The Pet Sematary hype is real. The new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel is now in theaters with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in the driver’s seat. The movie once again unearths the tragedy and grief suffered by the Creed family after they relocate to rural Maine and fall victim to a creepy burial ground that has the power to reanimate the dead. For those who remain unsold on a new version of a story that likely disrupted their childhoods, look no further than Kölsch and Widmyer’s 2014 film, Starry Eyes, to see the horrors in store in the new take on King’s iconic tale.
Starry Eyes tells the story of a young woman named Sarah (Alex Essoe), who’s hoping to live out her dream of making it as an actress in the rough-and-tumble town of Los Angeles. She repeatedly endures torturous auditions while working a fast food job with a very unfortunate uniform. With seemingly low prospects, she considers giving up until she lands one of the most bizarre tryouts yet and finally gets the gig of her lifetime. She quickly discovers how far the “role” will push her from her moral comfort zone and learns that the price of fame is high. Very high.
Kölsch and Widmyer are a directing duo with proven skills in building atmospheric tension and narrative mystery. Their brand of slow-build storytelling massively pays off at the end of Sarah’s tale in ways that are equally disturbing and incredibly gratifying. Through the film’s precise pacing, we’re allowed to feel Sarah’s desperation and anguish as she literally pulls her hair out to deal with her stress. We feel her excruciating pain, both physical and emotional, as the casting directors force her to self-mutilate to continue in the process. As she’s told later in the movie: “Dreams require sacrifice… and so do we.” How much she’s willing to sacrifice becomes the make-or-break factor in her quest for stardom.
Definitive choices by the filmmakers sculpt the look and tone of Starry Eyes. As the mystery compounds, we’re fed bleak scenes through muted colors, grays, and other shades of darkness, feeding into lingering, gnawing anxieties: both Sarah’s and our own. As viewers, we pull for Sarah because we’ve all likely experienced the trials and tribulations of falling short of our goals. Yet, as the film progresses, Sarah’s prognosis grows more harrowing by the minute, with its storyline matching the darkness of its color palette.
Composer Jonathan Snipes delivers a score that matches its visuals and brings the whole shebang to life. You can sense the John Carpenter influence in its layered, pulsating synths, but it doesn’t settle for being just an homage; Snipes gives the entire soundtrack a contemporary twist that feels original and grows with its lead. As Sarah plunges deeper into the cult rituals that hex her fate, the score warps and darkens, taking sinister turns as it rides shotgun alongside her horrifying physical transformation. It’s not all doom and gloom, though; Snipes also creates dreamy rhythms that fill you with a sense of wonder and hope. It takes listeners through an emotional arc that mirrors Sarah’s highs, lows, and eventual grisly (depending on how you look at it) destiny. (Aside: the soundtrack was re-released on vinyl by Waxworks Records in a 180-gram blood red and black splatter design packaged with artwork by Jay Shaw and liner notes from Snipes—an excellent grab for any Starry fans or collectors.)
The sound mixing adds a world of difference, too, accentuating the bloodshed, unfathomable evil, and horrific consequences of Sarah’s choices. Once her friends become targets and victims of her transformation, each gory act of violence is accentuated by sound effects that add cringe-inducing realism to the already dark film. It’s certainly not a movie for the squeamish.
Kölsch and Widmyer’s story turns as if a switch was flipped, and thanks to their capable leading lady Essoe, it’s a punch to the gut. Essoe’s demeanor change is night and day. We go from championing the character to being slapped by her shocking brutality. With the film’s technical aspects in place, Sarah’s story is then given space to unfold. She states, “There’s only one thing in this whole world I want,” and, “They see the real me.” She drinks gallons of Kool-Aid after a producer tells her that ambition is “…the blackest of human desires. Everyone has it, but how many act on it?” She’s urged at every corner to abandon her instincts, to leap whole-heartedly into danger. We see it as the beginning of her own destruction, but she’s blinded by her dream and unable to correct her course. The directors never let Sarah off easily. Knives are plunged deep, twisted hard, and then twisted again. Once it seems Sarah has had enough—that we’ve had enough—Kölsch and Widmyer refuse to let up. No one gets out unscathed.
The announcement that Kölsch and Widmyer would be helming Pet Sematary was an exciting one. The duo brings all these elements and more to everything they touch (including the “Valentine’s Day” segment of the horror anthology Holidays and several episodes of Scream: The TV Series) with limited budgets and a never-ending well of creativity. They’ve carefully crafted their own brand of horror using despair and grief as the linchpins of their storytelling. There is no more perfect next step for them than tackling a Pet Sematary adaptation, and early reviews support that (in case you missed it, read Heather Wixson's review of the new film). With the Creeds’ gut-wrenching story of love and loss, of agonizing grief and the horrors people will face to put an end to their pain, I can’t wait to see what these two directors have in store.