'Pet Sematary' Says Poignant Things About Grief, Marriage, and Dead Cats

"Sometimes dead is better."

Pet Sematary is notoriously remembered as the one Stephen King story that scared the famed horror author more than any other. Why? Pet Sematary has the usual supernatural elements leading to a depressing and bleak ending, but the emotional core of the story focuses on death and grief, timeless and relatable themes everyone has to deal with sooner or later.

As a parent how do you cope with the death of your child? Is there anything that inspires more dread and horror than imagining how you’d feel if a tractor trailer truck crashed into your kid? The original Pet Sematary, the 1989 film directed by Mary Lambert, and the latest adaptation from Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, all take this dreadful premise even further by adding supernatural horror into the mix.

The 2019 remake takes this message one step further by changing the original Pet Semetary plot in some notable ways, and while this may annoy some diehard King fans, the result is a movie that incorporates the best of what came before it while standing on its own as a haunting new interpretation of the 1983 classic.

Light spoilers follow for Pet Sematary. If you’re going in totally fresh you may want to see the movie first, but if you’ve even watched the trailer this review won’t spoil anything new.

The core plot of Pet Sematary remains the same in 2019: A family from the city wants to slow down so they move to quiet rural Maine. They’re thrust into a series of supernatural events that tear them apart — figuratively and literally.

The father, Dr. Louis Creed, takes a quieter job at a clinic and makes friends with a lonely old neighbor named Jud. After the family cat, Winston “Church” Churchill, is killed by a careless truck driver, Jud shows Louis a hidden place deep in the woods beyond the misspelled “Pet Sematary” where anything that’s buried comes back … just a little bit different.

Despite generations of locals knowing full well that this dark power turns the zombie animals violent over time, the mystical lure still offers a perverse temptation. Church was such a sweet cat before, so maybe the power of love itself could make it work? Maybe he’ll come back okay?

Spoiler: He doesn’t — and this evil zombie cat is just a prelude to something much worse.

Pet Sematary Church
This mangy zombie cat is a total icon.

The “sour” soil does resurrect any dead creature buried in it, but they come back as if possessed by an ancient evil entity. Church winds up attacking almost every person in the family, but Louis doesn’t have the heart to kill him outright so he dumps him many miles away. Church’s eventual return in the middle of their daughter Ellie’s 9th birthday party is the catalyst that lures her into the street where she’s killed by a different (or perhaps the same?) truck driver.

In the original versions of Pet Sematary, it’s the younger son Gage that dies, but here it’s the older daughter Ellie. (Don’t worry, the trailers already spoiled this big twist.) This huge deviation from the source material might irk diehard fans, but in the film, it plays as a much more practical narrative choice. It allows for a more nuanced portrayal of the character’s descent from sweet young child to the victim of demonic possession.

From the outset, Jeté Laurence’s Ellie Creed grounds the film with an impressive performance from someone so young, ably shifting between drastically different versions of the same person.

This is only one way that the new Pet Sematary feels extremely self-aware of its 1989 predecessor. Throughout, it teases the same recognizable moments before pivoting into something totally different. It’s refreshingly reverent in a scary way, paying homage to the old while creating something new. It makes for a rewarding and surprising viewing experience for the most diehard fans of the 1989 version and the original 1983 book, but it’s also just straight-up terrifying for any new viewers totally new to this story.

What the new Pet Sematary does best, however, is further deconstruct the nature of grief, the importance of communication in marriage, and the oftentimes destructive nature of male fragility.

Pet Sematary is totally horrifying, but it’s also wickedly smart.

Pet Sematary Church and Ellie
Ellie gets really scared of Church when he turns violent.

One crucial early scene sets every narrative arc in the story: Ellie asks why pets don’t live as long as people and what happens when they die. Louis is honest, offering a scientific explanation. His wife Rachel talks of faith and heaven. We learn how Rachel’s sister suffered from a horrible illness and died in gruesome fashion, which explains why Rachel wants to protect Ellie from similar trauma. Louis sees this as lying, so we watch an ideological battle between parents unfold right in front of their daughter. It’s almost more unpleasant and cringeworthy to watch than the violence, blood, and gore that happens later.

There’s a disconnect in how Louis and Rachel approach death and grief with their children, and they’re not fully open and honest with one another about anything that’s going on during Pet Sematary until it’s far too late. When Ellie dies, Rachel’s instinct is to retreat to her parent’s house with Gage. Their home, even Louis’ presence, seems triggering for her.

This opens up the perfect opportunity for Louis, alone and drunk, to be tempted by the lure of using the dark power to bring his daughter back to life. “I needed more time with her,” he says, sounding almost too trite — but it’s trite because it’s true. We can easily judge Louis for what’s obviously a bad decision, but few people know what it’s like to lose a child. The death of one’s child seems like the scariest thing anyone might experience, the kind of trauma that might ruin marriages and entire lives if the grief isn’t processed in healthy ways.

Pet Sematary might be a cautionary tale about the dangers of using dark magic, but it’s even more so about the importance of communication in marriage. Neither Louis nor Rachel talk to one another about what they’re going through. They don’t process their grief in healthy ways. The existence of magical dirt in the woods opens up a tempting opportunity for Louis to keep even more secrets from his wife.

Why didn’t Louis tell Rachel about the cemetery when he used it to resurrect Church? Why didn’t Rachel stay with her husband? Why did Louis use the excuse of work to not follow his wife to her parents house so they could grieve together?

Like with most horror films, Pet Sematary invites us to imagine what we’d do differently if we went through the same experiences. Perhaps what Stephen King fears most about this story is that we’d all likely make the same exact mistakes that Louis does — and we’d pay the same horrifying price.

Pet Sematary is now in theaters.

Media via Paramount Pictures