Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

Garden of evil: On set with the cast of Pet Sematary

We discover first-hand why ‘Pet Sematary’ might be the scariest movie you’ll see this year

A scene from the 2019 remake, 'Pet Sematary'. Paramount
A scene from the 2019 remake, 'Pet Sematary'. Paramount

July 2018. Midnight. We’re stood smack in the middle of a note-perfect recreation of ­Stephen King’s classic, Pet ­Sematary, deep in the dark, wet woods an hour and a half outside of central Montreal. It’s pitch-black, except for our flashlights, the beams of which occasionally pick out haunting shadows of the crude headstones sticking up jagged in the murk. With the remote location and time, it should be quiet, but something about this place refuses to rest. And it’s not just the mosquitoes.

“Did you bring some bug spray?” chuckles Jason Clarke as he ambles past, with a shovel slung over his shoulder and a (fake) dead cat in a bin bag in the other hand. “It’s no joke out here – they’re big!”

The spelling mistake in the title stems from the fact the sign for the cemetery was made by children. Shutterstock
The spelling mistake in the title stems from the fact the sign for the cemetery was made by children. Shutterstock

Stephen King classic

Pet Sematary, King’s beloved bestseller, turned 35 last November. This is a miracle given that after he’d written it, King decided it was too terrifying to ever publish, hiding the manuscript in his desk drawer for three years. The troubling, provocative story follows the Creed family – dad Louis (played by Clarke) mum Rachel, three-year-old son Gage, his nine-year-old sister Ellie and her cat, Church (nicknamed after Winston Churchill) – who move to the country for a relaxed life, and get quite the opposite. It does not pull any punches. As you may have gathered already, Church may not be long for this life. But what you may not yet realise is his death doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t come back … As Jud Crandall, the old neighbour who lives over the road in the novel and in this movie is played by the legendary John Lithgow (The Crown, Interstellar), observes sagely: “Sometimes dead is better.”

The cover of the 1983 horror novel by Stephen King.
The cover of the 1983 horror novel by Stephen King.

Becoming a film

In 1989, Mary Lambert, director of some of Madonna’s most memorable music videos, first adapted King’s book, with a version that was narratively jumbled (it was based on King’s own screenplay, a discipline he’s never mastered) but loaded with gruesome imagery that has stood the test of time. Fans look back on it fondly, still terrified by characters such as Pascow and – especially – Zelda.

“But the truth is,” says this new movie’s producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, choosing his words diplomatically, “I didn’t think that movie was as successful as it could have been. A lot of people like it, and I respect that. But this is definitely an adaptation of the book [not that movie]. All these years later, we’re a different society. We can emphasise these themes in a very different way. The question here is: ‘How far would you go to see your child again?’”

Here’s the nub of Pet Sematary, the reason it has always resonated – after all, it sat top of the bestseller list for an unprecedented 32 weeks when it was first published – and the reason King himself initially hid it from the world: for him, this time it was personal. “That’s what scared me, but also drew me,” says Dennis Widmyer, who is co-directing this adaptation with his partner on the acclaimed indie horror Starry Eyes, Kevin Kolsch. “It always felt more dangerous than his other books, because it was autobiographical.”

Towards the end of the ’70s, ­Stephen King had been made an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse, when he was invited back for a year to teach at his old university. So it was that the King family relocated to Orrington, Maine, to a rented brownstone set back off a busy main road – a stretch of tarmac so dangerous the local kids had long ago made a makeshift cemetery for the pets it would so frequently claim.

For the Kings, first it was daughter Naomi’s cat, Smucky, who fell victim to it (on set later we will stumble upon poor Smucky’s headstone in Widmyer and Kolsch’s painstakingly recreated cemetery). Then, in a moment forever seared into King’s subconscious, he barely managed to save his two-year-old son, Owen, from running on to the same road and under the wheels of a monstrous oncoming tanker. “If things had changed by five seconds, we’d have lost one of our kids,” remembered King with a shudder at the time.

A Hollywood renaissance

Now, of course, King is enjoying yet another Hollywood renaissance, kickstarted by huge recent successes on screens big and small, from Hulu’s Castle Rock to Andy Muschietti’s 2017 box office juggernaut, It, which broke opening weekend records, grossed more than $700 million (Dh2.57 billion), and will conclude with the much-anticipated It: Chapter Two this September.

'It' reminded people that King writes not just great fiction, but great literary horror

Kevin Kolsch, co-director

In many ways, Pet Sematary is a sister piece to the It saga. Both are about the loss of childhood innocence and are set in King’s home state of Maine. And just as It’s Pennywise haunts Maine’s Derry, so does Pet Sematary’s location, Ludlow, live under the constant shadow of the malevolent, woods-based demon, the Wendigo. “[The movie] It reminded people that King writes not just great fiction, but great literary horror,” says co-director Kolsch. “It respected the material, treated it like prestige horror, not schlock. And that’s what we’re doing, too.”

'A journey into Hell'

Clarke strolls back in to the Pet Sematary. Inside its crude boundary lie concentric circles of around 80 child-made (hence the misspelling of the location and title) gravestones. Some have been taken verbatim from the novel, others have been inspired by the long-since deceased pets of this movie’s cast and crew. “It was personal details like that that sold me on this,” says Clarke. “This isn’t just ‘scary’. This is a journey into Hell.”

It's not just 'scary stab-stab', but what can become of our actual soul

Jason Clarke, actor

The Zero Dark Thirty actor was maybe 20 when he first discovered the work of Stephen King, shortly after he’d devoured The Lord of the Rings. But even then Clarke knew there was something uniquely disturbing about it. And now, as a father, it has even more of a chilling relevance. “You definitely have days where you’re like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to shoot that,’” he says of the scenes where he has to film, well, the unthinkable. “But that’s what I liked about it, too. That whole, ‘What would you do?’ I try to not look at my children and think about it, but that’s part of what makes this so special. It’s not just ‘scary stab-stab’, but what can become of our actual soul.”

Clarke is joined on set by Lithgow’s Jud Crandall, who is about to lead him over the deadfall and to a place from which he can never return. Clarke still has the spade and the cat in the bag; Lithgow a torch and a cigarette-stained salt ’n’ pepper stubble. A smoke machine billows out from somewhere behind us, adding to the mood. “The thing is to not look down,” offers Lithgow to Clarke, by way of advice.

“This is the big scene we fought to really enhance,” says director ­Widmyer. “Our pitch was: ‘The chapter in the book where Jud takes Louis up to the ancient burial ground is one of the best chapters Stephen King has ever written.’ And tonight, we’re filming it.”

Lithgow looks at Clarke. “Ready?” Clarke adjusts his grip. “No turning back now, I guess,” he says with a bleak grin. And then they slowly start to climb, and disappear into the deep black beyond.

Pet Semetary is in UAE cinemas now

Five facts you probably didn't know about Stephen King and 'Pet Sematary'

  1. When Pet Sematary was first published in 1983, Stephen King had already seen more of his novels adapted into movies than Charles Dickens.
  2. The novel is very personal to King. For years he had just three pieces of memorabilia in his office: A hand-drawn ‘REDRUM’ sign from The Shining, a director’s chair from The Green Mile and a rug from Pet Sematary.
  3. It also has many famous fans. Dee Dee Ramone wrote the Ramones track Pet Sematary after reading the book in King’s basement.
  4. This movie’s producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, has worked on more than 80 big-screen book adaptations, including previous King adaptation 1408 and Harry Potter.
  5. In this movie six cats were used to play Church, the Creed family pet who dies and then comes back ‘different’. But the main two were the “particularly talented” (according to co-director Dennis Widmyer) Tonic and Leo.

Updated: April 4, 2019 12:23 PM