Two great things were birthed and released into the world in 1989: me and Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary. Stephen King, who wrote the book the film is adapted from and who also wrote the original screenplay, still considers it his most frightening story: “Put simply, I was horrified by what I had written, and the conclusions I’d drawn.” But what had King written that was so horrifying? What conclusions did he and the viewers make that chilled them to the bone?
If you ask the writing and directing team of the 2019 remake, you’d likely get a very different answer than from those involved in the original film. For them, horror comes from exhaustive jump scares, blaring truck horns, and demonic little girls returned from the dead. For King and Lambert, however, the horror lies much deeper than the surface-level scares of the newest release, and this fundamental misinterpretation of what makes Pet Sematary horrifying is why I believe the 2019 version is a bad remake.
To be clear, I don’t think that the changes between the original and the remake are what make it bad. The changes made in the 2019 version could’ve made for a new and interesting take on the story, the key word here being new. What the filmmakers did instead was fit new changes into an old box, assuming that the major changes to the script would not drastically alter the story and its themes. These changes did, of course, significantly alter the tone and themes of the film. Where my problem lies is in the filmmakers seemingly not realizing this and coming off as making the changes just for the sake of doing it, rather than making them to enhance a new twist on the story.
I’m going to break this discussion down into the three major areas that bothered me the most with the remake: tone, characters, and overall theme. To begin, we know that directors Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer really know how to create an atmosphere for a great horror movie because they did it in Starry Eyes (2014). Knowing how well this duo nailed the eerie, uncomfortable atmosphere of Starry Eyes is perhaps why I’m even more let down by how they dropped the ball in Pet Sematary.
Starry Eyes is nuanced and smart, whereas Pet Sematary relies on two horror tropes that I absolutely hate – unnecessary jump scares and including things for the aesthetic rather than the story. My working title for this article was “Truck Jumpscares: The Movie” because of how many times this cheap effect had me rolling my eyes while watching the movie. It worked well the first time, as a truck screams past Rachel and Gage as they stand outside of their new house, but by the third time it happened I was getting annoyed.
I also had a hard time with the opening procession, where a group of children in creepy animal masks transport their dead dog in a wheelbarrow past the Creed family to the Pet Sematary. Sure, it looked creepy and cool in the trailers, but once I got to the actual movie it left me wondering what was the point? We never really have a reference to these people or ceremonies again, outside of Ellie donning one of the animal masks during the climax of the film. What we are left with is interesting visuals with no narrative purpose.
These two horror tropes shift the tone of the movie significantly for me and take away the slow-burn sense of dread that I love so much in the original. These tonal changes also were the first sign that the new team behind the film may not completely understand what made the original so effective as a horror film in the first place, which is something I will circle back to when I talk about the thematic missteps.
Before getting to theme, however, we need to talk about the characters. We all can admit that the actors in the original are far from being the greatest actors of all time, but it was a perfect storm when they got together, a fact made even more apparent by the remake. Say what you want about Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, and Denise Crosby, but no one can deny that their chemistry is some of the best we’ve ever seen in the horror genre. Their characters and relationships feel real and lived in, which made it much more impactful when bad things happened to them. The audience genuinely feels real emotion from and for these characters.
The remake has some wonderful actors in Jason Clarke and John Lithgow, but what it makes up in acting talent it loses in emotional weight and connection. I can honestly say that I didn’t care about anything that happened to anyone in the 2019 film. By the end of the movie I was just watching for watching’s sake, I had no emotional investment in the characters or their outcomes and I didn’t feel like anything they were going through was genuine.
The original, on the other hand, is a movie I still think about all the time. I think about how it affected me, about what it taught me and how it made me feel, whereas the remake I forgot about before it was even over. Admittedly, this has lots to do with the script and the changes made to the characters by the new creative team and less to do with the actors’ talent.
In the original, we learn about these characters the way you’d get to know someone in real life as we gradually come to understand why they are the way they are. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) and Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) disagree on issues but still have a loving and supportive marriage. Ellie Creed (Blaze Berdahl) sleeps with her beloved cat Church and worries about him when she is away. The Creed family has a budding friendship with Jud (Fred Gwynne) that feels natural and genuine, and we don’t learn about what is up with Rachel shielding her children from the concept of death until exactly the right time.
In the remake, none of the Creeds even seem like they like each other at all, and we learn too much too fast through expositional dialogue rather than through their actions and decisions on screen. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Church barely share any screen time at all before his untimely death, a fact that causes confusion as to why Jud (John Lithgow) feels so compelled to bring Louis (Jason Clarke) to the burial grounds.
There is no question in the original that Jud would introduce Louis to the burial site, as the film spends ample time establishing that Ellie loves Church, that Louis loves Ellie, and that Jud is aware of these deep connections. We, as the audience, know that Ellie doesn’t fully understand death and that Louis and Jud are acting in what they think are her best interests when they bury Church without telling her. In the remake, the pace rushes us past all of this character and relationship building to the moment of Church’s death and expects us to make these same conclusions without doing any of the work.
In an even worse character mishandling, Louis continually pressures Rachel (Amy Seimetz) to deal with her repressed trauma, forcing the Zelda storyline down the audience’s throats and turning one of the best characters in the original into a cheesy throwaway. In the 1989 film, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek) is revealed to the audience a decent way into the film as we finally come to understand why Rachel has issues with the concept of death and why she is trying to shield her children from something that scarred her deeply. It is a reveal that feels earned and impactful, whereas the 2019 version uses Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) to up the scare factor, turning Rachel’s trauma into an excuse for jarring body horror and jump scares.
This is where we come back to the theme and how I believe the creators of the new film miss the mark and the point of the original Pet Sematary. The pet sematary itself, the burial ground, the Wendigo, and all of the death and gore is not what horrifies me and is not what I imagine still horrifies King. What is horrifying about Pet Sematary is how human of a story it is, how it deals with grief and trauma and makes us question our own sanity while watching it.
Whereas the original took these subtle themes and made them crawl under your skin and stay there for years to come, the remake boasts like it understands them while simultaneously getting it completely wrong. The remake goes full exposition, shoving the themes of death and grief into the audience’s faces without connecting them to the narrative. It relies too heavily on the Sematary, resurrections, and the Wendigo to create all of the fear and forgets that true fear does not come from surface-level scares but comes from within us.
In the remake, Louis becomes a deranged narcissist motivated by feelings and emotions that I can’t relate to, which ends with me feeling distant from his character and not able to empathize with him or imagine myself in his shoes. The Louis of 1989 is a completely different character who, yes, slips into a state of absolute insanity, but who we can still picture ourselves becoming. When Louis buries his family in the ground, he is not only feeding the Wendigo with their souls but feeding himself. Louis and the Wendigo become one and the same, and work towards the same goal, albeit in different ways and for different motivations.
When you finish the original film, you are left with an uneasy feeling not only because of the dead children or the supernatural elements of the story but because you have to ask yourself the question: would I do the same? If I could bring back a loved one from the dead, would I? Even if I knew it would likely change them? Would I, even after being forced to put down a beloved family member after resurrecting them, still have hope that it would work with the next person?
These are the horrifying questions and conclusions that King brings to life in his book and the original film, and the questions and conclusions that the remake completely forgets to address at all. Instead of an ending filled with grief, hope, misery, and dread, the remake leaves us with a stale ending that completely lacks any emotional impact and fails to leave a lasting impression. It forgets that little dead girls don’t scare us as much as the thought of losing a loved one and what we would sacrifice to get them back.
In the end, I can summarize the differences between the films using two quotes. The line, “sometimes dead is better,” is typically considered to be the most iconic line in the film and is one the remake uses as its tagline. But for me, the line that always stood out from the original is Jud’s advice that “fixed cats don’t tend to wander.” Although the advice doesn’t work out for Church, I don’t think it was really meant for him in the first place. The lesson from this line is what I believe the moral of the film to be, that we need to find groundedness and happiness in our situation and not attempt to change fate.
As King says himself in the Preface to the novel, Pet Sematary “suggests that in the end, we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe,” by loving the people who are with us, when they are with us, rather than be doomed to make dangerous decisions once they are gone. Sometimes, dead is better when you remember what it means to be alive.