SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR Paramount PICTURES’ NEW FILM PET SEMATARY
Stephen King is pretty hot stuff right now.
Or at least, adaptations of his work are hot stuff.
Heck, even re-adaptations of his work generate a lot of buzz, as was the case with this new Pet Sematary.
I think that it’s generally agreed upon by Stephen King fans that Pet Sematary is his darkest, most unsettling novel. I read it when I was too young to read it and no matter how effective any on-screen portrayal of Zelda is, it will never equal the horror of King’s written words. Nor will any actor ever be able to sufficiently capture the torture that Louis Creed feels, if only because we’ll never experience the character’s thoughts the same way in a film.
1989 saw the release of the first film adaptation of Pet Sematary. It was a blockbuster. Back then I loved it and so did pretty much everybody else. I think we all sort of knew that the acting wasn’t great, but something about it seemed very mature and cool – it was a kind of darkness that we weren’t seeing too often. I also seem to remember it being everywhere. Paramount might have put a little extra push into the marketing, possibly because we were entering into the Summer of the Bat, a phenomenon that would conquer movie theaters and public consciousness for basically the rest of the year.
I was disappointed a few years ago when I realized that the 1989 Pet Sematary isn’t very good. It’s fine by 80s-era mid-grade horror standards and is even a standout among King adaptations, but the acting is bad almost across the board and the direction is clunky.
This made me excited for a new adaptation made to today’s standards.
People often parrot the terms “Is this necessary?” and “Who asked for this?” as an empty-headed way of dismissing remakes, prequels, sequels, and basically anything that they think they can get internet credibility out of criticizing. These are simple-minded, myopic queries that require more thought to answer than to pose (as is the intent), but in the case of 2019’s Pet Sematary the easy answers are “Yes” and “People who love that book and recognize the failure of the 1989 movie”.
Did directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and their cast and crew succeed in delivering a worthy horror experience or will we be waiting thirty more years for a satisfying adaptation of the Creed family tragedy? Read on and find out!
1 – The Big Change – In both the 1983 novel and the 1989 film, Louis and Rachel Creed’s two-year-old son, Gage is hit by an 18-wheeler speeding unsafely down the thoroughfare in front of their home. It’s one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read or seen and any Pet Sematary experience is going to be built around that moment of very pure, real horror.
The 2019 adaptation makes a huge and critical change to this event – instead of Gage, the Creed’s nine-year-old daughter, Ellie is killed by a speeding truck. This changes everything.
Unfortunately, a random-ass commenter on the internet spoiled this change for me by complaining about having it spoiled for them in an unrelated comments section. I have to admit that it affected how I enjoyed the movie.
In the commenter’s defense, it was Paramount that spoiled this revelation, apparently in the final pre-release trailer (and on the poster if you’re paying attention). It’s infuriating because the filmmakers were very clearly and competently building toward that swerve and the increased emotional impact it would have. And if I hadn’t seen that one comment I would have made it to seeing the movie and that moment would have been devastating.
Instead, I spent the first half of the film waiting for that moment and wondering how it would happen and what impact it would have. So the very familiar setup seemed more tedious than it really should have because I was waiting for the hugely different thing instead of enjoying the many small differences as much as I should have.
Burt the important question is whether or not the change was a good thing and made for a better movie, regardless of the resulting shock factor from the audience’s familiarity with the story.
The simple answer is “absolutely”.
Many of the events that follow Ellie’s death are the same, but they happen in subtly different ways that make the last half of the movie significantly more exciting than the first. For example, Gage slicing Jud’s Achilles tendon from under a bed is one of the gnarliest scenes in horror history. And Pet Sematary 2019 knows that, so it plays up to that scene, building up the tension and terror to the point where you almost can’t stand it because you know it’s about to happen and then it doesn’t.
Jud kicks what we assume was the offending bed out of the way and creepy undead Ellie isn’t there. So now we have to start with the tension all over again because we know that scene must still be coming, but we don’t know how or when. And when it does happen, it’s even more horrifying than in the 1989 movie.
Obviously another major difference that Ellie’s death produces is that we see a conscious, aware human rather than a two-year-old. It makes the context of the resurrection so much more horrifying and creates an entirely different atmosphere.
Two-year-old Gage was terrifying, but was hardly more of a character than church.
Nine-year-old Ellie presents a complete change in the very nature of the story, while staying true to the themes and the horror of the situation. She talks. She thinks. She emotes. And it’s absolutely fucking unnerving.
Even more horrifying is the look the filmmakers decided on. When Church comes back he is much more reminiscent of the books’ description – fur matted in a way that can’t quite be brushed out and a face that is too asymmetrical to be quite right.
Uncomfortable chills just ran up my spine now even thinking about it, but Ellie is the same way. She has an eye that doesn’t sit quite right and her face is just… off. At one point Louis is brushing her tangled, matted hair and comes across the staples that were used to close the skin on the back of her crushed skull and Jason Clarke just acts the shit out of that scene.
As a father of both kids and pets my stomach churned many times during this movie.
2 – The Jud Change – In 1989, loveable Fred Gwynne played the Creed’s neighbor, Jud Crandall. He was sweet and wonderful and, quite frankly, it was kind of hard to accept that he’d introduce his neighbors to the horrors of that Micmac burial ground.
Our 2019 Jus is John Lithgow, who has played sweet plenty, but is also a master of being weird and mysterious. Modern Jud comes off as a bit more strange than the Jud of 30 years ago and it makes all the difference in the world.
There are portions of dialogue devoted to explaining why Jud does what he does, but the most convincing factor is Lithgow’s haunted, distant performance. He’s a sweet guy, but he’s not as much of an open book. The way Lithgow plays him is as a man who has lived a life and carries every day of it on his shoulders. All of that life has been lived in the shadow of what lies beyond the Pet Sematary, and Lithgow shows that, too.
3 – The Church Change – 2019’s Pet Sematary got a lot more mileage out of its feline actors. This Church is not relegated to jump scares and ominous appearances out of nowhere. He has a lot more presence as a character and interaction with the family. He seems so much more present and part of the Creed’s lives in this one.
I already mentioned how post-resurrection Church looked different, but the filmmakers also made sure it was obvious he was acting differently. While the cat wasn’t the cause of any specific mayhem, there was this sense that he had an agenda and was up to something at all times; that he knew things.
4 – The Pascow Change – Surprisingly, the 1989 movie did Victor Pascow better.
Our 2019 Victor almost felt like an afterthought to me. Like, “Oh, yeah – we have to get that ghost guy in there”.
Pascow is a student at the university where Louis works as a doctor. He’s hit by a car and dies while Louis is trying to save him. Shortly after he appears to our protagonist as an apparition, warning him not to go beyond the deadfall. He appears several more times throughout the story to both Louis and his remaining family members, always as a gruesome corpse.
My first issue was that this Pascow’s makeup looked bad. Like, first year Troma bad. He didn’t look like he got hit by a car so much as he looked like he had raw hamburger on his face. I get trying to do something more shocking and severe, but it was a poor visual and hampered the actor’s ability to do his job. Apparently.
That was my other problem – the actor simply wasn’t good. In 1989 Brad Greenquist was kind of the hero of the movie. He was startling and unnerving to look at, but played the role with a sweet urgency. People often cite Fred Gwynne’s performance, but I’d say that Greenquist was the brightest spot of the film.
Here Pascow is played by Obssa Ahmed and might as well have been played by a coat rack. It’s one of the blandest, most utilitarian performances I can remember seeing lately and to be honest it leaves a real hole in an otherwise successful film. I have to wonder if they just grabbed a guy from catering.
5 – The Soil of a Man’s Heart – Stephen King’s novel is basically about how fathers work.
They are hard and straightforward and solitary, taking burdens on themselves when they shouldn’t. This is where the tragedy of the story comes from and Jason Clarke conveys all of that in his performance.
Louis Creed isn’t the wacky, fun, embarrassing dad. He’s a father and husband trying to do his best as he sees it. His family is in a new town, his wife certainly has some issues, and he has a new job that he has to make work. He’s loving and strained at the same time. You can practically feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Or at least, the weight he perceives.
Clarke plays Louis with a weariness that serves as the best and most believable reason for the things he does and the choices he makes. He’s a man hanging on to what he has because it’s all he has. Because of this, his and Rachel’s conversation about death and its relevance to the narrative carried so much more weight with me than it did in 1989 or even in the novel.
Here is a man who wants to be practical and logical about death. It happens. It comes for us all and there’s nothing afterward. We need to accept it and be grown-ups about it. Easy to say when you’ve had very little personal experience, as was the case with Louis at the beginning of Pet Sematary.
His wife, Rachel, has a different outlook thanks to the nightmarish childhood experience she had with her sister, a victim of spinal meningitis. She wants to protect their family from the ugliness of death for as long as she can. And she believes something better awaits us on the other side.
Jason Clarke does a fantastic job of becoming more and more unhinged as death continually intrudes into his life and challenges his belief system in very personal ways. He never descends into outright villainy, but his actions become less relatable and more desperate as the story unfolds.
6 – Rachel and Zelda – While the entirety of every iteration of Pet Sematary is about dread and loss and bad choices, the main source of outright horror is Rachel Creed’s deceased sister, Zelda.
A victim of spinal meningitis, the body horror aspect of Zelda’s memory is tied up in tragedy and shame. The reality is that she is an innocent girl stricken by a horrible, incurable disease. And yet as the audience our focus is on Rachel and her point of view; what she had to endure living with what she perceived as a monster in her home and the shame she feels over not only feeling that way about her sister but about her part in Zelda’s death.
Zelda as presented in the 2019 Pet Sematary film is somewhat less exaggerated and therefore more disturbing. She is more tortured than scary, though the menace Rachel perceived is there. As an audience member I felt my own guilt and shame, knowing that I’d be no better equipped to care for and have sympathy for Zelda than young Rachel was.
As for Rachel she is a damaged person. Amy Seimetz – who I was not familiar with prior to this movie – is almost painfully vulnerable in this role. She’s sweet and loving towards her children and her almost stoic husband, but there’s a sense that deep emotional suffering lurks just below her surface. I found this Rachel much more sympathetic and real than 1989 Rachel, though that’s less the fault of Denise Crosby and more the fault of the era.
This Rachel also has an entirely different reaction to her resurrected child and one that portrays a much more complex character than just “Mother”. She is horrified and can barely stand to touch Ellie. Rachel grabs Gage and runs upstairs to lock herself in the bedroom. More on that later.
7 – The Whole Last Damn Half of the Movie Change – Let me just tell you how much different and how much of a mindfuck it was to switch from Gage dying to Ellie.
It was a HUGE mindfuck.
While certain things still happened, there were major changes that included the very end. I won’t go too deep into them here because even though I warned of spoilers, I don’t want to recount the whole movie. I’ll just say that I was very satisfied and horrified by the new ways in which things went down. The new ending isn’t quite as dark as Darabont’s The Mist, but it’s pretty friggin’ dark.
8 – (I Don’t Wanna Be Buried in the ) Pet Sematary – I’m not the only one who thinks that the Ramones’ Pet Sematary from the 1989 movie isn’t their best song. Or, say, even a good song.
But somehow LA band Starcrawler has taken that plodding downer and pepped it up into a 70s punker jam. And it’s great. I wish there was a music video for it, but you can listen to it here.
9 – The Deadfall – Okay, so here was the only real issue I had with the movie – the deadfall.
I liked that it was specified that the Micmac tribes built the deadfall as a means of blocking access to the burial ground prior to fleeing the lands. This 2019 movie was successful in driving home the concept of the spoiled earth. I also found the emphasis on the Wendigo interesting, as though it were an actual malignant being influencing Jud and Louis rather than some ephemeral “dark forces”.
As far as its location, the deadfall succeeds. It is right on top of the Pet Sematary and is very deliberate and ominous. It’s not just where some trees and bushes fell and got tangled up.
My problem is that the thing is so steep and at such a severe incline that it defies belief that someone could transport a shovel over it, let alone a human body.
Now, I get the idea that the “dark forces” assist in this labor in order to further their diabolical intent, but even a slightly more slanted wall would have been easier to accept. This thing goes basically straight up you guys.
But this is the pickiest of nits and didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of Pet Sematary. It just gave me a few, “Oh, come on” moments that passed quickly. Sometimes because somebody was getting brutally and surprisingly impaled before I could finish my thought.
10 – Breakneck Finale – Speaking of things occurring before I could finish my thoughts, the sequence of events that end Pet Sematary happen ridiculously fast. Like, I can’t even imagine how certain things could happen in such proximity to one another (dark forces). It didn’t bother me, but dedicated poo-pooers will likely have trouble accepting the rapidity of events.
I say go and see this movie. If you’re a King fan or a horror fan I think you’ll enjoy it. Parts of it will be a bit too familiar, but it’s all a setup for the dramatic and satisfying changes that were made. I look forward to watching it a second time and taking in how everything unfolds rather than waiting for them in suspense.
To answer “was this necessary?” – yes. Yes, it was.
Be sure to join the conversation in the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group!