Columns > Published on September 29th, 2014

Book Vs. Film Vs. Unmade Film: "Pet Sematary"

WARNING: Spoilers discussed freely.

When we're talking about horror novel adaptations, lately we're more inclined to also talk about the "remake," or the "reboot," or the "reimagining"—typically in the vein of updating a title for modern audiences. Stephen King's works are shaping up to be rife territory for "re" work ("rework," there's another one!). Back in 1997, and under King's strict supervision, The Shining made its "triumphant" return, this time on the small screen in a three-part miniseries format. In 2002 and for a period of five years thereafter, audiences were treated to a "new and improved" Dead Zone TV series. Also in 2002, we witnessed the horror (pun intended, it was godawful) of the Carrie TV movie. Salem's Lot was spiffed up with Rob Lowe in 2004. Last year, Carrie returned from the dead once again to haunt today's social media-obsessed teen bullies; and those long-gestating cinematic updates of The Stand and It seem like they might actually happen soon, though none of us are still quite sure exactly when.

What could have been a serious and thoroughly terrifying film exploring the heart of darkness becomes a late-night B movie.

Some of the above titles worked well in their upgraded forms, while others...well, we won't talk about them. But in each case, it cannot be argued that that remakes were necessary. De Palma's Carrie, Kubrick's The Shining, Hooper's Salem's Lot and Cronenberg's The Dead Zone are all top-notch films. The Stand suffers from some poor special effects and overdoses of schmaltziness (mainly in scenes involving Mother Abigail and Tom Cullen), but otherwise it actually holds up all these years later (particularly Part I—it's some of the best made-for-TV filmmaking you're likely to see). One could make an argument for It, but really it's the "adult years" section of the story that needs updating, while the "kid years" should be left alone; also, how could you ever top Tim Curry as Pennywise? I don't think it's possible.

There is one Stephen King novel, however, that truly needs a new adaptation, not just for "modern audiences," but also to undo the general crappyness of its first movie version. I'm talking, of course, about Pet Sematary.

Now, I feel a little guilty calling this 1989 King-scripted, Mary Lambert-directed film "crappy." As a young man of 12, I absolutely LOVED Pet Sematary. I'd read the book before seeing the movie, but I think my pre-teen brain wasn't quite developed enough to really "get" the emotional and psychological subtexts at play in King's novel. All I cared about was the awesome scary cat that comes back from the dead, and then the super-awesome, super-creepy, scalpel-wielding undead kid—"Now I want to play with youuuuuuuuuuuuu..." Plus, Jud Crandle was played by Herman Munster.

But here I am, twenty-one years later, and my opinions have shifted. Back then I didn't care that much for King's book—in truth, I thought it was boring. Recently, however, I decided to revisit it, and kinda fell in love with it. I'm able to see now that it is a book of ideas more than anything else, and I think I'm better able to grasp those ideas as an adult. 

Conversely, though I'd re-watched Pet Sematary sometime back in college and found it to be cheesy but nonetheless watchable, seeing it again just a few weeks ago...Well...It's just crappy. I mean, yeah, little Gage with his scalpel is still pretty effective, and Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster) gives a solid performance, but man, everything else about it...Man, it's just crappy.

Fortunately(?), Paramount is currently full-speed ahead on a remake of Pet Sematary, with Jeff Buhler (Midnight Meat Train) penning the script, and Juan Carlos-Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) directing. Obviously, time will tell if this new take on King's novel will indeed be an improvement, but for the moment I'm cautiously optimistic given what both men have said about their goals with the project. 

I do think there's one thing that can make or break this upcoming movie: when the narrative is set. Because Pet Sematary does not belong in the modern day. Pet Sematary belongs in the 1980s, and I truly believe any attempt to reset the story in the 10s would jeopardize everything that makes it so great.

Let's discuss why, shall we? We'll start with the source material.

King's Novel

You're probably familiar with the basic plot by now, but just in case you're not, Pet Sematary is itself a kind of modern take on a classic horror story, W.W. Jacobs's 1902 short story "The Monkey's Paw." Both narratives are concerned with the same basic questions: "What if you could bring your loved ones back from the dead, and what would be the repercussions if you did?" And just like in Jacobs's tale, where the means of obtaining such resurrection derives from the titular object—imbued as it is with otherworldly, grant-wishing powers—so too does the title of King's work suggest the origin of this Godlike ability. Sort of. There is indeed a cemetery involved...

It goes like this: Louis Creed and his family move from Chicago to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. Louis will soon take over head director duties at the University of Maine health services center, where he believes he'll be shielded from the more extreme medical horrors. He "just happens" to choose a house situated at the edge of a forest, land that the Micmac Native American tribe wants back, ostensibly as retribution for all the dirty deals and slaughter their people have endured at the hands of white men, in reality because white men cannot be trusted with the grounds that lie beyond the Creed home. 

From the moment the family sets foot on their new "property," bad shit goes down—five year-old Ellie scrapes her knee, and baby Gage is stung by a bee—though of course these omens are brushed off by Louis and his wife Rachel as par for the child-rearing course. And fortunately, their kindly new neighbor Jud Crandall swoops in like a geriatric Batman with a thick Cot-Caught Merger dialect and saves the day, removing the bee stinger from Gage's neck and assuaging the family's frazzled demeanor. He warns them about the road separating his and the Creed's new house: it is a "mean road," with trucks from the Orinco plant barreling past at all hours of the night. You want to watch out for the kids and the cat—a smoky-colored Tom named Winston Churchill, or Church for short—on that road. 

Later, Jud leads the family on a hike up into the woods, where he shows them the Pet Sematary: a small burial plot maintained (and thus, misspelled) by the local children. Jud points out the tombstone for his boyhood dog Spot, establishing just how far back the cemetary goes. Louis also notices that the graves are arranged—intentionally or subconsciously, he doesn't know—in perfect spiral pattern, and that the path seems to continue on into the forest, but is blocked by a gnarled mass of bleached-white, bone-like branches. 

On his first day of work, Louis encounters death yet again, when an athletic kid named Victor Pascow dies on the floor in the lobby of the medical center. He was the victim of a hit and run while jogging, his head cracked open wide enough to show bone and brain. Before he passes, though, Pascow speaks to Louis, saying clearly (and despite all logic), "In the Pet Sematary...It's not the real cemetery...The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis...A man grows what he can...and he tends it."

The good doctor convinces himself he didn't hear what he thought he heard, but that night Pascow returns in what Louis assumes is a vivid dream (but which he soon realizes is very much a real encounter). The dead kid leads Louis up to the Pet Sematary, and points to the deadfall of branches, which literally transform into a pile of bones. He warns Louis that "the barrier was not meant to be crossed," and hints that an ancient power has already set certain events in motion. If Louis succumbs to this power, Pascow insists, it will mean the total destruction of his family and himself.

From here, the narrative takes a sharp turn into truly dark country, with Death hovering over the proceedings like some omnipresent judge, jury and executioner. First, Jud's wife Norma suffers a near-fatal heart attack on Halloween, in full view of Ellie and some of her school friends (Louis does his doctor thing and saves her). Then, while Rachel and the kids are away visiting her folks in Chicago for Thanksgiving, Church gets hit by an Orinco truck on that mean road. 

This part of the narrative I'm sure you're familiar with: Jud, convinced he's doing Louis a solid, and repaying him for saving Norma's life on Halloween, leads his neighbor and son-surrogate up to the Pet Sematary—the real cemetery, that is, the one beyond the barrier that was not meant to be broken. They experience strange, voice-like sounds and terrifying visions while on the marshy, ostensibly indomitable path, but Jud assures Louis they're only the loons "down south near Prospect," only St. Elmo's fire, or "foo-lights. It makes funny shapes, but it's nothing...just look the other way." Of course it's none of those things. It's the Wendigo, the ancient forest spirit Pascow warned about. But these stone-hearted white dudes can't be bothered to heed warnings, now can they?

So they bury the cat in the rocky ground—the very place the Micmacs stopped using because it was sour—and place a cairn of rocks over the grave. Louis notes that the other cairns have fallen apart, and that each pile of rocks is arranged, most unconsciously, in a spiral pattern. 

Church comes back to life. He's relatively innocent, all things considered. He kills mice and birds more often than a neutered cat should, and he stinks to high heaven all the time, no matter how many baths he gets, but otherwise he's the same-old Church. Oh yeah, and he's just kinda off, and no one-but no one wants anything to do with him, not even Ellie, who surely would have fallen to pieces had she learned her sweet little kitty was dead. But other than that, he's just fine.

Noticing a pattern here? Louis just looks away from the problem. He knows this zombiefied cat shouldn't exist, but he just keeps covering up his dirty secret, cleaning up Church's messy kills before his family sees them, tending what he's grown inside his stony heart. Pretending everything is a-okay and totally normal, when of course everything is spiraling (get it?) out of control.

So of course, when baby Gage suffers the same fate as Church, Louis convinces himself that the results will be the same, that his son will return completely, one hundred percent normal, just like he never left. 

Jud attempts to intervene and correct his initial mistake—the kindly old man regrets ever telling Louis about the burial grounds, and believes he was gripped by the Wendigo's temptation that fateful November day. Jud tells Louis about Timmy Baterman, a boyhood friend who's father buried him in the real cemetery. He not only came back off and wrong, he was downright evil, and spoke aloud secrets about his former friends that no one else could know, suggesting that the returned pets are nothing more than minions to the real demon, lying in wait for a human carcass to possess. Jud and his cronies confront the elder Baterman about his godawful, fucked-up zombie son, and though he's obstinate at first, he eventually comes around and burns his own house down, with himself and Timmy still inside. 

Horrified by this story, Louis assures Jud that, no, he won't be digging up his son and reburying him in the grounds beyond the barrier.

Then he ships Rachel and Ellie off to Chicago and does it anyway. 

Of course he does it anyway. Once the Wendigo sinks its claws into you, free will ceases to be an issue (or does it...?).

You probably know this part too: Gage comes back all super-evil, and with the aid of his little helper cat, he exacts revenge on Jud (it's made clear the demon possessing Gage is the same one that appeared to be Timmy Baterman all those years ago). Gage then kills Rachel (who made a fly-by-night return to Ludlow following Ellie's psychic dreams of Victor Pascow, and her conviction that something awful was about to happen to her husband). Dear old dad is next on the kill list, but Louis bests his dead son in a fight, injecting him with some ill-defined chemical from his black leather doctor's bag, putting an end to the horror once and for all.

Except that he carries Rachel's body up to the burial grounds and puts her there too. King leaves us at Rachel's return, in one of the best final two paragraphs ever:

A cold hand fell on Louis's shoulder. Rachel's voice was grating, full of dirt.

'Darling,' it said.

The ending is vague, but we pretty much know two things here: one, Louis is probably done for, though the subtext of Louis's marriage to death is apparent; and two, everything Pascow warned Louis about came to pass. Crossing the barrier lead to the destruction of the Creed family, including Louis himself. The lesson here? "Sometimes, dead is better."

The Theme Within The Theme: It's All Louis's Fault

There is more to this novel than the "dead is better" theme. There is a secondary—but nonetheless prominent—message behind the proceedings, and it has everything to do with King's dislike of the book. 

In 2001, the author discussed Pet Sematary with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Nathaniel Rich of The Paris Review. Here's what he had to say:

it was so gruesome by the end of it, and so awful. I mean, there’s no hope for anybody at the end of that book. Usually I give my drafts to my wife Tabby to read, but I didn't give it to her. When I finished I put it in the desk and just left it there.

According to Grady Hendrix (who was nice enough to write for LitReactor recently), Pet Sematary would never have even seen the light of day had King not needed one last book to honor his contractual obligations to Doubleday. He notes in his Tor feature The Great Stephen King Re-read that the publisher had been "screwing" the author, and so, "King handed over the manuscript and washed his hands of the matter." Hendrix quotes old Stevie from an unnamed contemporary interview as saying:

If I had my way about it, I still would not have published Pet Sematary. I don't like it. It's a terrible book—not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals* down into the darkness. It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don't really believe that."

*emphasis mine

In part, King refers to the presence of the Wendigo here, this entity with powers beyond human comprehension and, ultimately, control. As Hendrix notes:

King's point has always been that there are older forces out there, forces that came with the territory, and they're right beneath the surface, waiting to claim us when they're ready.

True, this forest spirit displays serious diabolical machinations. But I argue that despite its supernatural power-plays, the Wendigo's plot would never have seen fruition had Louis not been the kind of man he was, the kind of man who readily accepts the notion that "the heart of a man is stonier," a cellar built for deep and sinuous secrets a woman's heart could "never" contain.

Familial secrets—particularly those hidden within Louis's stony heart—crop up throughout the narrative, and one in particular basically acts as a catalyst for every horrible event Louis endures. Rachel comes from a ne'er-do-well family, and back in college her father Irwin attempted to bribe Louis with a "full tuition scholarship" to medical school if he abandoned Rachel. In Irwin's eyes, our protagonist was a no-good punk from the streets, a consummate fuck-up who wouldn't amount to much, who would most certainly drag his daughter into the depths of poverty. Louis, being a bit of a punk, told the old man where to stick his checkbook. He refrains from ever telling Rachel this story, hoping not to shatter her delusions about dear old daddy. 

He never forgave his father-in-law for this insult, and it is this tension between the two men—and Louis's intense manly pride—that keeps the good doctor home over Thanksgiving, when Church meets his fate. He stays home despite Rachel's clear desire for him to accompany them, not only because the rift between her husband and her father causes her undue stress, but also because she'll have to handle two very young children across multiple airports and flights with no assistance. 

As we've seen, the Wendigo waits for opportune moments to royally screw up your life: it knew Jud would be swayed into telling his neighbor about the burial grounds, and it knew—given what it already knew about Louis—that the secret would be kept with a kind of devious glee (we see Louis discarding his muddied sheets the night after his "dream" with Pascow with a devilish grin and fantasies about having a criminal mastermind's brilliance, after all). In short, the evil power lurking in the woods didn't orchestrate horror at random; it played directly into tragic flaws of its intended victim, arranging scenarios tailor-made just for Louis.

So let's talk about a few other undesirable character traits in our protagonist:

  • Louis clearly loves his son Gage more than he loves his wife and daughter. This is made abundantly clear from page one, when the good doctor fantasizes about abandoning Rachel and Ellie, escaping down to Florida with Gage and new identities, and taking on a medic position at Disneyworld (we see other instances of latent unhappiness and marriage doldrums too). He feels heartache when Gage begins to sport dark roots underneath his towhead, a sign he's physically taking after his mother (i.e., Louis is sad because his son doesn't look like him anymore). 
  • Louis experiences his "last really happy day" shortly before Gage's death: Rachel and Ellie are out shopping, and dad takes son out to fly a kite—i.e., the women aren't in the way of Louis and Gage having a good time.
  • Finally, after Gage dies, several people—including his best friend/father figure Jud—implore Louis to tend to his wife and daughter, because they need him now more than ever. But he just can't muster the strength to take care of them, as he's too grief-stricken over losing his only son.

And here's a couple more things about Louis heretofore undiscussed:

  • He spends A LOT of his free time building model planes, tanks, and automobiles.
  • He doesn't want to neuter Church initially, because he's scared it will fundamentally alter the animal's personality, turning him from a mostly good-natured outlaw Tom with a fuck-you edge to a fat, lazy, wouldn't-harm-a-fly housecat. He even admits to himself that Church with balls intact reminds Louis of himself, back in college (as opposed to the present-day man he's become—putting on the pounds, often acquiescent to his wife, a provider and a tax-payer with a steady job who spends his down time building models or watching TV with the kids).

See what I'm getting at here? Louis is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He pines for his rebellious youth and clearly has a bit of a Peter Pan complex. He projects himself onto his son—as so many fathers do—thus setting himself up for heartache and disappointment when, inevitably, his son doesn't turn out the way he'd hoped. 

Given this, OF COURSE the Wendigo targets Gage, because the forest spirit knows the death of this man's son will compel him—more so than the death of his daughter or even his wife—to commit the unthinkable act of placing a human body in the resurrecting grounds.

Consider the opposite scenario. Let's say Louis isn't a prideful man who carries a burning grudge for his father-in-law; let's say his number one priority in life is the well-being of his family, and he's devoted to wife, daughter and son equally; let's say he doesn't secretly wish he was a devil-may-care Tomcat. Take the sum of these parts, and here's what you get: Louis would have gone to Chicago with his family for Thanksgiving, and the plot of Pet Sematary as we know it NEVER WOULD HAVE HAPPENED. It's likely the family would have put Church up in a kennel, sparing his life, but even if they hadn't and he still died on that mean road, kindly old Jud never would have buried the cat beyond the barrier, because the endeavor would have been pointless. You have to bury your own, and Church's owners being far, far away, the cat would likely have received a more suitable burial in the pre-barrier, almost whimsical cemetery.

In other words, yes there is an unstoppable evil at play here, the Wendigo indeed arranges events so as to bring about Hell on earth. But the horror of Pet Sematary relies more on Louis's foolish pride, his mid-life crisis, and his old-fashioned patriarchalism than it does the evil deeds of some ancient forest spirit; the Wendigo constructs a house of death and insanity, but Louis's flaws are its bricks and mortar. 

The Movie

All this psychological subtext, observations on the dangerous nature of the "stone-hearted man," and the forces of ancient power suckering prideful white folk into doing its bidding are absent in the movie adaptation. It's meat-and-potatoes plot here, which could have worked had there been a more adept visionary in the director's chair and a cast with better acting chops (Fred Gwynne notwithstanding, though even some of his more emotional moments fall a bit flat). Dale Midkiff as Louis and Denise Crosby as Rachel seem like they're drugged up on quaaludes throughout the ninety-odd minutes it takes to get from point A to point B, which robs the film of displaying any kind of emotional subtext behind the dialogue. Furthermore, with his surfer-esque vocal stylings and dopey expressions, Midkiff could easily be Keanu Reaves's older brother. 

What could have been a serious and thoroughly terrifying film exploring the heart of darkness becomes a late-night B movie. Now, I love me a good B movie, and as far as B movies go, I will say that Pet Sematary ranks among the best; but when you've read the book, and you understand what this narrative can be, it is a bummer to see the material taken so flippantly and presented in such a schlocky manner.

And unfortunately, that's all there is to say about Pet Sematary: The Movie.

Well, except this (and I don't care what anyone says, this is awesome):


The Upcoming Remake

But there's hope. Paramount wants another go, and it sounds like they've pulled together two like-minded individuals who will treat Pet Sematary with respect. Here's what the screenwriter Jeff Buhler said about his and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's take on the material (as reported by Debi Moore for Dread Central): 

'I think the one element that we are trying to bring to this version of Pet Sematary is a sense of truth and honesty in the horror and really take it back to the original material. I think that in the 80’s movie it’s a little campy in places, and we are trying to get away from all of that and really get back to the core of the story, which is that of the family dealing with grief from the loss of their child and the horror of breaking the laws of nature as a result of that. Juan Carlos in particular is very focused on the emotional elements and how they could be represented in a visual context that is compelling.”

'We are being very respectful to the book,' he continued, 'and we are not tying ourselves to anything in the first two films at all. We are [also] bringing in some fresh elements that speak to the spirit of the story that aren’t in either one.'

I'm not sure what that last sentence means, exactly, as it's unclear what Buhler means by "either one"—Pet Sematary: The Movie and it's piece-of-shit sequel, or the book and it's first adaptation. In any case, I hope this means he and Fresnadillo are bringing back Louis's hubris, because for me, it is the protagonist's patriarchal, Peter Pan complex—and the dangers of such sentiments and states of being—that makes the story.

I also hope the filmmakers plan to set the "new and improved" Pet Sematary in the 1980s, not so much because this particular breed of man does not exist today (they still do), but mainly because of Google Maps.

See, at one point in the book, Louis wonders if anyone has ever seen the ancient burial grounds, with its concentric patterns of rock cairns, from the sky—say, in an airplane or helicopter—and further wonders what they would have thought about it. Well...Today, EVERYONE would have seen the burial grounds, because damn near every inch of our planet is visible on the internet (I mean, you can see Area 51 for frak's sake).

I suppose the presence of satellites photographing every square inch for international display is a small consideration, but for me having the burial grounds visible in such a grand scale robs this ancient place—and the Wendigo that inhabits it—of its mystique. Better I think to leave Pet Sematary in the past, before Google Maps, when the wilderness could still be wild.

But again, so long as the new film isn't a cheesy schlock fest with with hissing cat scares and 'luded-out actors, I think we'll be fine.

What elements of Pet Sematary would you like to see in an updated version? It seems inconceivable to me, but did you think Mary Lambert and company did a fine job the first time around? Let us know what you think.

Get Pet Sematary at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Pet Sematary (film) at Amazon

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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