Pet Sematary was the first Stephen King book I ever read. Ok, sure, technically it was Richard Bachman’s The Long Walk, but this was the first novel I had with King’s real name emblazoned on the cover, one of his most famous titles staring back at me as I dipped my toes into the pool called Literary Horror: Maine Style.
Luckily, if King’s prose got away from my 7th-grade comprehension, I had Mary Lambert’s flawed but reliable 1989 film adaptation for added context. In retrospect, Lambert’s version would prove to be far more faithful to King’s source material than Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new reimagining of Kings familial tragedy of killer kids and creepy cats — for better, or for worse. Their reinventions are most evident in the film’s third act, the grand finale pitting the Creed patriarch Louis against the supernatural forces of the cemetery’s soured ground.
One thing I did on that initial Junior High read was to see what happened on the final page of the book. Nasty habit, sure, but I’ll chalk it up to a pernicious curiosity and King’s power to stoke palpable anxiety for his characters. So here I give you the same opportunity, to metaphorically flip to the end of this new big screen adaptation to see how things unfurl with King’s seminal tale in 2019. But as always be forewarned, dear reader: here there be spoilers.
The first seventy minutes of Pet Sematary play out very similar to the original novel and film. The Creed family, Louis (Jason Clarke) with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and two children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move from a bustling metropolis (Chicago in the source material) to rural Ludlow, Maine to get Louis off a hospital graveyard shift (one of many sly references to King’s oeuvre) so he can spend more time with the fam.
But before he knows it his world is rocked by a sudden rash of deaths. First the violent fatality of student Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) on the college campus Louis works as a doctor, who later visits him in phantasmagorical visions warning of broken barriers between our world and that of the unknown. Then the families Maine Coon Church is rundown on the country road bedeviled by speed demons in front of their house, becoming the first burial in the namesake spooky cemetery. These accidents culminate in the shocking death of the Creed’s nine-year-old daughter Ellie, struck by a speeding semi-truck. This is the first, and biggest, divergence from King’s original novel in which the youngest son Gage is the one who dies in this auto accident.
Naturally, as you do, Louis decides to send his grieving family away so that he can do what any rational father would: exhume the corpse of his dead daughter to resurrect her in the accursed cemetery. She’ll be fine, right?
Wrong. The revived Ellie is transformed. The unheavenly forces that soiled the cemetery earth chew up and spit out whoever is entombed there. It happened to Jud Crandall’s (John Lithgow) dog Biffer, it possessed Church, and now it’s taken Ellie. She’s consumed so much by the pain of her rebirth that she enacts cruel revenge on the remaining Creed’s and their neighbor Jud, who she scalpels to death in one of the films many self-aware references to Lambert’s original.
Rachel and Gage return home just in time for a macabre family reunion with Evil Ellie, who takes no time continuing her spree of murder by stabbing Rachel in the side while Louis checks on their newly-deceased neighbor. Barricading themselves in an adjacent room, Louis returns home just in time to grab Gage from Rachel who drops him from a second story window, only to be stabbed in the back by her daughter. “I’m not your mommy,” Rachel says, her breathing pained. “My daughter died.” Ellie growls, “Then go be with her!” before plunging the knife a final time.
Louis safely locks Gage in their car, bemusedly telling the three-year-old, “Don’t open the door for anyone but us”, before rushing to his dying wife’s aid. With her last breath, she tells him “Don’t bury me up there.” As the wisp of The Ramones titular song tinkles in our memory, Louis is met with a chair to the back of the skull by his undead daughter.
Cut to a dreamy haze as Evil Ellie is seen dragging Rachel’s dead body through the familiar dark shadows of the hallowed cemetery. Here we have the second biggest divergence in King’s novel: Ellie is now purposefully burying her mother to start a new undead family, rather than the grief-stricken Louis, at wit’s end, burying his wife because he simply finds no other options to move forward in his crumbled life.
Louis eventually comes to and makes a beeline to the burial ground for a final confrontation with his daughter. Finally forced to do the unthinkable — lop his daughters head off with a shovel — Louis tries to make amends with the heavens for his actions. “I thought we could be a family again!”. Evil Ellie smiles up at him from the cemetery floor, “But we can be daddy!” Louis is then abruptly pierced through the chest from behind by the reanimated Rachel. Guess who is getting buried in the cemetery next!
We’re now brought full circle to the in medias res opening with the burning deadfall of the cemetery and Jud’s house ablaze, as the newly undead family (with Church in tow) approach the sole living member of the Creed Clan, Gage, still safely locked in the family SUV. We hear the familiar click of a car door opening before the screen cuts to black and a cover version of The Ramones Pet Sematary blares over the speakers. Nice job, Gage.
In a sense, Louis got what he always wanted when he buried Ellie in the pet cemetery. They are a family again, albeit a much more zombified one. This new revisionist ending leaves its audience with a strange sense of ghastly optimism. That perhaps the rapprochement Louis and Rachel so desired for their family they now can have. They just had to trade their souls, and their children, for it.
This is a reimagining through and through, giving us what could have happened in the pages after Kings final chapter. You wouldn’t be remiss to consider this new ending like high-quality Stephen King fanfic, written by Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) and Matt Greenberg (1408). Is this a better ending than Kings book, faithfully recreated in Lambert’s film? That’s not for me to say. Can’t one like both apples and oranges equally?
Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny Kölsch and Widmyer have made this story their own, imbuing it with a visual style and aural flair that the original film sorely lacked. And while it may not be Kings story to a T, we should appreciate that these creative filmmakers decided to do something different, rather than merely rehashing a story that’s been famously told before.
But if anything, I think we can all agree on one thing: the cats playing Church once again prove we need an Oscar for Best Animal Performance.