Retro Review Double Feature: Pet Sematary (Novel, 1983; Film, 1989)

I just finished my first Stephen King novel.

I’ll wait for you to stop laughing before I continue.

Right.

I was sick over the weekend and had a lot of time to vegetate, so I thought, why not watch the movie, too? I can compare both in a single review. If I get a little off-track here, blame it on the zombie viru–I mean, the stomach bug. Blame it on that. Not the zombie thing.

Pet Sematary in both of its incarnations is fascinating to me, as a long-time person-who-is-aware-of-but-not-really-familiar-with-Stephen-King. I saw the movie for the first time ages ago, of course–they used to show it on USA Network all the time–and remember being pretty frightened by it, but also struck by its weirdness. I’ve seen it several times, in fact (though the last time was probably back in high school), and it still seems more like a collection of feverish, disjointed horror setpieces than a coherent narrative.

The novel is quite different. Of course the basic plot is the same, but the style is wholly unlike the film. In a recent article about King’s thoughts on Kubrick’s Shining adaptation which has made the internet rounds, the author describes King’s writing as “workmanly.” I can’t think of a better word for it. King writes in an earthy, self-educated way–which is a very good thing all around. Solid, dependable, uncomplicated prose with moments approaching something like spiritual truth. In the BBC interview that prompted the Salon article, King himself says that his work contains a kind of “warmth” to which audiences can relate (and which he feels is lacking from Kubrick’s film–and I totally agree). Pet Sematary the novel certainly has warmth, and drips with realistic (if occasionally hamfisted) humanity. Its cast of characters contains perhaps only a single human who could be labeled unproblematically as a “good person.” But they all try to be good despite their very real failings–and this is the heart of the tragedy. King gives us a world full of goodness–or at least of good intentions–and the real possibility of salvation. But this is horror, and horror seldom ends well.

The film, conversely, has a bit more of the weird artificial aesthetic that King apparently disliked in Kubrick’s work, though in this case I think it’s due less to design than to bad acting.

Pet Sematary in both versions follows Louis Creed, a thirty-something doctor who has just accepted a job at the University of Maine. He moves his family–wife Rachel, five-year-old daughter Ellie, and two-year-old son Gage–to a house in a little town called Ludlow, and commutes to campus for work each day. They meet their old-timey neighbors, seniors Jud and Norma Crandall (in the novel–in the film Norma is completely absent), and settle in fairly well. Jud takes the family up into the woods behind their house to show them the old pet cemetery, where local kids have buried their pets for generations (the title of the novel, of course, is a childish misspelling written on the cemetery’s makeshift gate).

When Ellie’s cat Church is hit and killed by a truck on the road outside their house, Jud takes Louis up past the pet cemetery to an ancient Native American burial ground, which happens to be the territory of the Wendigo. They bury Church here, and the next day the cat returns, alive but changed.

As was obvious almost from the outset, Church is just a precursor to the main event. The real horror comes when Gage is also hit by a truck, and Louis, predictably, succumbs to the temptation to resurrect his son.

The succession of events in the narrative, the chronology, is where the novel shines and the film suffers (well, one place it suffers). In the book, Church comes back to life on page 129. Aside from a visit by a friendly ghost, Victor Pascow (a college student brought to Louis’ campus clinic when he is struck by a car), nothing particularly supernatural happens until this point. Gage has died by page 203. Over a hundred pages are spent detailing Louis Creed’s descent into grief-fueled madness, his horrible plundering of his son’s grave (the truly horrible climax of the story), his return to the Micmac burial ground, and Gage’s eventual, inevitable return (on page 340). In the novel, the real horror is the loss of loved ones, the cruelty and fragility of life, and the awful lengths to which some people will go to deny the inevitability of death.

The movie opts for a more straightforward horror approach, chopping out most of the critical human interaction and going straight for the money shots. The friendship between Jud and Louis, an integral part of the narrative, is all but gone from the film. Likewise, Jud’s wife, Norma, who provides Jud’s whole motivation for taking Louis to the cemetery with Church, is absent. This part is especially bad, from a narrative perspective. In the novel Louis saves Norma’s life when she has a heart attack; Jud takes Louis up to bury Church to repay this kindness (or so he says, though his motivations later come into question and are revealed, in fact, as the machinations of the evil spirit in the cemetery itself). In a nutshell, the film is too abrupt, and really only comes together as a compelling, complete narrative if you’ve already read the novel.

Gage’s return is also hugely different in the two versions. In the novel he is possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo (or whatever) and fully aware of his own demonic nature. He taunts Jud in a way surprisingly similar to Regan’s taunting of Karras in The Exorcist before killing him (by stabbing him to death with a scalpel). In the film, Gage only speaks childish nonsense about playing games. Then he cuts Jud’s ACL, slashes open the skin of Jud’s cheeks with the scalpel, and rips out the old man’s throat with his teeth. Gross.

Another weird change is the character of Missy. In the novel she’s just the friendly babysitter who occasionally watches Gage and Ellie. In the film, she’s a slightly creepy maid who complains of severe stomach pains and then kills herself when she learns she has cancer. Why the change? I can only imagine it’s because the scene of her funeral in the film gave an opportunity for some expository dialogue that would not have fit in elsewhere in the stripped-down movie narrative.

The real issue with the film, though, are the two lead actors. Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed is about as emotive as a JC Penney’s mannequin. He wears the same blank look for 90% of his screen time, only shrugging off his apparent emotional paralysis to scream in overdone terror towards the end of the film.

This is about the extent of his emotional range.

This is about the extent of his emotional range.

Denise Crosby as Rachel is easy to hate, which is perhaps a good thing–Rachel isn’t particularly likable in the novel either–and seems strangely like an old woman struggling to play the part of someone thirty years her junior (though at the time she was my age… yikes). I can’t describe exactly what it is about her that I dislike, but she seems fake. I mean, actors are by definition faking their roles, but you know what I mean. This is like Stepford Wives fake. And the shoulder pads don’t help. (In one scene she wears a night dress with shoulder pads. A freaking NIGHT DRESS. GROSS.)

The film does have two redeeming points. One, of course, is Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall. He matches the Jud in the novel perfectly, and gives perhaps the only truly competent performance in the film. Gwynne is also perhaps the only actor in the movie who manages to convey some of the humanity that King seems to value so much in his own work. And Victor Pascow, played by Brad Greenquist, is more present in the film than in the novel, adding the odd touch of gallows humor and somehow, despite limited screentime, managing to come across as extremely likable. Pascow’s character, in my opinion, is the only major change that actually represents an improvement over the novel.

Almost it seems like the film is best viewed as a companion piece to the novel. It gives you some cool visuals to associate with the more visceral parts of the novel, and despite some bad acting, the overall image presented by the cast does not contradict that of the novel.

A final note on the role of folklore in the story (both versions): As is so often the case in horror, the horrible supernatural evil that drives the plot of Pet Sematary is located firmly within an older, non-Western tradition (in this case, a specific Native American tribe). The Micmacs, we are told, used their burial ground until it was made “sour” by the Wendigo. After that they abandoned it, but local (non-native) people occasionally buried beloved pets–or the odd human–there, knowing full well what the result would be.

I don’t study Native American material and am not qualified to comment on the specific content of the folklore presented here, but I think it’s worth addressing the fact that King specifically situated this scary supernatural tradition among native people. It’s tempting to see this as a kind of primitivism–that is, to label it as a product of Western ethnocentric thought that says only uneducated, non-Western savages could believe in such a thing. But I don’t think that King is doing such a thing here. I think King, rightly, is suggesting that mainstream European-descended American society does not have a well-articulated set of terms and concepts for dealing with the supernatural, while other groups often do. This is in no way a commentary on respective intelligence or making claims about the validity of one belief over another; it’s simply acknowledging that Western society is often driven by the desire to find “rational” (i.e., Western scientific) explanations for everything. It would be nice to know if this kind of story actually resonates with the people it claims to represent, though; if it has solid foundations in native belief traditions, and whether native people like to have their traditions represented (or misrepresented) in such a way.

At any rate, belief is the real issue, and King actually addresses this himself, sort of, briefly, towards the very end of the novel. Louis is berating himself for his stupidity in thinking that Gage could ever have returned as his real son. But Louis’ inner monologue consoles him: “The flaw is only the inability to accept, not uncommon” (358, original emphasis). Indeed, Mr. King.

Novel:

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Film:

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Works Cited

King, Stephen. Pet Sematary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1983.

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18 thoughts on “Retro Review Double Feature: Pet Sematary (Novel, 1983; Film, 1989)

    • Thanks! Actually though, when I read your comment I realized that WP published an earlier draft, and I had to go and update it–there were a few typos in the earlier version.

      Zelda was a rough spot, in the film. But it’s difficult to be too critical there, as she was a bit overwrought in the book too. I think that was deliberate on King’s part–the whole “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” thing was an important subplot–and it served its purpose well enough. The film tried to portray her as especially monstrous, but for some reason her scenes have always seemed kind of carnivalesque to me. Particularly because at the very end, when Gage appears in Jud’s house and there’s that part where Rachel confuses Gage with Zelda, the whole set was actually changed and made to look all Tim Burtony. And Gage wears that ridiculous dress and top hat, for some reason.

      I guess in the end they did as well with Zelda as they could, and it worked. But I do wonder about some of the strange imagery they chose to surround her character with.

    • Seriously, I couldn’t believe how emotionless he was. The only part where he seemed to approach appropriate levels of -human- was the scene where Gage died.

      Remember Time Trax? I actually watched that as a kid. He had that little keychain dealy that shot, like, Tylenol capsules or something, that would send bad guys back to the future.

  1. Great review – I totally preferred the book. The acting was dreadful in the film – I hated that Crosby woman – didn’t like her in Startrek new gen either. I haven’t read any SK for ages, think I might revisit some of the old classics.

  2. Great article and comparison of book to film. I always find King’s books more believable than his films. I don’t know if it’s because of the depth of charcters or the slower introduction of the supernatural element but I’m usually ‘all in’ when it comes to what he is potraying in his fiction. I thought Pet Semetary was done well in film but better as a book.

  3. Bravo! I’ve read the novel and seen the movie too, and I’d rate them roughly the same. You’ll never fit every subplot, theme, emotion, etc into an adaptation (which doesn’t mean it’s ok to completely rape the source material), but I feel like the movie is really good, if different. Part 2, not so much.

    You’re right, it’d be interesting to ask a Native American what he thought of the story.

    Nicely done, but now you’ve still got Dean Koontz, Jack Ketchum and Clive Barker to scratch off your novel list, providing you haven’t already!

    • Yeah, filmmaking is hard. That’s why I’m a critic, heh.

      It’s not that I didn’t like the movie–it’s just that there are some weird decisions (like the casting). But it has some great imagery, that’s for sure.

      I’ve read a little Koontz, but no Ketchum and no Barker. I doubt I’ll dip into Barker at all–hyper-gore isn’t my thing so much. But the rest, definitely.

  4. Fantastic piece. I’ve always enjoyed the film more than you seem to, but your essay really made me re-think that. You make very valid points, and actually made me realize the film is not as good as I’ve always thought it was (then again, it has been a loooong time since I’ve read the novel, which I loved). Thanks a lot! LOL

    Keep up the great work. Big fan of your blog (I’m just really behind, obviously, catching up on a lot of your older material :).

    J.N.
    http://www.james-newman.com

  5. Thanks very much, James! I appreciate the kind words.

    I’m actually a relative newcomer to horror literature, but in this case at least, I definitely felt the novel won out over the film. But I do think that the film serves as a nice sort of coffee-table version of the novel, if that makes sense. Like, full of nice illustrations–just not a great deal of substance.

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