This second attempt at a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s dark tale of a family pet rising from the dead mixes things up to chilling effect.

Stephen King once described his output as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac” – nothing fancy, but it feeds the needs of the audience. While many of King’s early novels (up until 1987’s self-reflexive Misery) fulfilled that reliable fast-food remit, screen adaptations of the horror maestro’s work proved far more varied, ranging from such upmarket cordon bleu dishes as Brian De Palma’s Carrie, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (which famously incurred the author’s ire), all the way down to dog’s dinners such as Fritz Kiersch’s Children of the Corn and Mark L Lester’s Firestarter, the last of which King called “flavourless…like cafeteria mashed potatoes”.

In 2017, the King screen buffet refreshed its menu with Andy Muschietti’s It, the first course in an appetising adaptation of King’s 1986 novel that has been hailed as “the highest grossing horror movie of all time”. It: Chapter Two is due to be served up in September, promising yet more mouthwatering box-office returns. In the meantime we have an intermezzo course in the form of Pet Sematary, less of a tart palate-cleanser and more of a bread roll basket, filling a gap while offering few surprises.

Streaming: a King for all seasons
The plot is standard King fare – an autobiographically inflected evocation of everyday apple-pie Americana poisoned by a Twilight Zone twist. The Creed clan move from busy Boston to rural Ludlow, Maine, where a forest becomes the family’s new backyard. Here, medic Louis (Jason Clarke) will have more time to spend with his kids – poppet daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and baby brother, Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), while troubled mum, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), can escape painful memories of her twisted sister. It seems idyllic, but speeding trucks soon strike a note of alarm, as does a procession of kids in Wicker Man-style animal masks, traipsing through the woods to bury a dog in the titular misspelt resting place.

“Further than you ever want to go,” is how avuncular neighbour Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) ominously describes the boundary of the Creeds’ property. But when Ellie’s beloved cat Church becomes roadkill, Jud leads Louis to a moonlit misty graveyard from whence the dead and buried return alive and unwell. “Sometimes, dead is better,” warns Jud, after the resurrected Church turns scratchy. But will Louis be able to resist when the stakes are higher than a mangy pet?

Just as It was first adapted for TV nearly 30 years ago, so Pet Sematary was previously filmed in 1989 by director Mary Lambert, from King’s own screenplay. Here, screenwriter Jeff Buhler (whose predecessor Matt Greenberg receives a “screen story” credit) rings some key changes on the narrative, flipping genders and victims to wrong-foot those familiar with the original, sharply reconfiguring the dysfunctional family dynamics.

Yet despite such updates, King’s familiar themes remain essentially unaltered: timeless parental anxieties about children and death juxtaposed with the modern-day spectre of property horror; the legacy of ancient tribal lands now colonised by wealthy white landowners; the haunted family fear of bad-seed retribution played out against a jarringly contemporary backdrop.

There’s an echo, too, of the doom-laden grief that once made King think his source novel was too dark for publication, although any sense of genuine tragedy is alleviated by the jet-black comedic tone conjured by Starry Eyes co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer.

From Christopher Young’s moaning, groaning score to the familiar false-scares and quiet-BANG jumps, Pet Sematary serves up its thrills in generic “burger and fries” fashion, spiced up by Laurie Rose’s evocative cinematography, some Cronenbergian body horror and a few moments of impressively throbby gore. There are a couple of knowing nods to previous superior King adaptations – a hand darting out of the ground, blood seeping around a door – but it’s the theatrical artificiality of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves that leapt to mind during the nocturnal forest outings. By contrast, the impressively orchestrated highway tragedy at the centre of the story seems horribly real.

Clarke and Seimetz are believable as the beleaguered parents, while rising star Laurence is eerily engaging as the young girl caught between their warring affections. As for Lithgow, he seems to have walked straight out of the pages of one of the gory EC Comics that are cacklingly evoked in the ghoulish finale. The result may not be groundbreaking or, indeed, particularly scary. But it treats King’s story with reverent affection and, unlike the cover version of the Ramones title song that plays over the end credits, it won’t leave you nostalgically longing for the original.