'Pet Sematary' Spoiler Review: A Scary New Twist On A Familiar Story

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Pet Sematary.)

How do you bring Pet Sematary back to life after so many people have grown familiar with its story? Be it through Stephen King's classic novel, or Mary Lambert's 1989 film, audiences tend to know this tale of death and the undead inside and out. In an effort to bring Pet Sematary to a whole new generation, filmmakers Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have taken great liberties with the source material, crafting a movie that remains true to King's essential spirit, while also working towards something new. The end result is a highly rewarding creepshow, boasting superior performances, unshakable scares, and a dread-inducing acknowledgment that sometimes, dead is better.

stephen king pet sematary cameo

Going Too Far

Any self-respecting Stephen King fan knows not just the story of Pet Sematary, but also the story behind Pet Sematary. As the legend goes, it was the one book that actually scared King himself. The book that made him think he had crossed a line. "Pet Sematary is the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had finally gone too far," the author wrote in an introduction from a later edition. "Time suggests that I had not, at least in terms of what the public would accept, but certainly I had gone too far in terms of my own personal feelings. Put simply, I was horrified by what I had written, and the conclusions I'd drawn."

What makes Pet Sematary so memorably frightening is the smothering sense of dread that King perpetuates on nearly every page. There are almost no moments of levity in the nearly 400-page book. We're helpless as we follow Dr. Louis Creed into grief and madness. "Your destruction, and the destruction of all you love is very near," the ghostly Victor Pascow warns Louis early in the book. But Louis is unable to heed the warning, just as we are unable to stop King's bullet train of death from barreling towards us.

The biggest criticism often levied against King is that his work isn't literary enough. It's pulp fiction, barely worth the paper it's printed on. This simply isn't true. King may deal with lurid subject matter, but what makes his work so enduring – while other horror writers come and go – is his keen ability to create realistic characters. The author has a knack for conjuring up fully-formed individuals in only a few sentences, making the reader feel as if they've known these fictional beings all their lives. In addition to that, King does draw on literary tradition. In many ways, Pet Sematary is King's modern-day take on the Gothic Novel, completely with dire prophecies, ghostly happenings, and even a mad woman in an attic – the terrifying Zelda Goldman – recalling Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

All of these elements coalesce beautifully to present a genuinely disturbing piece of literature. Of all of King's books, Pet Sematary is the one that has always haunted me the most. The one with the most power. Perhaps because it deals primarily with a universal fear – death. This is King's other great strength as a writer: using common anxieties to craft a otherworldly tale. At one point or another, we all must face the fact that some day, we're going to die. We will cease to exist in our current form, and we'll either continue on in some capacity – be it spirit or energy – or we'll simply wink out, like a candle snuffed by a chilly gust of wind. What makes it all so scary is the unknowing. The fact that no matter what we believe, we can never really know what awaits us on the other side – if there is an "other side" at all.

Can such expertly conjured terror be faithfully translated from page to screen? The answer is yes...sort of. In 1989, Mary Lambert, working with a script by King himself, did a commendable job evoking the ever-present dread from the novel. Lambert's film doesn't quite hold up all these years later – much of the acting is terribly stiff, and there's a campiness that was common in horror films from the era. There's also a sense of the story being drastically rushed, as if King took a scalpel to his own prose to cut it down to something that whizzes by. There's nothing wrong with a movie that moves at a steady clip, but in the process, King excised much of the atmosphere that made the book so chilling. The bloody killings take up a tiny fraction of King's book, at the very end of the story. But the '89 film can't wait to get to them.

With all that in mind, there was more than enough room for another adaptation of Pet Sematary to come along, and attempt to once again render King's dread-inducing prose into motion. But the new Pet Sematary, from Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, has something else on its mind. Adopting an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, Kölsch and Widmyer, working with a script from Jeff Buhler, instead go down a different path. One just as chilling and dangerous as the path that leads to the cursed burial grounds of King's novel...but with a much different view.

For a majority of its runtime, Pet Sematary adheres rather closely to the novel. It even does a better job bringing King's story to life than the 1989 film. But its the much-talked-about third act that sets this Sematary apart from the previous film, and even the novel. Kölsch and Widmyer throw a whopper of a twist into the mix, and then run with it. And for some people, this is tantamount to a mortal sin. The biggest complaint I've heard about the new Pet Sematary is that the ending is just too different. Some viewers wanted to see what they were familiar with – little toddler Gage Creed, running around with a scalpel like a flesh-and-blood Chucky from Child's Play.

It's understandable that some fans are disappointed with the drastic changes on display in Pet Sematary 2019 – but do those changes lessen the film? I don't think they do. Instead, Kölsch and Widmyer focus on things that raise terrifying new questions. Sadly, at the very last minute, they don't seem willing to focus on those questions any longer, and opt for a ghoulish-yet-darkly-amusing conclusion.


A Fresh Start

The mood is bleak from the beginning. Kölsch and Widmyer open with an aerial shot hovering over thickets of trees dotted along the Maine wilderness as a bone-chilling score from Christopher Young intones certain doom. The cinematography here from Laurie Rose makes us feel as if we're seeing through the eyes of a vulture, or some other Carrion bird, on the hunt for a fresh, bloody kill to swoop down on. Or perhaps these are the eyes of the cold, indifferent, lunatic God that seems to hold sway over so many Stephen King stories.

All those trees are suddenly broken by a clearing, dotted with a circular, druidic-like formation we can't quite make out, although, anyone familiar with this story will immediately realize it's the pet cemetery – or rather, pet sematary – of the title. The camera continues to move onward, and now we see a house ablaze below. Soon, we're ground level, revealing a parked car with its driver side door open, blood stains on the window. There are still more blood stains on the ground – a bloody path, in fact, leading towards the front door of a house. We can only follow it. And then we're back in time, following characters who are currently blissfully unaware of the danger we've been clued into.

This is the Creed family. Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz), and their children – 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and toddler Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie). The Creed family are driving towards their new home in the small Maine town of Ludlow. Along for the ride: Church, the family cat. Immediately, the actors, and directors Kölsch and Widmyer, do a wonderful job setting the family up, and getting us to immediately like them. They feel like a real family – the playful taunting between Louis and Ellie; the easy-going rapport between Louis and Rachel; Gage absently banging away on Church's cat carrier. We like these people. We don't want anything bad to happen to them. But of course, you can't always get what you want.

The Creeds are looking for a fresh start. Louis is leaving his job as a Boston E.R. doctor working the graveyard shift to take a less lucrative, and also less time-consuming, job as a university's campus doctor. He wants everyone to spend more time as a family, and trading the big city of Boston for the country life should be ideal. And when they arrive at their large new home, things seem ideal. The woods stretch out picturesque behind the home, and there's a sense of nature all about it. That nature is violently cut through when a truck goes roaring by, startling everyone. But beyond the truck, there's no sense that anything is amiss in the fresh start of the Creed family.

That doesn't last. Kölsch and Widmyer's first real stab at establishing dread (beyond the in medias res opening) is a procession of mask-wearing children hauling a dead dog through a path in the woods by the Creed household. Rachel and Ellie stare upon the children with mixed emotions; Rachel seems disturbed, Ellie seems curious. The children, each wearing a creepy animal mask, are engrossed in their funerary task, but take the time to shoot ominous glances at mother and daughter. There's a true Wicker Man vibe from this moment; a ritualistic procession that's simultaneously harmless and upsetting.

Rachel would like to forget all about the creepy kids and their animal masks – forgetting and ignoring things are a big part of her mental state – but Ellie's curiosity gets the better of her, and she eventually makes her way down the same path, and discovers where it was the kids were bringing the dead dog: a pet cemetery, complete with a sign misspelled as Pet Sematary. Full of homemade grave markers aligned in a spiral, it's a shadowy, quiet place, peaceful and unsettling. And looming over it all is a deadfall of broken branches and dead tries, blocking something beyond.

Ellie's attempts to climb that deadfall are foiled when an elderly man appears from seemingly nowhere, barking at her to get down. This is Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), and while his entrance seemed harsh, he appears to be quite gentle, and even kind. He and Ellie have an instant rapport, but there's a sorrow in Jud that's impossible to miss. And a sense that he's full of secrets.

Indeed he is. He knows what's beyond that deadfall: a Native American burial ground with unearthly powers. After becoming friendly with the Creeds, and taking a real shine to Ellie, Jud ends up making a decision that will set in motion a wave of death and destruction. On Halloween, poor Church is run down in the road by one of those roaring trucks, something Louis wants to keep secret from Ellie. The young girl loves Church with all her heart, and her trip to the pet sematary was her first real confrontation with the realization that one day, Church would die.

Death is a sore spot in the Creed household, because Rachel has an almost debilitating fear of it. When she was a young girl, her older sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) suffered from spinal meningitis, twisting the girl's back and traumatizing Rachel in the process. Worse, one night, when Rachel was left alone with Zelda, Zelda met a horrible fate – falling down a dumbwaiter. Her sister's demise has haunted Rachel ever since, and the move to the Ludlow house has unexpectedly dug up memories of Zelda Rachel would rather leave buried.

Speaking of burying things, late that Halloween night, Jud takes Louis (and Church's corpse) beyond the pet sematary, beyond the deadfall, through the woods – where something seems to be lumbering, huge and destructive, in the darkness. High on a rocky surface rests a Native American burial ground, and Louis, along for the ride, agrees to burry Church there.

And then Church returns. One of the key ingredients of King's book is how Louis, who has a "rational doctor brain" as Jud says in the film, tries to rationalize Church's resurrection. Louis doesn't believe in God, or an afterlife. Dead is dead, and there's nothing else. Or so he thought. And when Church rises from the dead, Louis lies to himself, and says that Church must have been only stunned by that truck, and Louis buried him alive. The cat clawed his way out of the grave, and came home. The new Pet Sematary attempts to play this up as well, with Louis announcing that he must have been mistaken. But the film drops this rather quickly, especially once the risen Church starts acting creepy, and even dangerous. He claws Ellie; he stinks of the grave; he has a nasty habit of climbing into Gage's crib and showing off his dead, glowing eyes. There's something supernatural afoot, and Louis accepts it a little too easily.

Perhaps because like the 1989 film, Pet Sematary 2019 wants to get to the really ghoulish stuff. To this film's credit, though, it doesn't rush too quickly there. Kölsch and Widmyer understand that for the final, nasty act to work, they have to build us into it, and endear us to the characters. It helps that the directors are working with a cavalcade of talented actors.

Louis Creed is a tricky part, because the character makes incredibly bad choices, but we're supposed to empathize and understand. Clarke has an every-man quality to him that works well here, although he's a bit too blank at times. He's downplaying the grief and darkness, and internalizing it all. In many ways, this makes sense – Louis is a very internal character in the novel; not one to show his emotions readily. Unfortunately, it doesn't always translate to the screen.

Seimetz fairs much better as Rachel. Her early chemistry with Clarke is strong, and while Clarke's Louis internalizes his emotions, Rachel lets hers out. And most of those emotions involve unmitigated terror. Seimetz does remarkable work conveying her character's growing fear, and her frantic state as she has more and more horrifying visions of Zelda.

Jud Crandall is one of the most fully realized characters Stephen King ever created, and one of my key complaints with this new adaptation is that Jud feels slightly sidelined here. I get it: the film wants to focus more on the immediate Creed family. Still, it's hard not to want more. Especially with John Lithgow's warm, grandfatherly performance. Adorned in baggy sweaters, and sporting a beard yellowed with nicotine stains, Lithgow brings a folksy, homey wisdom to the part. Jud has a lot of speeches in the novel, but Kölsch and Widmyer understand that they don't need all of them, simply because Lithgow is so good at setting a mood with fewer words.

The most pleasant surprise, and biggest breakout, of Pet Sematary is young actress Jeté Laurence, who is tasked with the major role of Ellie Creed. In King's book, and the '89 film, Ellie is a secondary character. She has a few big moments, but mostly takes a backseat to the rest of the story. Pet Sematary 2019 has changed that significantly, making Ellie the beating heart of this story. And that beating heart is destined to be stopped. Laurence spends the bulk of the film playing Ellie as a sweet, likable, normal kid. The performance makes what's coming all the more disturbing, and Laurence's performance all the more impressive.

pet sematary final trailer

Back From Where?

Part of the fun of the new Pet Sematary is the way Kölsch and Widmyer play with expectations. The filmmakers pepper in visual gags that serve as direct callbacks to the '89 adaptation, only to have something completely different follow up. One primary example: during the bloody conclusion, Jud stands by a bed as he searches for the undead intruder in his house. The camera focuses on his ankle, and anyone who has seen the 1989 adaptation is just waiting for his Achilles tendon to be suddenly slashed by a hand from under the bed. Instead, Jud violently kicks the bed away, revealing...nothing.

It's a darkly funny moment, but the biggest illustration of the filmmakers playing with our expectations is much bleaker. Part of what disturbed King when he wrote the novel was his decision to kill off toddler Gage Creed. Part of this was inspired by real life. The impetus of the book sprung out of King moving his family to a new house that did, indeed, have a pet cemetery near by...and also a road frequented by large, speeding trucks. The youngest son of the King family at the time almost wandered into the road as a truck was on-coming, but King was able to stop him just in time. Afterward, however, King couldn't help wonder what if. What if he hadn't been able to catch his son at the last minute? That "what if" became the springboard for the darkest parts of the book, and in turn, the '89 film: the death of Gage.

Pet Sematary 2019 lets Gage survive, though. First, Kölsch and Widmyer have some macabre fun by making it look as if Gage is a goner as the youngster wanders into the road during Ellie's 9th birthday celebration. A truck is on-coming, but Louis is able to pull Gage away at the last second. Unfortunately, Ellie is also standing in the road – lured there by Church. The staging of this scene is breathtaking: after Louis pulls Gage away, the truck driver jams on the breaks, causing the truck to flip over and lose its huge tanker in the process. In slow motion, the tanker sails down the road like a projectile fired from a gun, right towards Ellie, helpless to get out of the way. We never see the tanker hit her; instead, there's a quick cut to an overhead shot showing the tanker coming to rest at a spot where Ellie was just standing seconds ago.

The aftermath is haunting, and a direct challenge to anyone who claims this new adaptation fails to capture King's tone of ever-present dread. Pet Sematary 1989 director Mary Lambert avoided showing us the dead Gage, perhaps because she felt it would be going too far, or perhaps because it just wasn't possible to to get toddler actor Miko Hughes to effectively play dead. Kölsch and Widmyer don't have this problem with the older Jeté Laurence, and give us several shots of her character's dead body that are highly disturbing. We've spent nearly the entire movie with this lively young girl, and now she's been reduced to a husk; an empty vessel. A lifeless corpse.

The question here must be asked: why change things at all? In interviews, Kölsch and Widmyer have said it was a matter of practicality. Working with an older child enabled them to do a lot more in the third act. While the image of toddler Gage waving around a scalpel is creepy in Lambert's original film, there are certain moments where a very obvious doll is being used as a stand-in, resulting in unintentionally comical moments. That doesn't happen here.

Then there's the element of surprise I previously mentioned. We expect Gage to meet an untimely end, so when that end happens to Ellie, it's all the more jarring. Is it different? Absolutely. Is it the same as a toddler rising from the grave as a killing machine? No – but it still works. But that's not to say there aren't flaws in this design.

One of my favorite parts of King's book is the section leading up to Louis digging up Gage and re-burying him in the Native American burial ground. The novel goes into extreme detail showing the meticulous way Louis plans all of this out, making sure everything is just right to get his wild work done. This new film blows that off entirely, reducing it to a moment where Louis picks up one shovel and strolls into the graveyard, seemingly without a care in the world. King goes to great lengths to highlight Louis' deteriorating mental state as he digs up his dead child, but the 2019 film breezes through it. There's a reason for this. King's book, and Lambert's film, handle the aftermath of the deed rather quickly. Gage returns, kills people, and is then quickly killed himself. But Kölsch and Widmyer have more up their sleeve. Yes, Louis buries Ellie, and yes, Ellie comes back. But not exactly the same way Gage comes back.

This new interpretation wants to ask: what if your dead child rose from the grave, and wasn't immediately a serial killer? Kölsch and Widmyer run the risk of tipping into the absurd here, and indeed, when I saw the film at SXSW, the packed audience couldn't help but laugh at the darkly comedic element of it all. Because when you boil it down to its barest elements, this section of the film is insane. Ellie comes home, and here actress Jeté Laurence truly gets to show off how versatile an actress she is. No longer sweet and charming, Ellie is downright creepy, speaking in a croaking whisper and moving about in a graceless way. Special effects also make it so that her face looks damaged, then put back together by an undertaker, with one of her eyes dropping. A particularly nightmarish sequences arises when Louis gives his undead daughter a bath, hoping to wash the grave dirt away. Water pours down her face, over her open eyes, and she doesn't flinch. Louis attempts to comb dirt and sticks from his daughter's hair, and discovers the stapled-together spot on the back of her skull where a split was closed in.

"You're back now," Louis tells Ellie.

"Back from where?" Ellie asks ominously.

pet sematary plot change

Sometimes, Dead is Better

Later, Rachel arrives home, and can't help be horrified at what she sees. This is a particularly novel twist, as it shows how far gone Louis is. Louis is completely accepting of his undead daughter walking around, but Rachel, still sane, reacts as if there's something ungodly in her presence. It's a wonderful touch, and I only wish the film had played with it a bit longer before launching into its "killer Ellie" segment.

While I love this new scenario, I have a few issues. King's book makes it seem as if the person who rises from the dead isn't really the same person at all. Instead, it's heavily implied that the Wendigo – a folkloric spirit of the woods – is possessing the dead body, and exploiting the dead person's memories for its own wicked needs. With 2019's Pet Sematary, I never got that indication. Instead, it more or less seems like the person who rises from the grave is the same person they were in life, but with a need to kill. I know I launched into this lengthy review stating that comparing this new movie to the original novel wasn't entirely fair, but I can't help it here. King's version is much more sinister and insidious.

Still, there's much to enjoy in this final segment. When Laurence goes into full-blown evil mode, killing off Jud, then Rachel, it's rather incredible to watch the child actor flip her lid and become a malevolent force. It all builds towards what will no doubt be the most controversial element of this new take. Before arriving on the ending now playing in theaters, the directors toyed with several possibilities. And indeed, different script drafts had different endings as well. In King's book, Louis gets the upper-hand and kills the undead Gage. He then buries the murdered Rachel, only to have her rise from the dead. King ends things with Rachel returning home late at night and calling Louis "darling", her voice harsh and croaky, as if there's dirt down in her throat. It's chilling. Lambert followed the same blueprint for her '89 film, but the studio made her add one last scare, where the undead Rachel grabs a large knife and swings it towards Louis before cutting to black.

Here, Rachel and Louis both meet their end, only to be buried in the burial ground and to returns as a whole new zombie family. There's nothing wrong with this idea, and the final shot, of the dead family standing around looking in on the still-living Gage, who is locked in a car, is chilling while also being darkly comedic. It grows all the more disturbing when you remember the film's opening scene, where we see the car door open, and Gage not inside, implying a terrible fate has befallen the toddler.

Before they arrived here, the filmmakers, and screenwriter, tried different things. I've heard from sources that one ending had Louis dying, and the still-living Rachel burying him in the Native American burial ground. One ending that was definitely shot had Louis and Gage surviving, sitting down at the kitchen table with the undead Ellie and Rachel (and Church) joining them, the shot composed to highlight what this this familial unit has become. On paper, I think that ending sounds a bit better.

While I'm content with the theatrical ending, one thing sticks in my craw. As Rachel is dying, having been stabbed multiple times by her daughter, she hoarsely tells Louis, "Don't bury me in that place..." There's something heartbreaking but poignant about this. Through the whole film, Rachel has been terrified of death. Now, as the life fades from her, she's finally accepting of it. She's ready to embrace death. But the film doesn't let that happen, because it immediately has Ellie planting her dead mother in the burial ground. Pet Sematary was never going to have a happy ending – it's not part of the DNA of this story. But to immediately rob Rachel of her catharsis seems a little cheap.

But I can't entirely fault the film for this. It was obviously important for this new Pet Sematary to find a way to keep its family together, no matter the circumstances. After all, the Creeds started this journey hoping to spend more time together. Now, it looks like they'll have an eternity.