“Sometimes dead is better.” That’s the tagline, spoken by friendly neighbor Jud in Pet Sematary, that defines the story. And when the first trailer for the new film adaptation hit the Web, the phrase took on a kind of irony for some who didn’t want to see a retread of the story. We already have Stephen King’s 1983 novel, and the 1989 film, for which King wrote the screenplay. Bring it back, and it won’t be the same.
For the first third of the movie, those fears seem well founded. The film looks great, compared to the ’89 version, which felt a bit too brightly lit. The farm the Creed family moves to in order to get away from the big city bustle of Boston is more appropriately rural, tall trees lining the road making it more believable that the trucks causing all the trouble would speed by, not seeing the houses. And the children that mother Rachel and daughter Ellie see traipsing by in their animal masks on their way to the “sematary” are spooky. And Jon Lithgow’s Jud avoids the distracting Maine accent Fred Gwynne employed in the first adaptation.
But the story hits mostly the same beats. The family, including the toddler boy Gage, are happy in their new idyllic setting, excited for a new life. Jud and Ellie bond when Jud removes a bee stinger from her leg. Jud warns the family about the woods behind the new family home. Louis, the dad, has a creepy experience with a dying patient at his new job. And of course, Church, the family cat, meets his untimely end. Because Ellie loves Church, Louis and Jud bury him where they shouldn’t, in a scene with wonderful visuals as the two trek through a shallow stream full of bones and teeth to get to find the right place. Then Floof comes back transformed into Fighty-Bitey. By the time the story rolls along to Ellie’s birthday party, it seems like it’s going to be the same story with a different look.
That’s when the story takes a turn and starts playing with the expectations of an audience that likely knows the source material all too well, and in doing so, becomes its own movie. This is also where the spoilers start. Frequently a trailer reveals too much, and leaves viewers thinking, well, I’ve seen the whole story now. Why do I need to see the movie? We’ve already seen the scene in which young Gage stumbles toward the road with a speeding semi coming around the corner. It pops up in this movie right on time. Maybe it’ll just be more grisly than the last adaptation.
But it’s not Gage that gets it. This time, Louis gets to him in time to keep him from running in the road. But Ellie is already there, happy to see Church has returned from where Louis dropped him because he hadn’t had the heart to kill her for good. This changes the trajectory of the story, and the nature of Louis’s responsibility. He didn’t just lose track of a kid who wandered into the road. He shirked his responsibility to deal with bringing Church back, and now Ellie is dead. But she doesn’t have to be.
What the filmmakers are able to do with Ellie’s return is fundamentally different from having Gage return. For one thing, she can talk and reason. And ask questions, which leads to some tough conversation with dad. When Church was killed (the first time), Louis’s instinct was to tell his daughter the truth and let her face death. But Rachel, who is still haunted by the traumatic death of her older sister Zelda when she was a child, wanted to preserve Ellie’s innocence, at least for a little while longer. After Louis and Rachel talk it out, they decide to tell Ellie that Church ran away. When Ellie dies, Louis can’t face the finality of death. He can’t apply his educated doctor’s logic to this situation. He’s used to saving and preserving lives. Now he’s had in a hand in extinguishing the life of someone close to him. That plays out in his interactions with the risen child.
The post-return Ellie is also more threatening to the other characters, at least on film. The giggling toddler boy wielding a scalpel and bent on murder is a scary premise, but that was hard to capture in the ’89 film. The movements didn’t seem natural. Here, Ellie is a purposeful menace. She plays with people’s guilt – with Jud’s sorrow over losing his wife, and with Rachel’s guilt over not being able to save her. She can, figuratively and literally, twist the knife.
If you’ve been okay with the spoilers thus far, you might not be okay with this one. I am about to write about the ending of the film. This is your fair warning to bail and come back after you’ve seen the film.
There is a preoccupation with the common theme of loss of innocence in Pet Sematary. The family is looking for the simple life, and that winds up being their demise. The parents’ efforts to spare their daughter the trauma of death leads to her being killed in an accident. There is no innocence once a character has committed themselves to burying something, or someone, with the intention that they will come back. And nothing comes back innocent. This is what makes the final twist so satisfying.
In the book and the previous movie, Louis is left alive, at least temporarily, in the end. Gage is dead, and Louis has taken Rachel to the burial ground, having not learned his lesson. In this version, the only one left alive is Gage, locked in a car as his undead family approaches. He’s the only innocent left, but probably not for long, if his family’s track record is any indication. It’s beautiful and perfect, if only for the questions it asks. Do they leave him alive and care for him like a family? What would that look like? Or do they kill him and bring him back, just so everyone matches?
There is an extra, unintentional joke for those who stick around until the credits end. No animals were harmed during the making of the film. Not harmed, exactly. But definitely changed.