Stephen King’s 1983 novel, “Pet Sematary” (sic, sic, sic…), arguably one of his best books (certainly a favorite of mine) has been adapted twice into film; first in 1989, a version directed by Mary Lambert (Black List TV series, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video), and now a just-released 2019 version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer (both of the “Scream” TV series). There was also a more-or-less forgotten 1992 sequel to the 1989 film, but it featured all-new characters and it kinda sucked, so let’s ignore that one for now. This post is all about the two cinematic adaptations of King’s book; what I like and dislike about them, and which version (in my opinion) is more successful overall.
I’m going to assume that the reader has either read King’s book, or seen at least one of the two filmed adaptations. So yes, there will be…
*****ORINCO-TRUCK SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
Common story beats of the book and both movies.
The basic story has the Creed family, father Louis (1989’s Dale Midkiff/ 2019’s Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Denise Crosby/Amy Seimetz), preteen daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl/Jete Laurence), and toddler son Gage (Miko Hughes/twins Lucas & Hugo Lavoie) moving from the big city (Chicago/Boston) and settling in the rural town of Ludlow, Maine, where Louis is to be the new doctor at the university.
They meet their kindly, elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (the late Fred Gwynne/John Lithgow) and settle in. The family discovers a path in the woods behind their yard leading to a local pet cemetery (misspelled “Pet Sematary” on a signpost made by local children). Turns out, the nearby road ‘uses up’ a lot of animals, with giant Orinco gas trucks blazing day & night down the narrow two-lane highway.
Louis’ first day on the new job is an eventful one, as a local student runner named Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist/Obssa Ahmed) is creamed by a truck during a morning run. Louis does his best to save the mortally injured young man but it’s too late, and Pascow dies. Seconds after his death, he ‘awakens’ to warn the good doctor (who did his best to help him) about the dangers of the grounds beyond the pet cemetery. Before Louis can get an explanation, the brain-exposed, bloodied jogger is down for the count. Later that night in bed, Louis receives a visitation from Pascow’s bloodied ghost, who takes him down the path beyond the pet cemetery to show him that which must be avoided; a deserted Native American burial ground with supernatural properties. “The ground is sour”, Pascow warns, as Louis awakens in bed, thinking it was just a nightmare… only to discover that his bare feet are caked with mud.
Shortly thereafter, the Creed family cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill) is struck by one of the aforementioned trucks and lays dead on the edge of Jud’s yard. Jud discretely informs Louis, not wanting to upset Ellie with the sudden loss. Before Louis can quietly bury the animal, Jud suggests ‘a better way’; taking the animal to the Micmac Indian burial grounds beyond the pet cemetery. Without question, the two men hike to the grounds, where Louis, and only Louis, can bury his cat (“each buries their own” Jud enigmatically attempts to explain). In the book, it’s revealed that the burial ground actively draws mourners there…
In short order, a zombified, bloodied, ill-tempered Church returns to the Creed household, with dried blood on his matted fur, and a stench of death (“Church smells bad,” as Ellie notes in the 1989 version). Man of science Louis is aghast at the implications of his reanimated feline…
The return of the cat also sparks wife Rachel’s deep-seated phobia of any and all matters relating to mortality… a trauma created when Rachel’s spinal meningitis-afflicted older sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek/Alyssa Levine ) died under her care when Rachel was but a little girl.
Later, during a family day spent outside (which Jud attends), one of the Creed children (depending on which version you see) is killed by yet another of the deadly Orinco trucks; toddler Gage in the 1989 version, and preteen Ellie in the 2019 version. The family is devastated and unable to bear the ocean of grief that follows. Jud blames himself for introducing Louis to the power of the burial ground, wondering if the place is now seeking a price. Rachel and the surviving child go to stay with her parents while Louis, who is estranged from his in-laws, stays behind in Ludlow to close out final dealings with the house.
Home alone, he feels compelled to try to ‘save’ his dead child by digging up their grave, and taking their corpse to the pet cemetery to attempt another resurrection. The child returns…but its soul is now that of an evil, decayed predator (the spirit of the mythical Wendigo monster in the book/2019 version), and the reanimated child murders both Jud and its mother.
A distraught Louis tries to ‘re-kill’ his possessed child. He succeeds in the 1989 version (with Gage), but soon attempts one final resurrection with the freshly murdered Rachel, who comes back later that night. As the two embrace (with Rachel’s pus-filled eye socket leaking onto Louis’ face), the corpse bride takes a knife to her unaware husband, just as the screen fades to black…
In the 2019 version, Louis is stopped from putting Ellie down by the freshly reanimated Rachel, who shoves a grave marker cross through her husband’s abdomen for his trouble. The reanimated mother/daughter bury Louis, and the zombified trio come back to the family car, along with zombie kitty Church… with a defenseless Gage strapped snugly into his car seat.
Sometimes dead is better.
The 2019 version ups the gore quotient, and features a wildly over-the-top new ending that throws daddy Louis into the pile o’ zombies as well. Extra viscera and jump-out scares are thrown into the remake’s ending, but it comes at the expense of the some of the 1989 version’s more thoughtful characterizations, particularly the warm paternal bond between Jud and Louis (Jud’s line of “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier” felt a little less earned in the 2019 film).
That cross-generation closeness between the two men (and their secrets) is completely absent in the new version, as well as the resentment of Rachel’s parents towards their son-in-law. The entire dysfunctional relationship between the Goldmans and Louis is reduced to a few angry glares at their grandchild’s funeral and when they come to pick up Rachel and the surviving child. While the Goldmans’ resentment of their doctor son-in-law isn’t missed terribly much, the lack of father/son chemistry between Jud and Louis leaves a gaping hole in the 2019 version.
I was certain that John Lithgow’s bearded Jud Crandall would be a highlight of the new film, but sadly he wasn’t allowed to be, with the new script as written. The late Fred Gwynne, with his long face, lantern jaw, exaggerated New England drawl and grandfatherly dialogue was allowed to deliver a warmer and more memorable character.
Also missing in the remake is the 1989 movie’s character of suicidal Missy Dandrige (Susan Blommaert), who was a composite character, incorporating the chronic illness and eventual death of Jud’s wife in the book. Missy was important because she was the the Creed kids’ first exposure to human death; a role Jud’s wife would’ve had if she’d been in either version (she is referenced twice in the 2019 version). Missy’s funeral of the 1989 version was a subtle warmup to the floodgate of tragedy to hit the Creed family soon afterward. It’s one of those subtle, character-built bridges to the finale that has been torn down in the more blunt remake (the 1989 funeral scene also featured a cameo by author Stephen King as the gravesite minister). Missy’s intense stomach pains (the main reasons for her suicide) were a precursor to the kind of agonizing prolonged death experienced by Rachel’s sister Zelda. Missy’s suicide, and her proximity to the entire Creed family, served to add to the emotionally-crippling thanatophobia seen in Rachel.
The book/1989 film’s flashback scene of the reanimated returning soldier Timmy Baterman (Peter Stader) is also curiously absent; reduced to a local legend during 2019 Louis’ research. The Baterman flashback was important, as it illustrated the danger of human resurrection with the Micmac burial grounds. The dead don’t come back as they were; they come back corrupted… full of mindless rage and appetite.
Mary Lambert’s stylish-but-sparse direction of the Baterman flashback in the original afforded some nice homages… one to 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” as the Baterman corpse shambles toward an old farmhouse (a near-perfect visual homage), and another later on, as the zombie soldier screams at his distraught father, “Love dead…hate living”; a line borrowed verbatim from Frankenstein’s monster in 1935’s superior sequel, “The Bride of Frankenstein.”
Reasons for reanimation.
The Wendigo entity, the mythic North American creature credited with ‘souring’ the souls of the interred at the Micmac burial grounds, is finally mentioned in the 2019 version, as is the character of Bouchard, who introduced a much younger Jud to the burial grounds many years before. We don’t see either character, not even in flashback, but they’re given lip service at the very least.
The new cast gives their best as well, with particular kudos going to the new Rachel (Amy Seimetz), specifically the moment where the terrified mother meets her resurrected daughter Ellie and is completely frozen with fear… her necrophobia paralyzing any possible maternal instincts towards welcoming back her lost daughter. She knows it’s a dead thing, not her real daughter. Seimetz plays the moment perfectly. That is no slight on the equally-talented Denise Crosby (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) in the original, either. Jason Clarke (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” “First Man”) is good enough as Louis, though lacking Dale Midkiff’s more darkly comedic descent from uptight yuppie physician into mad doctor. 2019’s Jete Laurene also gets to play young Ellie with a whole new dimension that her predecessor was never allowed.
Speaking of which…
Another plus for the remake is a liberty taken with the fate of the Creed children. Having preteen Ellie come back instead of toddler Gage allowed the reanimated dead of the Micmac burial grounds to have a more loquacious presence. While possessed-toddler Gage spoke (and cursed) in the book, the toddler of the 1989 film was somewhat less verbose (“I wanna play with yooouuu!” “No fair”). But having the elder daughter come back from the dead offers a bit more insight into what the reanimated remember and experience. The zombified Ellie recalls the exact moment of her death, and even vague allusions to a tortuous afterlife, which the resentful child wants her parents to experience in full; especially her necrophobic mother Rachel, who refuses to bond with her reanimated corpse daughter (until Rachel herself is reanimated, of course). This insight into the zombie mindset is one of the few intriguing new creative decisions of the remake.
Summing up Semataries.
I went to see this film with a friend of over 30-odd years (and a true Stephen King aficionado). We compared notes afterward. She seemed to appreciate the 2019 version a bit more than I did, though I agreed with her that the new film wasn’t a total waste of time, either.
If I had to pick only one version of the two, I’d reach for the 1989 Mary Lambert directed version without hesitation. It’s a solid, Cliff’s Notes version of the book which retains chunks of dialogue almost verbatim from King’s own novel (it helped that King adapted his own book for that version as well). 1989’s “Pet Sematary” tells the story efficiently, but with enough panache to make it good and scary as well. It also affords a teensy bit of camp playfulness, too (the Pascow ghost comically following Rachel both on her plane and in the truck cab, for example).
2019’s “Pet Sematary”, while less satisfying overall, does have some intriguing ideas; the smartest of which is the resurrected Ellie giving voice to the zombies. In the end, the remake wasn’t necessary, yet it still offers a few interesting embellishments all the same.
If you want a version that tells the essentials of the King story while offering better layering of its background and characters, 1989’s “Pet Sematary”, at 30 years old, is still the version worth exhuming…