As September 8th quickly approaches with a new version of Stephen King’s epic horror tome, IT clenched in its pincers, I’ve been revisiting other adaptations of “Uncle Stevie’s” catalogue that could benefit from getting a second cinematic translation.
While some King adaptations stand on their own as outstanding (or at the very least, interesting) pieces of cinema, others are dated, disconnected, and downright disastrous. Oddly enough, one King film seems to be all these things at once, and that film is 1989’s Pet Sematary.
For the uninitiated, here’s the setup…
Both versions of Pet Sematary tell the story of Dr. Louis Creed, his wife, Rachel and their children, Ellie and Gage. The Creed clan moves from their home in Chicago to a small town in – you guessed it – Maine when Louis is offered a job at a state university, a decision he’d soon regret. Work is tough on Louis and the location of the family’s new home is less than desirable. Things get increasingly worse for them when they discover an ancient Micmac burial ground that brings dead things back to life.
Now let’s talk about the source material…
Stephen King’s 1983 novel is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. That’s not hyperbole; that’s fact. Dread drips from every page as the reader follows Louis Creed’s obsession over his inability to accept the mortality of his loved ones. He does everything within his power to cheat death as if the Hippocratic Oath extends beyond the grave.
The first to fall victim to Louis’ slow descent into madness is Church, the Creed family’s pet cat. Church is laid to rest in the burial ground and returns as a shell of his former self. The resurrected Church is mean. He’s no longer playful. He stinks. And as if a pissy, smelly zombie cat isn’t a huge red flag, Louis decides to bury his son in the same soil after he is run over by one of the many 18-wheelers that speed by their home.
As awful as all that sounds, somehow the novel finds a way to make things worse.
But Pet Sematary’s real source of horror is found in the ancient spiritual entity that stalks the gravesite and its surrounding area, a malevolent being known in Native American folklore as a Wendigo. While rarely explicit on the page, the force of this spirit is omnipresent throughout the novel and plays into the larger King Universe in later books.
Both the tangible and intangible terrors that fill the pages of Pet Sematary slowly build to one of the creepiest final pages of any horror novel ever written. It’s a fantastic macabre yarn that is still effective nearly 35 years after its release.
But in the 1989 film adaption, some things work while others…not so much…
From a screenplay by King himself, Mary Lambert (Urban Legends: Bloody Mary) directs a stripped-down version of the novel. All the major story beats are there, and most of the visceral horror elements are intact, making is a pretty effective little horror film that is widely considered one of the better King adaptations. When I saw Pet Sematary as a kid (before I read the novel), it scared the shit out of me (especially the Zelda scenes). But upon watching it as an adult, there were diminishing returns (except for those Zelda scenes; they’re still creepy).
The problems with Pet Sematary are manifold, but there are two key issues that hinder it from having any real longevity. The first is how the film looks. Pet Sematary is a product of its time, which is to say it looks a lot like other late ‘80s/early ‘90s horror films. There’s a direct-to-video quality to its composition, and while some of the production design is great (the burial site is fantastically realized), many of the shots and transitions look like they belong on primetime television and not amulti-millionn dollar theatrical release.
The other issue is how the film pretty much ignores any of the spiritual elements from the novel. There is no sense of ominous terror in the film. We get the gore and the shocks and the resurrection and that’s about it, which ultimately should be enough to appease book-readers (and it almost is).
At the end of the day, I don’t dislike Pet Sematary. There are some great horror moments that have been burned into my psyche and some solid performances (except King’s weird obligatory cameo) to admire. But it says something about the strength of the novel when I can read it after already watching the film and being privy to the demise of key characters and find myself still getting creeped out by what’s happening on the page.
So, what next?
Pet Sematary has a timeless sense of place and horror. There are a plethora of talented filmmakers who could bring this story to a new generation of film-goers – in fact, IT director Andy Muschietti just recently expressed interest. But my top pick? Give it to Robert Eggers (The Witch). That dude understands the importance of atmosphere and the sense of place in a communal horror story. I think he could easily realize a film adaptation that would treat the burial ground as its own character, which was completely lacking from the first film.
Also, his version of Zelda would probably fuck me up for life.