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Revisiting Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY

On the long list of forthcoming Stephen King remakes, PET SEMATARY ranks near the very top.   The 1983 novel is a fan favorite that outsold all of the author’s previous books, and the 1989 film adaptation outgrossed all previous King movies—which is ironic, because King initially didn’t want to publish the book and nobody in Hollywood wanted to make the movie.

How times have changed.  In late 2013, Variety announced that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 WEEKS LATER) had begun working with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (1408) and writer Matt Greenberg (1408) on a remake.  A year later, writer Jeff Buhler (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) joined the project.  Just a few weeks ago, Buhler told Dread Central that his script is currently “out to cast”—which suggests that the remake could be happening sooner rather than later.

Horror fans, meanwhile, wait with the nervous anticipation that haunts virtually all remakes and reboots.  Will the filmmakers be able to successfully resurrect this one?

THE NOVEL

Pet-Novel
Stephen King began writing the novel PET SEMATARY in 1979, after his daughter’s cat was run over by a car.  The King family was living in Orrington, Maine, alongside a busy road that “used up a lot of animals”—so many, in fact, that the local kids created a pet cemetery in the woods behind the King family’s house.  When 2-year-old Owen King nearly became another casualty of the road, King’s imagination went to a very dark place.

Pet Sematary real house in Orrington, ME
Pet Sematary real house in Orrington, ME

The author remembered an old horror story called “The Monkey’s Paw,” about a married couple who obtain a magic Indian relic that grants them three wishes.  First they wish for money, which comes at the expense of their only son’s life.  Then they wish for their son to “be alive again.”  The story ends as the father is scrambling to make a third wish—a negation of the second wish—while some inhuman thing pounds on the door of their house.  In his mind, the father sees an image of his undead son, and knows he will go mad if he has to look on the real thing.

With PET SEMATARY, Stephen King opens the door.

The first figure behind the door is a dead teenager named Timmy Baterman, whose grieving father buried him in the pet cemetery.  When Timmy comes back, he is “like a zombie in a movie”—but also “something more.”  “There was somethin going on behind his eyes,” King writes, like “a radio signal that was comin from somewhere else.” The implication is that Timmy Baterman is demonic.  When a neighbor sees this abomination, he says to Timmy’s father, “God help you.”  Bill Baterman responds, “God never helped me.  I helped myself.”

This is the real horror in King’s story: The grieving parent would rather have a demonic son—something out of THE EXORCIST—than a dead son.  He simply cannot accept the reality of the death of his child, and King’s hero Louis Creed walks the same terrifying path into “total darkness.”

THE MOVIE

pet-sematary-poster
In 1983, the year PET SEMATARY was published, journalist Eric Norden asked King what his greatest fear was.  The author responded, “I guess that one of my children will die.  I don’t think I could handle that.”  Exploring this fear—even in a fictional context—was apparently so overwhelming that the author resolved never to revisit PET SEMATARY.  A year later, he told biographer Douglas Winter, “I never want to go back there again, because it is a real cemetery.”

Pet Sematary film house in Ellsworth, ME
Pet Sematary film house in Ellsworth, ME

But (like Louis Creed) King did go back.  In 1985 he sold the movie rights to producer Richard Rubinstein, and wrote a screen adaptation for director George Romero.  King’s script was mostly faithful to the book—which became a problem.   Several major studios passed on the project because they were concerned about the depiction of young Gage Creed.  They thought audiences just couldn’t handle seeing the death and resurrection of a two-year-old child (which, of course, is exactly the point of the book).

After four years of discussion, Paramount finally agreed to take on the project.  By then, Romero was busy making MONKEY SHINES and the directorial reins were handed over to Mary Lambert, who brought her own ideas (as well as the punk band The Ramones) to the movie.  In a DVD commentary, Lambert explains that she saw PET SEMATARY not primarily as a story of grief and damnation, but rather as a story of good angels and bad angels.  Jud Crandall, the kindly old man next door (played by Fred Gwynne) is the unlikely bad angel who leads Louis Creed to the pet cemetery.  And the good angel?  It’s Pascow, the sardonic ghost with a gaping head wound who warns Louis not to go back.

When I first saw PET SEMATARY, at the age of 12, there were two things about the film that absolutely terrified me.  The first was the initial appearance of Victor Pascow, who appears to Louis late one night.  He might be the “good angel,” but he looks like Hell—a Romero zombie with haunting intelligence behind the eyes, and an unnerving sense of humor.  Whether he’s helping Louis or not, Pascow seems to enjoy scaring him…. And that’s why he scared me.

pet-sematary-pascow
The other scene that really stuck with me was the moment where Rachel Creed remembers her teenage sister Zelda—driven mad by spinal meningitis.  This scene is as close as Lambert’s film comes to capturing the horror of THE EXORCIST, and it does so by using a similar trick.  In THE EXORCIST, Reagan’s other-ness is conveyed through the casting of three actresses (Linda Blair, Eileen Deitz, and the voice of Mercedes McCambridge) in the same role.  In PET SEMATARY, Zelda’s other-ness is conveyed by the casting of a male actor in a female role.  As a viewer, I knew intuitively that something was wrong with Zelda—but I didn’t consciously know what it was until years later.

zelda
In King’s novel, of course, Gage Creed’s resurrection was the ultimate horror.  But that’s where the movie falls short.  As many critics have pointed out, the third act of the film is more like CHILD’S PLAY than THE EXORCIST, with Gage resembling Chucky instead of a demonic zombie.  In her DVD commentary, Lambert says that the filmmakers briefly considered using a dwarf to play the kid as a mutilated zombie, but ultimately backed away from the idea.   Admittedly, such an approach could have been laughable…. but it also could have been brilliant—if the visuals were used sparingly, as in THE EXORCIST.

In a 1991 interview with journalist Gary Wood, King concluded that the main weakness of the film were related to casting: “I don’t feel that the couple that’s at the center of the story [played by Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby] has the kind of warmth that would set them off perfectly against the supernatural element that surrounds them.”  King understands that the real strength of his novel(s) lies in characterization: When a reader / viewer empathizes with the protagonists, we vicariously experience their pain and their fears.  Without that connection, the film’s scares work mostly on a visual—rather than visceral—level.

THE FUTURE

Pet-Future
Thankfully, screenwriter Jeff Buhler seems to recognize the strengths of King’s novel.  In 2015, he told Dread Central that his script aims at the heart of darkness: “There are still the supernatural aspects of the book, with the pet cemetery and the burial ground from which things come back from the dead, but the real horror is, ‘What do these things do to the family?  What does it do to a person to see their child killed, but then to know that they can bring them back?”  Buhler concludes, “I’ve always felt that if you lean more into the characters and into their emotional lives, when the visceral shit hits the fan, it’s ten times more scary.”

Sounds like a recipe for a very good remake.

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