Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary is wrong on many levels even today when you watch it with your seemingly mature 21st-century sensibilities. King unabashedly carves storylines and events that even the biggest horror fan would cringe at. There are certain things that you just do not accept as a human being. That was my first reaction when I first watched the film, much later than I would care to admit, and when I was already a fan of the genre. Even though The Shining is widely hailed as the King’s best on-screen horror adaptation till date, notwithstanding the fact that it was made by Kubrick, Pet Sematary leaves you with a scar. I can only imagine what it must have done to unwary audiences back in ’89 who had come for “a little bit of fun once in a while.”
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, Pet Sematary is a remake of the same story with some minor variations keeping the overall theme intact. Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and their two kids Ellie and Gage move into a sleepy little town called Ludlow in Maine, to move away from a fast-paced Boston life. A highway weaves through the town where heavy-duty trucks pass from time to time throughout the day. As Louis starts his job as a doctor at the local hospital, Rachel busies herself in getting the house in order. While following the sound of a trumpet, Ellie, who is a curious eight-year-old, wanders into the nearby woods to find a procession of children who are wearing animal masks and carrying a dead animal into the jungle. As she follows them, she comes across a patch of ground where hundreds of hand-made crosses have been dug into the ground. Here she meets an old man named Jud, their neighbour, who tells her about how children have been burying their dead pets here for many years. A few days later, a passing truck mauls over their cat Church. Fearing that Ellie would be heart-broken, Jud takes Louis to a strange spot, deeper into the woods past the Pet Sematary. What Jud conveniently leaves out, is that animals tend to come back when buried in that place. Next morning, Louis and Rachel are surprised to see that Church was back. However, it is not the same cat that Louis has buried just a few hours ago. It behaves oddly and attacks anyone who tries to come near it. Not long after, on Ellie’s ninth birthday, a freak accident happens and rents the family apart. In his desperation, Louis decides to use the burial ground for his “own purposes” once more.
What I really liked about the film was that it keeps most of the essential elements of the story intact. The highway plays a foreboding character in the previous film, and that has been brought into this film as well. There are a few moments where slow scenes are broken by a giant truck whizzing back, bringing the importance of the road back into the story. I would have been dissatisfied if this angle had been left out as the road is central to the Pet Sematary. It was basically the reason why there were so many dead animals in this town. This very setting provides an eerie and morbid character to a thing as mundane as a highway. The character of Jud, which was played by Fred Gwynne in the ’89 film, also felt very much the same with as he tries to help the family by sharing the secret of the burial ground with Louis. It was a treat to watch the exquisitely talented John Lithgow make the character his own. Jason Clarke gives a compelling performance as a broken down father who has seen intolerable tragedy in the family and would do anything to make things right. From a level-headed doctor, he quietly descends into a kind of mania. Amy Seimetz also brings back the disturbed childhood of Rachel beautifully into the layers of the story. As in the previous film, she finds it difficult to deal with matters concerning death and still struggles with the guilt that she hadn’t been able to take care of her sick sister. Jeté Laurence is great as little Ellie Creed and her transformation is very believable. I especially liked the sequence with the masked children. That added an interesting atmosphere to the place and to the ritual of burying the dead animals.
The film is also strewn with various references. There is a cheeky reference to The Crown in a scene where Ellie tells Jud that her cat Church was named after ‘Winston Churchill’ and asks him if he knew who that was, to which he replies with a smirk – ‘Oh yes, I know who Winston Churchill is.’ If you haven’t watched the phenomenal series, John Lithgow plays an aging Winston Churchill in one of the best performances of his career ! There are also a few Stephen King universe references as well, for instance in a scene where Rachel is stuck in traffic, we see a board which says ‘Derry 20’. Derry is the town where the events of the blockbuster horror-hit It take place. It has now become a tradition to reference other Stephen King films from within a Stephen King film, so gotta keep your eyes peeled.
Also read: Pet Sematary Easter Eggs and References
Pet Sematary is a good story in itself with all the various elements that it has going within it. However, the reboot doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the original adaptation. In fact, I felt that the pacing was a bit faster than I would have liked but I am just nitpicking here. Having said that, the film has solid performances with a story that has aged really well considering the fact that it was written over three decades ago.