Filming Pet Sematary has always proven more of a challenge than filming King’s other books. For one thing, it has some the eeriest and most unsettling sequences of any of his books – sequences that are so disturbing on the page that it seems they could only be diluted by being translated to the big screen. For another thing, it’s King’s most personal and autobiographical novel, based very closely on his experiences as a writer and parent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like the 1989 film by Mary Lambert, Kevin Kolsch and Denis Widmyer’s adaptation seems to acknowledge, from the outset, that this is King’s most difficult book to film, much as screenwriter Jeff Buhler retains the broad outlines of the novel, but opts for a more oblique and unusual approach, particularly during the third act.
Like the book, Pet Sematary revolves around a family who relocate to rural Maine, where they purchase a house by the side of a backroad heavily frequented by trucking companies. While Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has spearheaded the move to get his sense of self back on track, and restore his relationship with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), he quickly finds himself drawn to Jud Crandell (John Lithgow), their unusual neighbour, along with a sign to a “Pet Sematary” behind their house. Jud explains to Louis that the predominance of trucks along their road means that pets are often injured or killed, especially since the road is quiet most of the time, and so lulls local animals into a false sense of security. As a result, local children constructed a cemetery for these pets in the woods behind Louis’ house, although it quickly emerges that this is no normal cemetery. The first glimmerings of the supernatural come when Louis seems some local children, dressed in animal masks, performing what appears to be a ritual or pageant on their way to the cemetery. It’s only a matter of time before Jud takes him to the cemetery, and reveals that anything buried there comes back to life, but in an evil form. This is eerie enough when Louis buries the family cat there after it perishes in a car accident, but takes on more sinister overtones when Louis buries his daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) in the cemetery after she runs out in front of a truck and dies.
At first, the pacing of Pet Sematary feels a bit off, since the creepiness and strangeness seems to arrive too suddenly. The house feels haunted from the moment that the Creeds arrive, and the gloom that creeps in gradually over Mary Lambert’s version is here, fully-formed, from the very first scene. Bringing the darkness of the woods inside immediately, the directors discard the Maine pastoral element that is juxtaposed to that darkness in the original book, and which makes that darkness so unsettling and surprising by comparison. At one point, the Creeds’ son Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) sports a Maine T-shirt, but this feels compensatory – an insistence that we are still within King’s Maine despite the erosion of any clear sense of place or atmosphere from the film’s mise-en-scenes. In other words, Pet Sematary really taps into the sombreness of the novel, sometimes to the point of being monotone in its opening scenes, until the destruction of this family feels like a fait accompli, removing the emotional pull and appeal of King’s novel.
In that sense, Pet Sematary belongs alongside releases like A Quiet Place, It Comes At Night, Hereditary and The Haunting of Hill House – films that all register a crisis in how the nuclear family is understood in horror cinema and television. All of these releases present the nuclear family as inherently morbid, traumatic and haunted by lost futures, both individually and collectively. More specifically, however, all of these releases present the nuclear family as devoid of the “others” or points of difference that once defined and sustained it. As the definition of the family has expanded and elasticized, and the various tropes of difference have been exhausted and domesticated, it has become harder and harder for horror films to convincingly evoke a world that is “outside” the nuclear family, or an enemy that the nuclear family has to define itself against in order to survive. For that reason, there’s something cursory about the supernatural threat in Pet Sematary, just as there’s something cursory about the cemetery itself, which never exudes the terror of the novel or original film.
For that reason, Kolsch and Widmyer are relatively disinterested in the threshold between the cemetery and the house – and the path to the cemetery – that plays such a role in King’s vision. Concomitantly, the house doesn’t exude the same sense of being poised between the backroad and the woods, since its spaces and situations are already saturated with the darkness of the woods and the bleakness of the backroad to begin with. While the directors make a half-hearted effort to reinvest the cemetery with terror through the masked pageant, this part of the film doesn’t really go anywhere, since we never see any of these children after the first scene, and don’t learn anything more about their ritual. To a certain extent, Kolsch and Widmyer compensate by taking the threshold between the house and the cemetery and internalizing it into a principle of the cemetery itself. Unlike in the original, the cemetery here is a series of discrete spaces, including a pond of bones, a mountain of dirt, and a clearing of fog. Yet these zones also work against the very spatial thresholds they are designed to reiterate, abstracting space itself until the centre of the cemetery feels more notional than physical. As the nadir of the film’s gloomy texture, it is impossible to process on its own terms, and bears no relation to the world left behind by it.
In other words, the passage into the cemetery feels like a devolution of space, rather than the passage into a new space, evoking a situation in which the thresholds between the suburban family and its other no longer properly exists. What that reveals, however, is that the suburban family has to define itself against an outside, or an other, if only by internalizing that other, producing a strange situation in which the Creed family becomes their own other, and their own point of difference, as if to suggest that suburban horror was obsessed with the alterity and antisociality of the nuclear family all along. Hence the odd spatial scheme of the film, in which there is no clear collapse of inside or outside, just because there is no clear distinction between inside and outside to begin with. Similarly, there is no clear collapse of cemetery, woods, house and highway, just because these four space are already converged on an aspatial gloom to begin with. It is as if Pet Sematary were a spirit in sequel, starting where the original film ends, and generating its own horror from the fact that the usual mechanisms for identifying where horror should be have now waned.
The film thus doesn’t progress so much as settle into the dusky gloom of this family, and is driven by drabness, dourness and deep depression as much as conventional horror. Rather than trying to protect his children from the idea of death, as occurs in the original, Creed is now trying to protect his family from a morbidity that is already inherent to it. Paradoxically, that means that he has to embrace the morbidity of his family to prevent that morbidity overtaking his family, clarifying that death is the ultimate other for the nuclear family, but that the nuclear family is also itself a form of death, at least in the formation that King offers. With the film unable to other death through points of difference to the nuclear family, death becomes a driving force of the family, and integral to the family’s structure. In fact, part of what makes Pet Sematary so eerie is that this family appears to have effectively removed themselves from any point of difference, retreating so far into the woods that they only have themselves as a point of reference. In a brilliant twist on white isolationism, however, it turns out that they have retreated too far, removing themselves so much that their own need for an other, and for a point of difference, is now the main source of horror.
To that end, Kolsch and Widmyer downplay the American Indian angle of the original film. In this version, the local indigenous population left the area because of the energy of the cemetery, rather than producing or enhancing that energy themselves. In other words, the local indigenous population have evacuated the landscape as a point of difference, and have removed themselves as a convenient object for the family to define themselves against. Watching it, I realized how often the “strangeness” of the American landscape to white settlers is both intensified and assuaged by the implied presence of American Indians, who can embody and contain this strangeness enough for it to be a functional point of difference. Paradoxically, this implied presence depends upon the actual absence of American Indians – or, rather, the recent presence of American Indians, albeit without any real impact upon the landscape as it currently stands. By contrast, American Indians are radically absent in Pet Sematary, removed as a figurative as well as a literal possibility, and so challenging the family with a difference they can’t easily differentiate from themselves.
This need for a missing point of difference is perhaps most eloquent in the way in which Kolsch and Widmyer address the role of pets and animals within the nuclear family structure. On the one hand, pets function as a reminder of death in the film, and the first living thing to be put in the cemetery is indeed a pet. On the other hand, pets also suggest a radical continuity that has no interest in the continuity of the nuclear family, even or especially as the continuity of pets, and the broader lifeworld they represent, is often embedded at the heart and hearth of the nuclear family. While pets may be needed, in many cases, for parents to explain concepts of life and death to their children, pets are often more than capable of surviving their human family, and indifferent to surviving their human family. More than any film I’ve recently seen, Pet Sematary captures this strangeness, ensuring that when the Creeds’ cat “returns” from the cemetery in a demonic form, it doesn’t transform its valency within the family structure, as occurs in the original novel, but instead intensifies its ambivalent relation to the family structure, especially since Kolsch and Widmyer opt for a much more gradual devolution into “evil” when it returns.
Paradoxically and perversely, that also means that the death of Ellie, and the “return” of Ellie after Louis buries her in the cemetery, is almost welcome, since it means that the Creeds can internalize the awareness of otherness they need to survive. Rather than the returned child simply being creepy, as occurs in the original film, Ellie here evinces an intensified normality that is even eerier, especially because it engenders an intensified normality from the rest of the family in turn. Louis’ voice is never so convincing, or so warm, as when he is trying to convince Ellie that she’s not really dead, or that her death doesn’t really matter to him. Not surprisingly, the directors devote much more time to Louis alone in the house with his returned child than occurs in either the book or the original film, suggesting a much more fluid spectrum between the living and returned versions of Ellie, until she feels more present, and more alive, if also more evil, in this returned incarnation.
The problem with this version of Ellie is that, like a pet, her undeadness also suggests a continuity that exceeds Louis’ familial and fatherly purview. At first, this causes him and Rachel despair, until they both come up with the idea to kill each other off in the cemetery, and to allow the death they originally defined themselves against to become a part of their family – or to become their family. Finally, this takes them to a place “beyond” the Pet Sematary, before they return from that “beyond” for the final scene of the film, which sees them stalking towards Gage, the only living family member left, as he waits for them in the car. Gage was the child to die in the novel and in the first film, but in an eerie symmetry the evil forces now taking him are his own family. The directors cut to the credits before we learn if the family are planning to kill Gage, or simply get in the car with him and continue their regular life, but the point of the film is that these two options are really the same option, and that the otherness of suburban horror was that of the nuclear family all along.
Watching these final scenes, I was reminded of Bryan Bertino’s film The Strangers, which was released in 2008. In retrospect, this release, which deals with a home invasion, now feels like precursor to the wave of suburban horror that Pet Sematary typifies. The film starts with a sombre drive home after Kristen McKay, played by Liv Tyler, has rejected a marriage proposal from James Hoyt, played by Scott Speedman. While Kristen loves James, and cares deeply about him, something about their rapport doesn’t work for marriage, homeowning or the demands of a nuclear family. Into that fractured space comes a collection of home invaders who aren’t a threat to the nuclear family, since this relationship is already on the rocks, but who are a makeshift nuclear family themselves – a father, mother and children who move from house to house, killing homeowners simply “because they were home.” By the end of Pet Sematary, the Creeds feel like these “Strangers” – figures who were once used to reiterate fears about the family, but who over the course of suburban horror have revealed that the family itself is stranger than what it initially seemed; a force of antisociality, or asociality, whose very capacity to generate horror has waned, and whose horror is elegized as much as it is exemplified by this sombre and eerie adaptation.