The 2019 adaptation of Pet Sematary misses the point of Stephen King’s novel. Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, the new Pet Sematary movie makes some radical changes to the plot of the book. Yet the problem isn’t that the story changed, but that it lost focus on the heart of the book.
Published in 1983, Pet Sematary follows the Creed family as they move from the city to rural Maine in search of a quieter life and a nicer place for the kids – eight year-old Ellie and two year-old Gage – to grow up. Unfortunately, their new property sits next to a truck route where trucks barrel along at deadly speeds all day, and the road ends up claiming first the life of the family’s pet cat, Church, and then the life of young Gage. Fortunately (or, as it turns out, unfortunately) the nearby pet cemetery holds the path to an older burial ground, where things that are buried can come back to life… though they’re not exactly the same.
Pet Sematary was first adapted in 1989 by Mary Lambert, and thirty years later Paramount Pictures decided the story could do with an update, complete with a twist in the tale and some added horror elements. Unfortunately, in the effort to make Pet Sematary scarier, the new adaptation loses sight of what made the original novel so terrifying in the first place.
- This Page: What Makes Stephen King’s Pet Sematary So Scary
- Page 2: What the 1989 Pet Sematary Got Right, and the 2019 Movie Got Wrong
Though it may have a Native-American burial ground and people rising from the dead, the supernatural elements aren’t what make King’s Pet Sematary so terrifying. In fact, the core of the novel comes from two incidents that happened to King in real life, with no supernatural intervention required. In 1979, King – like Louis Creed – had gotten a job at the University of Maine (though as a writer-in-residence, not as a doctor), and was living in a house in a nearby town that bordered a major truck route. The road had a reputation for claiming the lives of local pets, and one of its victims was a cat belonging to King’s eight year-old daughter. Like Louis, King had to bury the cat in the local pet cemetery and break the news of what had happened to his daughter.
In details of the inspiration for Pet Sematary on King’s official website, he explains that the death of the cat became coupled in his mind with another horrible incident – one in which his son had almost run into a highway, and King had managed to pull him back just in time. King explains:
“I can remember crossing the road, and thinking that the cat had been killed in the road – and (I thought) what if a kid died in that road? And we had had this experience with Owen running toward the road, where I had just grabbed him and pulled him back. And the two things just came together – on one side of this two-lane highway was the idea of what if the cat came back, and on the other side of the highway was what if the kid came back.”
The idea that grew out of the horror of those two incidences was that of first pets, and then people, being brought back from the dead. But the actual, visceral fear of Pet Sematary isn’t the resurrection of Church the cat or Gage Creed, but the circumstances of their deaths in the first place.
The best horror comes from an experience that’s relatable to people, whether it’s ghost movies that play on our fear of being alone in dark and empty houses, or something more abstract like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which puts a surreal spin of the terror of failing as a parent. While Pet Sematary has a ghost with a bloody, smashed-in head, an undead cat, and a toddler coming back from the grave with a newfound bloodlust, arguably the most frightening passage in it is the description of Gage’s death. A neighbor, Missy Dandridge, tries to comfort Louis at his son’s funeral by saying, “At least it was quick” – to which Louis (silently) responds:
Yes, it was quick, all right, he thought about saying to her… It was quick, no doubt about that, that’s why the coffin’s closed… It was quick, Missy-my-dear, one minute he was there on the road and the next minute he was lying in it, but way down by the Ringers’ house. It hit him and killed him and then it dragged him and you better believe it was quick. A hundred yards or more all told, the length of a football field. I ran after him, Missy, I was screaming his name over and over again, almost as if I expected he would still be alive – me, a doctor. I ran ten yards and there was his baseball cap and I ran twenty yards and there was one of his Star Wars sneakers, I ran forty yards and by then the truck had run off the road and the box had jackknifed in that field beyond the Ringers’ barn. People were coming out of their houses and I went on screaming his name, Missy, and at the fifty-yard line there was his jumper, it was turned inside-out, and on the seventy-yard line there was the other sneaker, and then there was Gage…
Though it’s speculated in the novel, by both Louis and Jud, that bringing Church back from the dead may have somehow started a cosmic chain of events that led to Gage’s death, it could just as easily have been the case that Gage’s death was truly random. After all, many people have buried and brought their pets back over the years without setting off a litany of further tragedies, including Jud himself. The suddenness, randomness, and violence of Gage’s death cuts to the heart of a parent’s worst nightmare, and the rest of the novel’s horror grows out of that.
Page 2: What the 1989 Pet Sematary Got Right, and the 2019 Movie Got Wrong
The first adaptation of Pet Sematary, Mary Lambert’s 1989 movie, wasn’t especially well-received upon its release. Empire scathingly called its screenplay “hacked up” and “sloppy,” and lamented that “you have to sit impatiently through scene after silly scene before the zombie attacks start.” Lambert’s Pet Sematary has, however, weathered the test of time because it recognizes that the zombie attacks were not the point of the novel.
One of the movie’s most memorable and nightmare-inducing scenes is when Rachel Creed tells Louis about her sister, Zelda, who died of convulsions as a result of spinal meningitis. There’s nothing supernatural about the story that Rachel tells but, as portrayed in the film, it captures the horror of watching a relative die slowly from disease. Denise Crosby gives a powerful performance as Rachel recalls running out of the house screaming, “Zelda’s dead! Zelda’s dead! Zelda’s dead!” – speculating that she was actually laughing, rather than crying, in relief that both Zelda and her family’s suffering was over. In the book, Rachel is left with a crippling phobia of death that causes her to lash out when Louis tells her that death is “natural,” and Lambert’s movie effectively conveys the idea that even “natural” deaths can be terrifying and monstrous.
Crosby’s performance, along with Dale Midkiff’s as Louis Creed, is crucial in capturing the devastating power of grief that drives the novel and continually pushes Louis along a path to further disaster. Though it strays from the book in places, Lambert’s film has an awareness of what moments were most important, and it’s those scenes that are adapted closely – for example, the scene where a devastated Louis has to kill his resurrected son via lethal injection and watch Gage die all over again. Then, to emphasize how all-encompassing and ruinous Louis’ grief is, he starts the whole cycle all over again by taking the now-dead Rachel up to the burial ground. These scenes are missing from the new adaptation, and it makes all the difference.
Kölsch and Widmyer’s movie seems to share the same opinion as the aforementioned review of the 1989 Pet Sematary: that the scenes of the Creed family interacting with another (and Jud Crandall) and the gradual build-up of horror are annoying roadblocks on the way to the real meat of the story, which is zombies attacking.
Pet Sematary 2019 largely starts to go off the rails with the death of Ellie. Not only does the movie, by way of changing things up, lose the moment where Louis comes agonizingly close to pulling his child back from the road only to fail, it also makes Ellie’s death almost comically bloodless. Recall the novel’s chilling description of Louis Creed’s one hundred yard run from the place where Gage was hit to the place where his body ends up, and then compare it to Louis cradling Ellie’s completely intact body in the 2019 movie, and then later finding her looking completely pristine in her coffin. The stitches that Louis finds in the back of Ellie’s head in the novel are an extremely toned down version of a horrifying detail from the novel: that Gage’s head came completely off in the accident, and had to be stitched back on.
Conversely, Kölsch and Widmyer’s adaptation has the compulsion to spice up Zelda’s death, perhaps because the idea of someone dying from spinal meningitis wasn’t considered scary enough. The film instead concocts an incident in which Zelda falls down a dumb waiter and ends up mangled at the bottom, which is good for a jump scare but is so utterly bizarre that it’s hard to really be really horrified by it.
The biggest problem with this adaptation, however, is that the entire series of terrible events is not solely driven by Louis and his refusal to accept the finality of death. In the novel, Louis brings Church back and then, even knowing that Church didn’t come back right, decides to bring Gage back as well. Bringing Gage back leads to Rachel’s death, but when Louis has an opportunity to finally leave things be, mourn his wife and son and be grateful for the daughter he still has, he still refuses to stop. Convincing himself that he “waited too long” with Gage and “something got in him,” Louis decides to repeat the process with Rachel – a decision that ultimately dooms him. King’s novel is as much a tragedy as it is a horror story, and that’s what makes it so effective.
By contrast, the last meaningful decision Louis makes in the 2019 Pet Sematary movie is the decision to bring Ellie back. From there, the movie focuses on turning Ellie into a devious, demonic killing machine who orchestrates everything else that follows. Rachel comes home and is horrified to see her daughter again, instinctively knowing that it’s not really her daughter. This is very different to the novel, where Rachel is so consumed up by happiness at having her child back that, in the moment, she doesn’t even question how it happened – a reaction that feels much more realistic.
Louis doesn’t bring anyone else back in the 2019 movie. Ellie kills Rachel and then drags her body to the burial ground, and Rachelthen comes back for a surprise kill, impaling Louis before dragging him up to the burial ground as well. By this point the feeling of grief and desperation has long been forgotten by the movie, discarded more or less as soon as the undead Ellie showed up. Louis has no real agency and the final events are driven by external forces (demonic forces possessing the Creed family, apparently) rather than by the very human emotion of wanting to have a deceased loved one back again.
Pet Sematary 2019 isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it is much more forgettable than the novel or the 1989 adaptation, because it lacks confidence in what made those stories scary: the simple idea that people can die at any time, and there’s nothing you can do to bring them back.
More: Pet Sematary 2019 Differences: Biggest Changes To The Book & Original Movie