Did 'Pet Sematary' Change Things for the Better?

[This story contains spoilers for Pet Sematary.]

The following is a spoiler-filled conversation about the new movie adaptation of Pet Sematary — Stephen King's disturbing 1983 novel about God, dead cats, and Indian burial grounds — between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. Pet Sematary was first adapted into a movie in 1989 by King himself and director Mary Lambert. All three versions of this story follow troubled medical doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke, in the new version) as he and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) struggle to prevent their children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (identical twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), from worrying about death...even after the violent (but accidental) killing of Church, Ellie's pet cat. Matters are further complicated by Louis's discovery — thanks in no small part to the well-intended interference of nosy neighbor Jud Crandal (John Lithgow) — of the nearby pet cemetery and the adjacent Indian burial ground. There are spoilers ahead. Not even kidding.

Simon Abrams (AKA: Team Evil Cat): I didn't think it was possible, but I am both impressed and underwhelmed by the new Pet Sematary adaptation. Like a lot of horror fans, I've read Stephen King's novel and seen Mary Lambert's 1989 movie adaptation. I wonder if the first part of that sentence is the main problem with the new Pet Sematary. We are led down a long, winding path by a camera mounted on an overhead drone: from the edge of the forest, past the cemetery, and dead-ending at the new home of Louis and his family. I generally don't like to rag on horror movies for being blunt, but this tracking shot's message is clear (and will be made even clearer in succeeding scenes): we are going down a different path. "Stick to the path," Jud warns in King's original novel. "It's longer than it looks," suggests this new movie's creators.

If you know this story — and I think many viewers do —then you will either be distracted or delighted (or both!) by the little ways that screenwriter Jeff Buhler and directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer announce that their movie isn't your daddy's Pet Sematary. Stuff like: when Church the cat bounds into Jud's lap, which means that when Jud inevitably shows Church's corpse to Louis, he can't say "I think it's yours" (since he's now officially met Church). Or the way that Jud passes out because Louis drugs him, and not because of the mystical influence of the wendigo (or whatever other spirits preside over the nearby Micmac burial ground). These are many other little narrative touch-ups that either streamline or subvert familiar plot points...but they also send a clear message to people who remember King's story: you don't know Pet Sematary like you think you do.

But really, we kinda do. The new Pet Sematary is a tighter, leaner version of King's source novel. I love some of the changes that were made for this adaptation, like the concluding scene (which is genuinely disturbing thanks to a well-used performance by one or both of the Lavoie twins). But I generally feel like a lot of little narrative twists were only successful in the sense that they effectively disoriented me. These little variations also sorta illustrate the Creeds' general lack of introspection. Meaning: the relentless pace of the film's plot — and the fact that the movie's characters are necessarily unaware of what's going to happen to them, even though moviegoers also only think that they know what will happen next — is kinda clever since both Louis and Rachel Creed don't want to dwell on their hang-ups about God, death, and their children. But, by focusing so much on plot, the makers of the new Pet Sematary just made a more efficient scare machine. This Pet Sematary may be a more well-made movie than the 1989 Pet Sematary, but it's not much better.

How attached are you to this story and what was watching this new adaptation like for you? We didn't get to talk much after the screening, so I'm curious to hear more of your take. 

Steven Boone (AKA: Team Fred Gwynne): I'm not married to the 1989 Pet Sematary, though I have fond memories of seeing it first-run in a packed Westchester multiplex. The movie's jolts and reveals made for a noisy, happy crowd. The audience at our screening of the new adaptation got up to similar decibels. A spectacularly cute and vicious undead cat got the loudest reactions--from "Awwwurrr" to "KILL THAT MOTHERFUCKER," often within seconds.

I've never read the Stephen King novel and retain only a rough outline of the 1989 film's plot. What stayed with me all these years are the vividly rendered shock moments: the gaunt and contorted ghost of Rachel's sister (Sematary being the only meningitis-ploitation story I can recall); the savage slashing attack on Jud Crandall's Achilles tendon (a moment the new film knows damn well we are holding our breath for and toys with this apprehension); the nauseating prospect of an 18-wheeler striking a toddler at top speed (altered for another instance of "Not Your Daddy's Pet Sematary" in the 2019 version); the nightmare image of a small child and a beloved pet reborn as cold-blooded killers.

Those memories are enough for me to agree with you that the new film is out to subvert 30-years-later expectations. What I can't fully co-sign is the notion that this film is "more well made" than the previous version, though maybe that's just semantics. There's definitely improved 21st century technology on hand to make the zombie cat and demon child seamlessly believable.

I agree with your view that this one is a "more efficient scare machine," but only in terms of plot delivery. Our pathway into and through scenes is pretty cluttered, with some characters stating their intentions and concerns straight out, in the manner of a graphic novel, through a flurry of handheld, closeup, over-the-shoulder TV-style coverage. The omens are not eerie but blunt, typified by a procession of masked children heading into the woods, in which the sound design, score, characters and camera all shout the same thing: LOOK AT THIS, AIN'T IT CREEPY, YOU CREEPED OUT YET?? This Pet Sematary uses aerial drone shots the way certain social media leadfoots splatter their memes with laughing-through-tears emojis. There was an opportunity not taken here, to upgrade the story's exposition to the indie neo-horror standards of, say, Hereditary or even James Wan's ghost stories.

Where the movie goes right, and keeps a loose but steady grip on the audience, is in its performances and the big shock moments mentioned above. It has a grasp of grisly humor grounded in uncomfortable family psychology — like its granddaddy, Mr. King! These aspects work together to make the theme you identified — a family navigating the denial stage of grief — actually sing out. I think you got similar value out of these performances and bursts of style, but tell me some more about it.

Abrams: I do think this new Pet Sematary is more ambitious and polished than the 1989 version. As in Starry Eyes — Kölsch and Widmyer's previous horror movie — emphasize narrative elisions and relatively subtle shifts in character for the sake of making greater points about their antiheroic characters. I also think that screenwriter Jeff Buhler and credited story writer Matt Greenberg  try a little too hard to fussily tidy up or grim-darken some messy plot points. Like, I'm glad that they foreground Rachel's story better than either King or Lambert did in their previous versions. But eventually, I feel like Buhler and Greenberg's decision to kill Ellie instead of Gage reflects a distracting need to be modern and therefore make Rachel's story seem like less of an afterthought. Even if it still is basically an afterthought). Like, I still don't understand this key line from both King's novel and the 1989 movie: "The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can and tends it." Meaning...what? That a woman's heart is somehow softer? I wonder now if this new Pet Sematary's revised plot was supposed to address that line's vague meaning, especially since, in this movie, Zombie Rachel impales Louis moments before he can re-kill his Zombie Daughter. We are all equal, even in our general desires to avoid thinking about death. Now that's what I call subversive entertainment! (Not really.)

Then again, these changes are also why I prefer King and Lambert's adaptation of Pet Sematary: their movie may not be as sophisticated on a narrative level, but it also doesn't feel like it was written by a bunch of guys who are sticklers about foregrounding every single major plot point. They could have hid all those pesky little character-revealing details in their script, the way Jordan Peele does (then again, how do you follow up an act like Us?). But no, these guys want us to notice that they've re-arranged the original story's furniture and that puts me off. I'm guessing I'm not alone in that either: if you emphasize narrative switch-ups and flaunt the way you're defying viewers' expectations so much...there should be something deeper to your reading of this story than an ostentatious preference for tidier, more explicit character-driven plot points. This is my daddy's Pet Sematary...just with some ideas streamlined and some others jettisoned (if not just tamped down). 

I'll talk a little about the generally strong cast — and the main reason why I prefer the 1989 Lambert-helmed Pet Sematary —  in my very brief final riposte. But for now: did you find the fussiness of the script to be distracting? And what did you think of Kölsch and Widmyer's direction and general approach to their characters and their tragic, grief-stricken quest for meaning?

Boone: What you describe as the "fussiness of the plot" would have been a non-issue under less elbow-in-ribs, wink/nudge direction. Imagine if, say, Se7en had been directed by a less artful hand than David Fincher. The loaded, high-concept tackiness of that script might have been harder to digest. Or compare Kubrick's terse, atmospheric The Shining to the garrulous, literal-minded Shining miniseries. In that sense, I could see this Pet Sematary screenplay doing just fine under direction that wasn't so insecure about whether we're catching the plot points and themes. The script does its job, gives the movie a pleasing shape (with a perfect ending); it was up to the directors to hide the seams.

As I mentioned, though, the performances under this direction lend the conveyor belt storytelling some emotional realism, which is where the (intentional) laughs come in. The film hits a dark comic stride in its final third, which is basically the story of an estranged family reuniting through occult ritual killing. The filmmakers seem to have given this section the most love and attention, and it pays off in audience roars. This is where the film gets down to business that we all feel in our bones: At what point do we trade our morality and honesty to preserve a sense of normalcy and safety? How many lies does it take to make a happy family?

Undead Ellie's savagery and accusatory stare add up to a perfect icon for this time of reckoning and (symbolic) father-killing in America. Her malevolence can't be written off as mere evil. She's as bitter as Freddy Krueger over the lies and weaknesses that led to her death. Ellie is leveraging the guilt of generations — mine, King's — over the fantasies hers was fed to distract from a poisonous inheritance. Wait, when I look back at the utterly generic exposition through this lens, maybe the white-picket staleness was the point: Here is the bullshit domesticity we're not buying into anymore, old folks. The world is not safe, there is no escape, and you will pay for leaving we, the children, unprepared.

Little of which occurred to me as I watched the film, too busy marveling at Church, the angriest, mangiest Maine Coon in cinema history.

Abrams: Yeah, but the "bullshit domesticity" and "white-picket staleness" (good ones) that you're talking about were just as effectively skewered in King and Lambert's uneven, but fitfully devastating 1989 adaptation! I think the cast is, as you said, across the board good, especially Jason Clarke as the sweaty, grief-stricken Louis. But eventually, I think that a plot-dispensing machine is not an effective way to convey the heavy theme that you eloquently identified: "At what point do we trade our morality and honesty to preserve a sense of normalcy and safety?"

Unlike King's novel, which is about the unsparing nature of our malignantly indifferent universe, this Pet Sematary is about how us little people deal with the knowledge that we are subject to myriad little heartbreaks and mortal perils. So the Creeds (the audience's surrogates) compartmentalize their feelings until they are all literally monstrous — save for their neighbor Jud, who's impenetrable, but thoughtful enough (look at him puff on his cigarette: now there's a thinkin' man). 

I'm still torn about the new Pet Sematary because it's not smarter than its predecessors, just neater. The more I think about it, the less I like the insinuating tone of this film, not to mention the way its creators pile on a lot of little differences that build up to a jumped-up Tales From the Crypt-style conclusion. Maybe I'll feel differently later on, but for now: I guess this man's heart is stonier, too.