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.

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net