Reel Talk

Pet Sematary and the Horror of Grief



We’ve found ourselves in a veritable golden age of Stephen King adaptations. In the 45 years that King has been establishing himself as the master of written horror, his bibliography has proven to be a pretty fertile ground in terms of adaptations. A majority of his books have made it to either the big or small screen, often to pretty varied results. Some of the adaptations of his works have become the best horror films ever made, some have become laughable oddities, and some have become whatever the hell Maximum Overdrive is. But, in recent years it seems like there’s been a rush of mostly great King adaptations. Yeah, we dealt with the incredibly bizarre Dark Tower movie, but we also got the pitch perfect It film, which will be wrapping up a second half later this year. It seems like there’s been an increase in creators who understand King’s works, getting to the heart of what makes them work and creating some truly great adaptations. And, at the beginning of a year that’s set up to deliver quite a few adaptations of King’s novels, we’re starting things off with the second adaptation of one of King’s more famous novels, Pet Sematary. Now, I’m a King fan. I’ve read quite a few of his novels, but the guy has put out a staggering amount of stories, so it’s hard to have read them all. And, Pet Sematary is one of my bigger blind spots. I’ve never read the novel, or seen the original 1989 adaptation. But, the trailers for this film really seemed to promise a hell of a film, and I figured that going in as blind as possible, without any baggage from the novel or the original film, would give me the best shot at enjoying it. And, well, it’s certainly an odd experience.

Pet Sematary tells the story of the Creed family, Louis, Rachel, and their children Ellie and gage. The film begins with them moving to small town Maine after giving up a high-stress life in Boston, seeking to calm down and take an easier life. But, things are kind of immediately odd to them, because Ellie stumbles upon a strange area in the forest behind their home that local children use to bury their pets, called the Pet Semetary. Ellie ends up meeting a kindly neighbor of theirs, Jud Crandall, who warns Ellie that the forest isn’t safe, and that she should be careful. And, things aren’t very normal for Louis either. He’s taken a job as a doctor at a local university, and one day he watches as a student dies after being struck by a car. He starts having vivid nightmares about the student, and himself walking around in the Pet Sematary that becomes hard to distinguish from reality. And, that Sematary becomes even more involved in Louis’ life when the family cat, Church, is struck by a car and killed. Louis and Rachel decide that Ellie isn’t ready to deal with death, and they attempt to hide it from her, which causes Jud to let Louis in on a secret. There’s a hidden part of the Sematary, further into the woods, that will bring animals back from the dead. So, Jud and Louis go to that swamp, bury Church, and the next day he comes back to life.

But, it becomes immediately clear that Church hasn’t come back normal. He used to be a very lovable animal, but now he’s belligerent and mean. Louis becomes worried about this, and ends up deciding that they can’t keep this new Church. So, he takes Church out into the wilderness and lets him loose, returning for Ellie’s birthday party. But, while the kids are playing hide and seek Ellie spots Church walking home down the road, and when she goes to pick him up she’s struck by a truck, dying immediately. And, obviously, Louis and Rachel don’t take this well. They both become despondent, and decide to return to Boston. But, while Rachel and Gage leave early, Louis stays behind for a while, in theory to wrap something up at work. But, in reality he plans on stealing Ellie’s corpse, and bury her in the Sematary. Jud warns against this, but Louis drugs him and brings Ellie back to life. And, much like Church, she comes back wrong. Ellie becomes violent and mean, but Louis just tries to convince himself that everything will be fine. This becomes harder when Ellie starts killing people. She murders Jud to stop him from telling Louis the truth, and when Rachel and Gage return to find Louis, she decides she needs to kill her mother. This leads to a series of fights in the forest, with Ellie killing Rachel and bringing her to the Sematary as well. Louis attempts to stop her, but Rachel’s reanimated corpse helps Ellie kill Louis, before bringing him to the Sematary as well. And, the film ends with the three reanimated corpses of the Creeds slowly approaching baby Gage.





Like I said, I didn’t know much about this film going in. I’d learned through cultural osmosis that this was a story about people being brought back from the dead, to disastrous results, but beyond that I didn’t really know where this movie would be going. I’ve come to learn that the film actually changes a few key aspects of the novel, keeping the mean spirit of it while trying some new things, which is something that I really appreciate from adaptations. But, the problem with this movie, and I think the main reason that it’s getting such a tepid reaction, is that is just a bit of a slog. The movie drags, bogged down by incredibly slow pacing, and not enough plot. It’s not even that long of a film, but there’s whole stretches of the movie where you just kind of wish the thing would kick into gear and get to the point. It’s not a very subtle film, and I don’t know if that comes from the adaptation or the source material, but you just see every little aspect of this movie coming from a mile away, and are left wading through molasses, waiting for everything to happen. And, normally, I appreciate a horror movie that relies more on tension than jump scares. But, there’s a difference between being a tension-filled film, and a poorly-paced one. And, this film is the later. Which is a shame, because there are a few really great parts of this movie that just kind of get forgotten waiting for something to happen. The cast is generally good, it’s generally well-shot even if it does get a tad hackneyed, and it tackles a pretty universal fear in an interesting way.

This isn’t really a selling point on this film, since it also appears to be the general gist of the novel and the original film, but I did find myself being struck by the way that this story mines the horror that one can feel from grief. Something truly terrible happens to Louis and Rachel in this film, the senseless death of their child. She’s taken from them quickly and carelessly, and are put in the horrible position of having to bury their own child. Which is a nightmare. I’m not a parent, but I’m sure that going through something like this, and even the fear of going through something like this, would be the scariest thing in the world. And, I’m sure the idea of doing something horrible, like burying your child in a haunted cemetery that will bring them back to life, would be weirdly compelling. Losing a child like this would be one of the worst possible things to happen in your life, so if there was some way to fix that, to make everything better, even if that would mean meddling in some very terrifying and unexplainable things, would make sense. And, what more, you’re then put in a position where you get what you wanted, and it’s not right. It’s a story that I’m almost positive would get even darker and more upsetting when I have children, and serves as a really interesting twist on a very real nightmare.


Pet Sematary was written by Jeff Buhler, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, and released by Paramount Pictures, 2019.




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