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.
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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
The Inspiration For Stephen King's Pet Sematary
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:
"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 Real Monster of Pet Sematary is Death Itself, Not Zombies
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 on 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.