Pet Sematary, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and written by Jeff Buhler, is the second film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel of the same name.
The film, like its source material and the previous rendition, follows a doctor named Louis Creed. Louis just moved his family from a large city to Ludlow, Maine so he can spend more time with them. They discover that the locals have been using their backyard as a burial grounds for dead animals, of which there are many, because the road they live on is frequented by many tanker trucks that mow down the local wildlife and domesticated pets.
One day, while Dr. Creed is working, a student is run over by a car and brought to him to save, but they die in his care. As a “Thanks for trying,” the ghost of the student appears in Louis’ dreams, warning him not to go past the Pet Sematary. The next day, Judd, their neighbor, discovers that the Creed’s cat Winston Churchill had been run over by a truck. He and Louis take him to a swamp and bury him, and, the next day, the cat returns, alive again. Judd explains to Louis in private that the grounds is controlled by a malefic force that reanimates the dead. The family is at first relieved, but they quickly find out that Winston Churchill is much more aggressive now, almost to the point of being a different cat. However, soon after this, one of his children is killed by a tanker. In his grief, Creed buries them in the evil grounds, despite the ghost’s warnings.
The main themes of both the book and the movie are grief and the inevitability of death. Two types of inevitable death are presented early on: the slow-paced suffering of death by illness, shown when the mother recounts memories of her sister, who died of spinal meningitis; and the abrupt, violent death of the student in a vehicular accident. This sets up the fact that death is unavoidable and unstoppable, acting as a sort of omnipotent entity that is constantly looming over everyone. This is important because of the primary goals of the two all the adults in the movie. Louis wants to reverse death and bring his child back to life, while his wife wants to shield her children from the truth of death by telling them that Winston Churchill just ran away.
The student’s ghost wants to prevent the Louis from causing more deaths by reanimating corpses, and Judd continually wants to prevent or reverse a death of some kind, be it his dog, the child, or himself. This leaves all characters at odds with death, but, as previously established, death is omnipotent. This creates a situation in which every action the characters make is pointless; they are fighting what cannot be fought. The emotional result of this situation is grief, which, in the novel and the newer adaptation, is personified as the Wendigo, an eldritch entity which feeds on the grief and inner turmoil of people, similar to how Pennywise the Dancing Clown is feeds on fear. This all lead the original novel to be one King’s least favorite and darkest stories, to the point he almost threw away the original script.
The acting in Pet Sematary is extremely strong from all actors, especially in young actress Jeté Laurence, who plays Ellie, Louis’ daughter. She’s able to convey both childlike innocence and the desire to commit cold-hearted murder in the same scene. John Lithgow, who plays Judd, is also of note. I loved Fred Gwynne in the original, and John matches him with his performance of Judd. He really sells the fact that he’s just a kindly old man who seeks to help the good-natured people around him. Of one last note are the four cat actors for Winston Churchill, Will, Drake, Colby, and JD, who were all adopted by members of the movie crew. They really sold the idea that he was a sweet cat that underwent a horrible change.
The effects were great, especially for the gore and rigor mortis. The costuming fit the environment, and I loved the idea of the children of the town leading the procession to bury their pets while wearing masks of those pets. However, I do dislike how the promotional material for the film made the children seem so important, since they only get one scene dedicated to them. I would have loved it if the filmmakers decided to make them something like a cult of the Wendigo, acting as its agents to spread grief and terror to the people it has targeted.
There are numerous differences between the book and the movie. For instance, in the book, Judd’s wife is still alive, and she’s even the reason that Judd helps in reviving Winston Churchill. It should be noted that the original movie adaptation also made this change. Additionally, in the book, the child who dies is the young son, named Gage, rather than Ellie. Another big change is that the evil grounds are no longer an Indian burial ground; now, it’s just a piece of marshy land where an Indian tribe used to live before being driven off by the Wendigo. I appreciate this, as the existence of Indian burial grounds in media is a highly contentious point for Native Americans, who view the popular trope as spreading the stereotype of them being mystical.
Speaking of the Wendigo, it is important to note that the first film adaptation never made mention of it, and the only reference to it I could find was a weird image that pops up for about two to three seconds before the screen switches to another scene.
The biggest and by far the most grievous change is the ending. While I will not give spoilers, the ending completely ruins the mood and the tension built up to in the previous few scenes. I found this change to be awful. I see no reason to have changed it, especially to something this awful and abrupt.
All in all, I thought Pet Sematary was average. It didn’t creep me out or make me ponder the tragedy and terror of death, nor did I think the changes from the book were worth it. However, if the movie is taken as its own entity, separate from the novel and first film, I don’t see anything expressly wrong with it other than the ending, and it does build tension somewhat well, not to mention the acting from Jeté Laurence and John Lithgow being pretty good. I give it a 6/10.