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<i>Pet Sematary</i> digs for new ideas in Stephen King’s classic, but comes up empty

Pet Sematary digs for new ideas in Stephen King’s classic, but comes up empty

Photo: Pet Sematary ( Paramount ), Screenshot: Pet Sematary (1989), Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

It must be strange to be Stephen King, to see so many of your creations maimed, knotted, or made entirely unrecognizable. Did you know, for example, that the 1992 techno-thriller The Lawnmower Man was born from a 1975 short story about a murderous satyr? Perhaps you did, as the gulf between King’s writing and the adaptations of his work has been a source of fascination since Stanley Kubrick stripped The Shining for parts in 1980.

Many would argue—this author included—that the King cinematic renaissance since the success of 2017’s It is due in no small part to the reverence young filmmakers have for his work, which most would say they were raised on. It, Gerald’s Game, 1922, and Mr. Mercedes all hew close to King’s source material and are all the better for it. That’s why it was striking when the second trailer for Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch’s Pet Sematary remake forecast a major change to King’s original. King’s novel and its 1989 film adaptation center around the death of a toddler and a burial ground that resurrects the dead, but Widmyer and Kölsch’s narrative trades out the toddler for his older sister, offering a new level of awareness for the resurrected, not-quite-right child.

Illustration for article titled Pet Sematary digs for new ideas in Stephen King’s classic, but comes up empty
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A bold choice, yes, but one with purpose. In February, Widmyer said, “There was something about an 8-year-old and the psychology that she would have. She would understand what happened to her on the road. She would understand that she’s dead. She would know how to not only physically kill a person, but psychologically destroy them as well. It just gave another layer to it.”

That’s exciting, because that’s perhaps the one perspective that’s missing from King’s 1983 powerhouse, which the author decries for its utter hopelessness. “[I]t just spirals down into darkness,” he writes in the book’s introduction, in which he reveals he only published it to get himself out of a bad publishing deal. “It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that.”

That’s one way of looking at it, but the book’s grimness most certainly suits the material. Pet Sematary, perhaps more than any other book in the King pantheon, is about death, framing its existential queries as to why we die and how we grieve through Louis and Rachel Creed, parents who have no choice but to confront the topic with their kids after a pet cemetery is discovered on their Maine property. After Gage, the pair’s youngest dies—in part due to their negligence—the book becomes about guilt and second chances. Would you bring back a deceased loved one if you could? Would you do it even if you knew they wouldn’t quite be the same? Moreover—and this is perhaps where King struggles most with his narrative—can sound judgement prevail in the face of love, guilt, and possibility? Are we strong enough as humans to not overcome our own selfish desires, even while knowing it will result in pain for everybody? The answer is no. Absolutely fuckin’ not.

In the end, Louis digs up his buried child, drags him to the burial ground, and then watches in horror as his reanimated 2-year-old slaughters (and feeds) on both Jud, the kindly old man across the street, and Rachel. Louis is forced to kill his cannibalistic child, but the horror of it all isn’t enough to stop him from then dragging Rachel’s corpse into the woods. It’ll be different this time, right? The epilogue teases that, no, it is not.

Illustration for article titled Pet Sematary digs for new ideas in Stephen King’s classic, but comes up empty
Photo: Paramount Pictures

There are glimmers of the old Gage in the resurrected child. Though its eyes are “insectile in their stupid hate,” Louis recognizes “his real son” as the demon dies, “his face unhappy and filled with pain.” One wonders, though: Is it a trick? Or is some part of Gage still alive under that ashen skin? Earlier in the book, we hear of an earlier instance where a corpse was resurrected. A WWII soldier, Timmy Baterman, is brought back by his father, and spends a week wandering the streets before his dad burns the house down with them both inside. That latter plot intrigues, as it furthers the possibility that what comes back from the burial ground is, in some perverted way, still carrying vestiges of its former self. How much, though, is an answer King never allows us.

It is one that Widmyer and Kölsch address, however. In both the book and the remake, 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is, like any child her age, brimming with questions: Why do we die? Where do we go? Why don’t pets live as long as people? Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) offer conflicting answers, with Rachel floating talk of a heaven as Louis opts for more practical answers. “It’s perfectly natural,” he offers. When she dies and returns, will she remember their responses? Will she remember her death? Will she still love them? She’ll be wrong, yes, but will she kill? In the book, Gage did. Timmy, though, did not.

These are rich, chewy questions brimming with possibility. They’re also ones the filmmakers can’t wait to get to. Pet Sematary’s first two acts feel rushed, as if they’re content with just hitting the beats before turning it all around—the numerous in-joke references to the 1989 film don’t help. Once Ellie returns, though, the film seems to begin carving out its own path. In scenes the book never conjured, Louis bathes his reanimated daughter, yanking the knots from her hair as his brush catches on her autopsy stitches. He tucks her in, and, her eyes creepily drifting in two different directions, she asks if he’ll lie with her. She remembers life. She knows she’s dead. He’s terrified. In the morning, she dances in her old tutu, smashing picture frames as she does so. It is Ellie, Widmyer and Kölsch tell us, but it is also not. And that is fascinating.

And then she sees Jud, and, for no real reason, the killing begins. Mere minutes into this new reality, Ellie up and goes the way of the original’s Gage, taking up her dad’s scalpel to carve out an Achille’s tendon and air dusty, dormant secrets in a menacing voice. Hope appears, however, when Ellie comes home to a returning Rachel. As Rachel processes the scene, Clarke’s Louis, his voice dripping with aggression, tells her, “Hug your daughter.” We will will this creature into our child, his cold, threatening tone asserts. This seems to be the story the twist was building to: Can this intelligent, self-aware thing co-exist with what used to be her family? If not, what drives her to separate? To kill?

Illustration for article titled Pet Sematary digs for new ideas in Stephen King’s classic, but comes up empty
Photo: Paramount Pictures

But then Rachel flees, somehow cool-headed enough to realize that, no, this isn’t her daughter. And, from there on out, Pet Sematary is nothing more than a subpar slasher, one with a tiny 8-year-old, kitchen knife in hand, looking very silly while trying to stab through doors. There’s no reason for her slaughter. She is just evil, chuckling evilly after stabbing her mom in the back. Sure, Gage’s new form is evil, too, but the original didn’t try to have it both ways. By introducing such compelling possibilities, Widmyer and Kölsch both dilute the book’s pathos and fall short of their potential. Their climactic coup de grâce, manifested in the film’s sunny epilogue, is crueler than anything in the book, satisfying not in an emotional sense, but an exploitive one.

What’s also disappointing is that, in rushing to its final act, the film isn’t able to flesh out its other smart twists on the text. John Lithgow, for example, admirably distances his Jud from Fred Gwynne’s iconic turn in the original film, choosing instead to highlight the character’s darker, more ornery tendencies. Lithgow is great in the role, but Jud feels more functional than emotional here, thus putting the onus for he and Louis’ first trip to the burial ground more on spectral forces than human frailty. And then there’s the masked, drum-banging children who so dominated the film’s early trailers. To build a culture of ritual around the proceedings is a smart idea, but it operates only as a means of bringing creepy animal masks into the story.

One thing the film does get right, however, is Zelda. Rachel’s older sister, who suffered from spinal meningitis before perishing, gets more to do here than in either the book or the 1989 film. The body horror is exquisite, as is the way Widmyer and Kölsch elaborate upon how Zelda affects Rachel’s views of death. Zelda is unnerving in the book and terrifying in the previous film, but here she’s more directly interwoven into both Rachel’s terror and her emotional journey.

Constant Readers, King’s pet name for his fans, are often quick to cite Pet Sematary as one of the author’s best books, and there’s no shortage of fans who would dub it his scariest. That fear factor, though, is extremely difficult to manifest on screen, both due to its existential struggles being so internal and its terrors so unassuming—there’s a reason Miko Hughes’ evil baby Gage is barely seen in the original film. Widmyer and Kölsch were onto something in their remake, and kudos to them for resisting the easy route, but it takes more than a good idea to elevate what’s already a damn good story.

Start with: The book. It’s an aggressively dark, deeply satisfying dig into death that expertly weaves its themes into a cruel and irresistible premise. Mary Lambert’s 1989 film is a solid, spooky adaptation that works despite a few odd choices—why is Victor Pascow comic relief?—and some underwhelming performances from its two leads. As for the remake, it sports some decent performances—especially from Laurence and the five (!) cats that played Church—and some grimace-worthy gore, but it’s really a pale imitation of its source material, the shambling, reanimated version of the novel.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.