinguish their own take on the novel?

“The first film was a big influence on us,” Kölsch says. “It was a film I remember seeing at a friend’s house during a sleepover, watching it in his basement and getting really scared, terrified.”

 
(L–R) Kölsch, John Lithgow, and Widmyer on the set. Photo by Kerry Hayes / 2019 Paramount Pictures

(L–R) Kölsch, John Lithgow, and Widmyer on the set. Photo by Kerry Hayes / 2019 Paramount Pictures

 

Widmyer adds, “You can’t ignore the first film, but we really tried to put it out of our heads there for a while and just went back and read the book a number of times, and that was really what we were informed by.”

Fortunately, their cast pitched in. Pet Sematary lead Jason Clarke, who plays patriarch Louis Creed, garnered the nickname “The Archivist” as a go-to source of insight into King’s words. “He continually read the book on set,” Widmyer marvels. “He’d call us up on a Sunday before we were going to shoot on Monday and say, ‘Hey, guys, in the scene we’re shooting tomorrow, I just reread the chapter, and we have to have [Louis] say this line, because it’s the best line of that chapter.’”

In addition to casting Clarke as Louis and Amy Seimetz as Rachel, his wife, the filmmakers cast veteran crowd-pleaser John Lithgow as the Creeds’ neighbor Jud Crandall, who introduces the family to the infamous cemetery.

“John was our first choice for the role,” Kölsch says. “He’s amazing. He really is the only actor we had in mind when we were thinking of somebody that could really pull off the duality of Jud, this guy that’s the kindly, nice neighbor who also has this dark secret because of his knowledge of this place.”

Arguably the most important character in King’s novel is the pet cemetery itself, a chilling memorial made up of deadfall and handmade gravestones. Crafting the location was a challenge, and not least because of the geographic peculiarities of the place as King describes it.

“You’d think it would be easy to find a house by a dangerous road,” Widmyer sighs. But add in the acres of wooded area behind the Creeds’ home and “it’s like creating an almost impossible algorithm for yourself.”

 
 

In Saint-Lazare, a small off-island suburb of Montreal, the directors found their cemetery (or sematary). “We basically spent the whole afternoon letting [the homeowner] take us on a hike through the woods. And lo and behold, 15 minutes into the woods at the main trail, there was a big, open clearing,” Widmyer remembers. “So literally if you drove to set, you could walk up to the house, walk into the backyard, go down the trail into the woods, and actually come upon the pet cemetery that [production designer Todd Cherniawsky] had built. Just having all that geography was great.”

Fans of the book should take a close look at the gravestones sprinkled amid the site. “You’ll see all the names of the pets from the book,” Widmyer says, but he, Kölsch and Cherniawsky added a more personal touch, as well. “Something really cool that we did was they asked for the names of all the deceased pets of all the crew, and everybody gave the names of their pets. And then they actually peppered that all throughout the grave markers … it’s a nice little love letter to our animals.”

Of course, there’s one pet in particular glaring out at you from the book cover and movie poster for Pet Sematary: the Creed family cat, Winston Churchill. Though the traditional sentiment is “never work with animals,” avowed cat lovers Kölsch and Widmyer had no problem with the Church scenes. “Lots of Fancy Feast,” Kölsch laughed.

With Pet Sematary headlining as SXSW’s Closing Night Film, the directors smile at the symmetry of their return to the festival. “It means a lot to us,” Kölsch says. “Starry Eyes premiered at SXSW, and it was from that screening that we got reps. Our reps are the ones who vigorously put in these rounds of meetings, and that eventually got us Pet Sematary.”

“Yeah, not to mention we love Austin,” Widmyer added. “All roads lead back to SXSW.”

Pet Sematary will World Premiere as the Closing Night Film on Saturday, March 16.

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