Pet Sematary: Sometimes Dead is Better

I’m going to do something with this post that I have never done before, which is that I’m going to start with a disclaimer. Pet Sematary deals with some very intense and sensitive topics, so if you have trouble with discussion of pets and/or children dying, or if you’ve maybe lost a loved one recently, you might not want to read this. If you do decide to read this, strap in: things are going to get dark.

I’m going to be looking at the book itself and both of its film adaptations, and there will be spoilers for all three. Dark, gruesome stuff lies ahead. You have been warned.

Pet Sematary is the book that Stephen King, the Master of Horror himself, thought was too dark and disturbing to publish. He has stated that of all the books he’s written, Pet Sematary is the one that scared him the most. King put it away in a drawer after he finished it, thinking he had gone too far with the subject matter. The only reason King published it was because he switched publishers at one point, but he still owed a book to his previous publisher and Pet Sematary was the book he had.

The plot itself is straightforward. Louis Creed is a doctor from Chicago who has accepted a job at the University of Maine as the director of campus health service. His family consists of his wife Rachel, daughter Ellie, and son Gage, along with Ellie’s cat Church. Ellie is eight or nine, Gage is around two. Upon their arrival in the small town of Ludlow, Maine, they meet their new neighbor, elderly Jud Crandall. Jud warns the Creeds to be careful around the highway that runs past their house, since it is regularly used by speeding semi-trucks.

Jud shows them a pet cemetery in the woods behind their house (the sign is misspelled because it was written by children) where the town’s children bury their deceased animals, many of whom fall victim to the semi-trucks. There is a large pile of dead and broken tree trunks and limbs nearby, which Jud is reluctant to discuss. The pet cemetery leads to an argument between Louis and Rachel on the subject of how to discuss death with their children. Louis favors a practical approach, whereas Rachel doesn’t want to acknowledge the topic of death at all. This is because she is deeply traumatized by the death of her sister Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis that twisted and contorted her body. When Zelda died, young Rachel was alone in the house with her, so she holds herself partly responsible for her sister’s death.

Later, Louis is by himself during Thanksgiving (Rachel and the kids are spending the holiday with Rachel’s parents, who have never liked Louis) when Jud tells Louis some bad news: Ellie’s cat Church has been hit and killed by a semi-truck. Louis knows that Ellie will be heartbroken and struggles with how to break the news to her. Since Louis and Jud have become good friends, Jud offers to accompany Lewis to the pet cemetery to bury Church. But once they get there, Jud leads Louis over the deadfall behind the cemetery, and they go to an ancient Indian burial ground, where he instructs Louis to bury Church.

Louis thinks that’s the end of it…until the next day, when Church comes back. Louis tries to rationalize this, thinking that Church wasn’t actually dead, but it’s apparent that Church is not the same. He’s aggressive and mean, he hunts animals more frequently and tears them apart without eating them, his fur is matted and filthy, and he stinks so badly that Ellie doesn’t want him in her room anymore.

A few months later, every parent’s nightmare happens: 2-year-old Gage is killed by one of the speeding trucks. Torn apart by grief, and despite Jud’s dire warnings that “Sometimes dead is better” (the book and film’s most famous line), Louis does the unthinkable: he exhumes the body of his dead son and buries him in the Indian burial ground.

Inevitably, Gage returns. He is demonic and vicious, and brutally murders Jud and Rachel with one of his father’s surgical scalpels. Louis puts him down for good with an injection of chemicals. Desperately thinking that the results will be different if he doesn’t wait as long to bury her, Louis buries Rachel in the cursed burial ground.

At the end of the novel, Louis sits in his home, a broken man. As he glumly plays solitaire and waits, a cold hand drops on his shoulder and his wife’s voice rasps a single word: “Darling.”

Chilling.

Reading the book is like being in a roller coaster heading into a pit full of spikes. You know something terrible is going to happen at the end, but you are powerless to do anything about it. Perhaps more than any book I’ve ever read, Pet Sematary has this incredible sense of irresistible forward momentum. You know Louis is making a terrible mistake, and you get the sense he knows it too. The rational part of you wants to start yelling at the book to make the character stop what he’s doing because it’s all going to end tragically…

…but at the same time, the emotional part of you understands.

Of course this man wants to see his son again.

Of course he wants to heal his family.

Two years old is far too early for a person to die.

This is the unanswerable dilemma posed by Pet Sematary. Does Louis do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does he think he’s doing the right thing? Does he deserve what happens to him and his family as a result of his decision to resurrect Gage? What would be worse: losing someone you love, or losing someone you love only for them to come back and not be the same? And perhaps the most haunting question of all, what would you do in his situation? Even knowing what you’re doing is wrong, would you be able to stop yourself?

The true horror of Pet Sematary isn’t the resurrected, murderous toddler, which doesn’t even happen until the last fifty or so pages of the book. That would be horrific enough on its own, but what’s far more disturbing about Pet Sematary is its ruminations on the subject of death, and why people are so afraid of it. Losing a loved one is terrible, but having them come back and not be the same would be even worse. Pet Sematary is more about dealing with loss and tragedy and learning how to move on with your life than it is about defending yourself from a murderous toddler. Stephen King paints a compelling and deeply harrowing portrait of a family enduring a terrible loss, only to have something even worse happen as a result.

It’s easy to hate Louis Creed, but there is no real villain in this story. Or, conversely, a compelling argument could be made that everyone is a villain. Jud shows Louis the burial ground and plants the idea of resurrecting Gage in his head. Rachel’s inability to talk about death leads to Louis burying Church in the cursed burial ground. Louis exhumes his dead son and reburies him, knowing what will probably happen. And of course Gage, brought back from the dead only to brutally murder a nice old man and his own mother.

Who’s the villain here?

Everyone, and no one.

Pet Sematary was initially brought to the screen in 1989, six years after the book was first published. The movie is very faithful to the novel, which could partly be because Stephen King himself wrote the screenplay. The movie was directed by Mary Lambert and starred Dale Midkiff as Louis, Denise Crosby as Rachel, and Fred Gwynne as Jud.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Gwynne, known as Herman Munster from The Munsters, easily gives the movie’s best performance. In his books, King is (at times overly) fond of writing dialogue in regional dialects. One of his favorite expressions is “Ayuh,” and there are “Ayuh”s aplenty both in the book and in the 1989 film. I won’t lie, King’s frequent use of dialect in his books is one of my least favorite things about him as a writer, I love his books but the parts written in dialect can be tiresome.

This actually translates well to the screen. I didn’t mind it so much because it felt more natural coming from an actual person than it did reading it on the page. Gwynne was in his 50’s when the movie was released, but he looks much older. I was surprised to discover that he was only 66 when he died in 1993. He gives a tremendously convincing performance as Jud, and his grisly death at the hands of the undead Gage is, for me, the movie’s most horrific scene.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie’s acting isn’t as good. Dale Midkiff as Louis gives one of the flattest performances I’ve ever seen in a movie, he has no charisma at all. His portrayal of Louis is as flat as a pancake. You know it’s not a great sign when a movie’s lead actor gets out-acted by a three-year-old, as Midkiff does here. Gage was played by Miko Hughes, who was pretty much the cutest kid you’ve ever seen, making his murder spree all the more disturbing.

The problem is that, while the idea of someone’s dead child coming back to murderous life is a horrifically disturbing idea that is chilling to read in a book, its translation to the screen is…a mixed bag. Watching a man battle his murderous undead offspring is horrifying, but it’s also a bit silly. Reading it may be scary but actually seeing it is equal parts scary and ridiculous. Reading the book makes it easier to suspend your disbelief.

Which brings us to the new version of the movie. The 2019 movie stars Jason Clarke as Louis, Amy Seimetz as Rachel, and John Lithgow as Jud. The new movie follows the same general plot structure with one key difference, sadly given away by the film’s trailers: in this version, it’s not Gage but Ellie who is hit by a truck and brought back to murderous life. This is a change that angered some fans of the original, but I like it. It puts a fresh spin on the material and keeps it from feeling like the exact same story. And since Ellie is older than Gage, it gives the viewer a chance to get to know her more as a person, which gives her death and resurrection more emotional weight.

Ellie is played by a young actress named Jete Laurence, and she deserves a lot of credit for what is probably the best performance in the movie. She makes Ellie inquisitive and likable, without ever being shrill or annoying. And when she later goes full psycho and begins her murder spree, Laurence’s performance is chilling and believable. Watching a 9-year-old girl repeatedly stab her mother with a kitchen knife is one of the nastier things I’ve seen on a movie screen in quite some time. An evil 9-year-old is also more plausible onscreen than an evil 3-year-old.

The movie also gets a lot of mileage out of the body horror aspects of Rachel’s sister Zelda. The Zelda scenes in the original movie were unsettling, but the Zelda scenes in the new movie are far more horrific, and provide some of the most effective scares. Old-school fans of the original movie will probably disagree, but I think the new movie is better than the original in almost every way: the acting is (mostly) better, it’s more atmospheric, it ramps up the gore, and most importantly it’s much scarier.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t have flaws. The relationship between Jud and Louis could have used a bit more detail, and there are a few intriguing ideas that don’t go anywhere. One of the scenes that featured prominently in the movie’s trailers was of a procession of children, wearing animal masks and slowly beating a drum, pushing a dead dog in a wheelbarrow in the woods towards the pet cemetery.

It’s a creepy image that presents all sorts of intriguing possibilities: do the kids know about the burial ground that will bring things back to life? How much does the rest of the town know? Could the kids themselves have been resurrected there? Unfortunately, the image is there and then gone, and ultimately only serves to provide Ellie with a creepy animal mask she wears during her murderous rampage. It’s a spooky early scene that doesn’t end up serving the plot in a meaningful way, and feels like a missed opportunity.

One thing both movies really nail is the ending. The original movie’s ending is much closer to the book’s ending, with Louis embracing his grotesquely reanimated wife before she picks up a knife off the table and the screen cuts to black as Louis screams. The new movie ends with Ellie, Rachel and Louis all being killed and resurrected as murderous versions of their former selves, with the strong implication that cute little Gage will be next. Both versions are chilling.

Pet Sematary is one of Stephen King’s darkest stories. It’s also one of my favorites of his books that I’ve read. I don’t know if I could ever read it or watch either movie again, since the experience took me to some very dark places. Pet Sematary is a story about death. It’s a story about a very nice family who has unspeakable things happen to them. It lets the reader/viewer decide for themselves who they think the villain is. It’s a story with a lot of ambiguity, it doesn’t offer any easy answers and the ending of every version of the story offers no encouragement.

It’s a difficult and astonishingly dark piece of fiction, and it’s not hard to see why Stephen King himself is a little scared of it. Pet Sematary is a story that forces you to come to the inevitable conclusion that no matter how painful it is, sometimes dead is indeed better.

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