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. 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, and 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.”
According to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the search for the right director ― or, as it turned out, directors ― to helm a modern-day reimagining 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.”