creed family pet sem

A Perversion Of Nature

Nope, never mind. We’re not going there yet after all. Another miscommunication. Instead, we head back to the yard of the peeling, crumbling home, where we’re given the opportunity to watch a scene being shot via a set of TV monitors. A scene I can tell you virtually nothing about, so as not to give away spoilers. I will tell you this: it looks visually striking, which immediately distances it from the ‘89 film. Mary Lambert’s adaptation holds a place in my heart, but it hasn’t aged particularly well, especially in the rather bland way it’s been shot. There’s nothing bland looking about the new Pet Sematary.

While we watch the scene, we also chat with producer Mark Vahradian. Like the directors, and like Mr. Lithgow, Vahradian stresses the serious approach to King’s book. “It’s actually a family drama,” Vahradian says of the film. “There’s a lot of interesting thematics in it…there’s this notion of nature and the power of nature and a family that moves from the city closer to nature, into the woods, and who is unfamiliar with that kind of savage power and doesn’t really know the dangers of being outside of civilization. It’s technically a horror movie, and it has scary stuff but that’s generally at the back end of the story, and it’s really about dealing with all these other issues and human choices and behaviors. So I think this is much deeper than most of the horror that’s out there, and I think even most of the horror literature that’s out there. And that was what was always so exciting for us.”

As the producer is talking, I catch sight of a crew member bringing a stuffed prop cat out and setting it up on a table. Sadly, we will see no live cats today (and thankfully no dead ones, either).

“[This film deals with] a perversion of nature, which goes back to the natural themes,” Vahradian continues, “and it was important to have…tender beats, where you can get the emotion of this story. And that’s why I think this movie will have something that a lot of [other horror] movies don’t – it really has a genuine emotional quotient, and it is heartbreaking, and a lot of times I question…are we being too sad? Is it too sad for a commercial horror movie? It’s not always easy to convert a book to a screenplay, and in this case it took a lot of time to find the balance.”

And what helped with that balance? Finding the right directors.

“You know, these guys, [Kölsch and Widmyer], are huge King fans. They’re super horror nerds. They’re horror trivia fanatics. Ands they knew the book better than we knew the book, which was really the first thing, and they really had strong opinions about what we could use from the book, because we wanted somebody who actually knew what we were – if there were things we were missing that were going to be important, you know – yet we didn’t want somebody who was too devoted, you know, to the point that they were going to demand everything from the book be in this movie, which you can never do in these things – obviously the book’s too big, too vast. And so they were sort of a good balance.”

On the monitors, Jason Clarke is discussing the scene with Kölsch and Widmyer. No one can seem to decide where Clarke should put his hand within the frame of a shot, and several different variations are tried – the same scene repeated, again and again, until it looks exactly the way it should. We watch, somewhat transfixed, and the night is close to coming on. I’m ready to watch these monitors all night, but then, finally, the moment I’ve been waiting for since my plane touched down in Montreal is here. We’re going to the pet sematary. For real this time.

Pet Sematary Sign

Pet Sematary

We’re brought here via golf cart. First, we travel to the huge red farmhouse being used as the new home of the Creed family. Tall trees tower behind it, and a path has been made. The golf carts travel over the bumpy terrain of that path, deeper and deeper into the woods. Lights have been fixed up in the trees for night shooting. Dust kicks up from the earth. And before too long, we’ve arrived.

To stroll into the pet sematary set close to dusk is something akin to a religious experience. Nestled deep in the woods, the childish graveyard – “Boot Hill for animals,” Louis Creed calls it in the novel – is a marvel of production design.

Nothing here looks fake or staged. In a concentric circle, homemade grave markers advertise the final resting place of (fictional) pets.

“BIFFER BIFFER A HELLUVA SNIFFER…”

“TRIXIE, KILT ON THE HIGHWAY”

The inscriptions on these markers we see, and more, are taken verbatim from King’s book.

Wooden crosses, hammered together in lopsided angles; stones with diminished words chiseled into them; faded photographs of dogs and cats; religious iconography all around.

The pet sematary entrance is marked by a totem so tall and emotionally devastating that it takes my breath away, and briefly makes me feel as if I might tear up. A wooden post – likely from a bed or a porch – juts from the ground at a crooked angle. A splintered piece of wood is hammered into the top of the post. PET SEMATARY is painted on that board in drippy, white letters. And wrapped around the post are hundreds upon hundreds of dog leashes and cat and dog collars. Studded, pink, black, faded, weathered. The remnants of countless pet lives, suddenly snuffed out one day. At the bottom of the sign rest water and food bowls. Off to the side is a framed painting of the Virgin Mary, nestled in some brush as if it had been tossed aside in a fit of rage.

The insects hum; the air is still and hot. Death is comfortable here. And to stand here, right now, with the night coming in, is to be transported directly into King’s novel. To find yourself in a real graveyard for dead animal. To feel the power of something ancient, and evil, pulsating through the woods.

There’s talk of rain tonight, and slowly, crew members begin shrouding the handmade tombstones in plastic sheeting, as carefully as a coroner encasing a corpse in a body bag. Silence takes over, as if we’re in a real graveyard – as if to raise our voices here in this place of death would be disrespectful.

And all around the sematary is what King calls the deadfall in his novel. Thousands of jagged, huge branches and tree trunks, piled up in a mad shape. An impossible, towering wall of stick and birch and bark. It looms large, and it feels like it’s watching you. In the center of the deadfall is a hole – a spot for a camera to be placed, to peer out. But as you stand in the pet sematary, and peer into that hole, you feel the life running out of you. You feel darkness creeping in. You feel like something is watching you.

In the film, as in the story, the deadfall leads to the Micmac Burial Ground. The place that has the power to bring back to the dead. The place where the ground has gone sour.

The Micmac Burial Ground is being built on a soundstage, we’re told. But looking up at the deadfall here, you can believe the real Micmac Burial Ground is just beyond. All you have to do to find it is climb over…and take a little walk.

Pet Sematary opens on April 5, 2019.

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