Director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was a frightful, if flawed, effort. Three decades in the remaking, the new version of the film hits theaters this week. How might it improve on its predecessor? Here are my thoughts on ten possible upgrades:
1.In a headnote to the novel, King writes: “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.” The ensuing narrative digs up the secret and spreads it out for reader inspection. Indeed, one of the most (morbidly) fascinating aspects of the book was its peeking behind the scenes of the “quiet trade” (as protagonist Louis Creed reminisces about his time apprenticing with his undertaker uncle). Regrettably, the 1989 film failed to draw upon this insider info; here’s hoping the remake makes better use of such intriguing source material.
2.Let’s be honest: the acting in the 1989 film was far from award-worthy. Fred Gwynne gave a memorable performance as Jud Crandall, but the rest of the cast was eminently forgettable. Denise Crosby (Rachel Creed) proved wooden as a Pet Sematary grave marker, Blaze Berdahl (Ellie Creed) sounded like a child reciting memorized lines, and the last-act lapse into madness of Dale Midkiff (Louis Creed) was bad to the point of laughable. Yes, the acting bar has been set awfully low here, and clearing it shouldn’t be like scaling the deadfall for the esteemed cast of the remake (led by John Lithgow and Amy Seimetz).
3.The 1989 film’s use of Victor Pascow went terribly awry. The character’s death scene was appropriately disturbing, and his initial ghostly visitation of Louis was chilling. But Pascow’s interaction with Rachel in the film’s final third was nonsensical (how does he influence Rachel all the way in Chicago, and why can’t she–unlike Louis–actually see him?). Worse, it was tonally jarring: this was no time for comic relief, from a ghostly jokester who seemed one step away from breaking out into Beetlejuice tune. The new film can go a long way toward improving upon the original by making more limited, and consistently serious, use of this grave character from King’s novel.
4.In the novel, Louis and Jud’s Church-burying journey through Little God Swamp to the Micmac Burying Ground was an atmospheric delight, complete with loons and foo lights (or what Jud attempts to explain away as such), creeping mist, and “stars wheeling between the massed dark border of trees.” The 1989 film conveys very little of this, and inexplicably, doesn’t even take place during nighttime. Closer focus on the scene from the book would clearly benefit the remake.
5.Anyone who ever watched the original film was likely haunted by the twisted image of Zelda. The 2019 remake will be hard-pressed to top the representation of this character, but could possibly do so by keying in on a novelistic detail omitted by the 1989 film: the young, lisping Zelda’s fascination with “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” (who King transforms from a children’s book character into a daunting Death figure).
6.The 1989 film includes a fine flashback scene concerning the ill-tempered return of Jud’s dead dog Spot. I would love to see the remake draw more extensively from King’s novel and incorporate more of Jud’s recounting of the history of the Micmac Burial Ground and the animals temporarily interred there. Imagine how awesome it would be to get a flashback scene centered on Hanratty the undead bull!
7.Sadly, the Timmy Baterman storyline was botched in the first film adaptation. The depiction of his character as some rotting mongoloid robs him of his most sinister aspect in King’s novel: his profane revelation of the dirty secrets of the townspeople who oppose him. Also, the scene of the lynch mob arriving at the Baterman home deviates ridiculously from the book (the arsonists’ earnest desire to save Bill Baterman from his abominable son by burning down the man’s house before he can even vacate it calls the old maxim “with friends like these…” to mind). The remake could advance significantly past the original by adhering more faithfully to King’s conceptions of Timmy’s blasphemous character and the novelistic version of the fall of the house of Baterman.
8.One of the best, and most protracted, sequences in the novel involves Louis playing resurrectionist–robbing Gage’s grave and transporting the corpse to the Micmac Burial Ground. It is both a physical and mental ordeal for Louis, and King wrings every bit of gut-wrenching suspense from the attempt. The 1989 film severely short-changed this sequence, and the remake could go much further in conveying the horror of the situation by devoting more screen time to Louis’s dreadful efforts.
9.To me, one of the most incongruous parts of the 1989 film was the decision to splice in surreal images of Jud’s house in oozing, sinking decay during the climax. While visually striking, these images didn’t make a lot of narrative sense. The Gage and Church invasion of Jud’s home is sufficiently terrifying, rendering such distracting graphics needless. It would be truly shocking if the remake made the same mistake Lambert’s film did.
10.The most glaring omission from the 1989 film (even more unfathomable, in that King furnished the screenplay) was the failure to invoke the book’s Big Bad: the Wendigo. King’s novel pumps out plenty of nightmare fuel in its descriptions of this supernatural horror (with which Louis eventually comes face-to-monstrous-face). The remake could distinguish itself mightily by restoring the Wendigo to its central place in the narrative. Indeed, it would be worth the price of admission alone just to see the giant creature realized (ideally, through practical fx) on the big screen.