Pet Sematary, Part Three: The Film

Again, first, the positives:

 

  • I like that Jud doesn’t tell Louis why they are burying the cat at the Micmac burial ground. I think that Jud tells Louis in the book, but Louis just doesn’t believe him, but I think it’s more spooky and mysterious. But regardless, the fact that Louis would continue to follow Jud all the way up there, despite some obvious danger, all to bury the cat where Jud thinks would be best, speaks to how much they have bonded and how much respect Louis has for Jud.
  • The little reference that the movie throws in to the Wendigo, which is never mentioned, is a nice, subtle touch. A good reference should be easily recognizable to fans but not so obvious that it is confusing and frustrating to newcomers, and this reference found that middle ground perfectly. I particularly like the weird bird and bestial sounds that signify its presence (we hear similar sounds later, as Louis is taking Gage to the burial ground).

I am sad that the Wendigo needed to be cut from the story, but understand why King might have made that choice.

Jud even makes a reference to his dialogue in the book: “Just a loon.”

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  • Fred Gwynne was made to play Jud Crandall, and I adore Miko Hughes as Gage. In addition, Zelda was played by a man supposedly because they couldn’t find a woman bone-skinny enough for the role. I can’t really explain how, but in my opinion, Andrew Hubatsek brings so much more of a creepy, hovering presence to the character than even Zelda’s book self couldn’t.

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  • The music is very good for setting the mood, wedding childhood innocence and wonder with deathly terror.
  • Both the pet sematary and the Micmac burial ground look spooky and unsettling, particularly in the dark.
  • The over-the-top acting adds some humor and levity at times without necessarily being too distracting.
  • In the same vein, I was tempted to put this line in the negative section, but it’s so weird and hilarious that I had to put it here:

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Louis, luring Church in with food and then killing him: “Today is Thanksgiving Day for cats…but only if they came back from the dead…Go on. Lie down. Play dead….BE DEAD!”

  • Pascow gets more lines and scenes in the movie, which I like. Thanks to his actor, Brad Greenquist, he can be quirky and almost funny in later moments, which helps break the tension a little bit, and it benefits the story in several ways.

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Pascow claims that he wants to help Louis because Louis tried to help him. We don’t know what Pascow’s history in Ludlow is or who he was before death, but in death, he shows great conviction in trying to prevent Louis and his family from being harmed. The fact that he would appear again, several times after his initially warning, and only give up when nothing more could be done, strengthens that conviction further. This is especially strong if you consider Pascow, not Jud, as the true catalyst of the bad events; because, while Jud is the one to reveal the Pet Sematary to Louis, it is Pascow who tells him that something mysterious lies beyond, which could have peaked his curiosity and quieted some of his misgivings when Jud tries to lead him over the deadfall.

Pascow could be used to explain Ellie’s dreams, making her not just a part of Stephen King’s “unexplained psychic child fan club”, to paraphrase the Nostalgia Critic.

Pascow is an even more interesting character when you realize that he comes back from the dead (though not in the same way as the resurrected) and doesn’t mean the family harm, but rather wants to help. It makes him seem more human with every attempt to prevent them from disaster.

Also, Pascow’s presence makes you wonder about the existence of either God or some other force, spiritual or supernatural perhaps, that is of equal and opposite power and intention to the Micmac burial ground.

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  • At first glance, the added aggression to Church post-resurrection seems like a downgrade from the book (as well as a return to goofy zombie movie tropes), but I think it communicates the horror of the living dead cat better in this particular medium.

Church still tears apart mice, but he jump scares frequently at Louis with glowing eyes and fierce yowls, focusing all of his aggression at the man only, not anyone else in the family. He becomes a personal torment to Louis, almost as though it’s revenge for what Louis made him become (rather than letting him rest in peace), which really hammers in the idea that, at the Native Micmac burial ground, “Each buries his own.” Later, Jud remarks to Louis, “it’s your cat now,” meaning that Church is now his responsibility and his burden.

  • The moment that we see Louis wake up, having realized what Gage is up to, but then walk into the kitchen and reveal that he had laid all of his son’s toys out for his homecoming is so bittersweet. You can see the moment that Louis realizes that it was all for nothing, and it’s pretty heartbreaking, despite the audience being fully aware that what he did was stupid, insane, and wrong.
  • Here is a half-compliment: Gage saying, “No fair,” after Louis sticks him with the needle is not nearly as poignant and heartbreaking as “Daddy!” But I’m okay with this because the cry that Gage lets out when the needle enters his neck and the look on Louis’s face as he does it is almost worse than even that, so it balances out….Yay?

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  • Gage’s last grimace at Louis before he dies again subtly illustrates a great point. Despite killing other people, you really get the sense that Gage is going it to torment Louis. Like Church, who focuses all bile at him, you can interpret that Gage knows what Louis did to him (resurrecting him selfishly instead of letting him rest in peace) and hates him for it. It adds a nice bit of personal hell to the mix, rather than saying that these corpses are puppets, just mindlessly following the instructions of the burial ground or Wendigo. Perhaps a fraction of who they were before death is still in them, even if it has been twisted and perverted.
  • I like that Stephen King wrote the screenplay, because the movie does feel like it keeps to the spirit of the book fairly well. Also, he had a nice little cameo as the preacher during Missy’s funeral.

 

Now, the negatives:

  • That said, the movie is basically the diet version of the book. The look and key elements are there, but some of the flavor and nutrition is definitely missing.
  • The omission of Norma Crandall is a strange one, as she pairs well with the titular pet sematary as the story’s representations of natural death and grief. The gravesite is where kids from the town bury their pets and mourn properly, and Norma is taken by old age, despite Louis helping her in the midst of a heart attack earlier in the book. This in particular emphasizes that death is inevitable (even if it was put off once before), but it doesn’t have to be taken so negatively; Jud refers to a point “when the pain stops and the good memories begin.” The book was stronger for including her (even as a means for Gage to taunt Jud with his own and/or her past infidelity).
  • The omission of Irwin (Rachel’s father)’s offer to put Louis through med school if he broke off his engagement isn’t a major plot point, but it made the man more arrogant and easier to dislike in the book.

In the movie, before Rachel’s confession about Zelda and the scene at Gage’s funeral, Louis’s dislike of his father-in-law is acknowledged, but it’s not really explained or justified very well. It’s implied that Irwin doesn’t approve of him, but that isn’t well explained either, since you would think that a doctor is a perfectly respectable position for the husband of his daughter.

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  • The dialogue is very corny and sappy at times, and the music can add to this. You may as well stamp “Disney-esque Happy Family Doomed for Death” on every scene the Creeds spend together.
  • The loss of Louis’s resentment to Rachel and Ellie detracts from the comments the story makes about men and how they always have something that keep to themselves.
  • The various cats that played Ellie’s beloved pet Church were very good at their individual talents, but the way the cat is handled by the humans on-screen looks like animal abuse. It makes me feel a bit icky if I give it an ounce of thought.
  • Louis’s dramatic “NO!” shout is really goofy. It’s on par with Anakin Skywalker’s, and the photos of Gage and family that they cut to while he screams are unnecessary and almost silly. We know why the scene is tragic. We don’t need the director to spell out for us why it’s tragic. Ditto for Pascow’s no at the end, although it is a bit more iconic.

Although, this does kind of go with the part of the book that tries and fails to psych readers out, telling us how Gage wasn’t hit by the truck and went on to have a great life into college and beyond.

  • When in the book Jud’s death comes across as a bit of a punishment (possibly for his past infidelity, as well as playing with fire and setting Louis up to destroy his family, however good his intentions were), in the movie it seems needlessly cruel. Don’t get me wrong; it’s cruel both ways, and I didn’t want Jud to die, but still…

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  • I’m sorry, but Gage would not look that pristine after being run over by a truck. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to keep the gore toned down, especially because the death of a child is pretty sad and gruesome in concept, but Gage should, at the very least, be dirty from being buried and walking all the way home.

Pascow still has his battle scars, and he’s just a ghost!

  • As nice as it is that the movie tries to keep true to the book (Timmy Baterman looks to be chewing on a human bone at one point, and while Rachel’s corpse doesn’t look bitten, Gage does finish Jud off by tearing out his throat with his teeth), without the Wendigo and other talk of the Micmacs burying victims of cannibalism (which is what might have caused the ground to go sour and attracted the Wendigo to the area in the first place), the biting and chewing of not-brains seems a little odd in this over-glorified zombie movie. Maybe it’s just to add a savage and animalistic edge to things?
  • Gage’s ability to shapeshift and create hallucinations comes out of nowhere in the movie. Timmy Baterman didn’t appear like that, and neither did Church or Jud’s dog Spot, so while I like how twisted it is, it’s inconsistent with the established patterns.
  • The biggest issue I have by far, which in part comes with the loss of narration that often happens in the transition from page to screen, is that the explanation of how the Micmac burial ground affects people is dumbed down to non-existent. I am frequently frustrated, but begrudgingly understanding, of people who complain that the plot is weak because people could just simply avoid the burial ground.

In the book, the place is portrayed, or at least implied, like a drug; it rewards people who use it and tries to keep them hooked. And perhaps like an abusive partner, it lures people in with promises and manipulates situations in its own favor. The movie hints that the place might have a malevolent sort of consciousness that can manipulate events, but it’s just as easy to write off Louis’s continued attraction to and use of the burial ground as grief, insanity, stupidity, or some combination of the above, and the burial ground may not be playing an active part in it.

 

All the explanation of its influence that we really get in the movie is Jud saying, “The place might have made Gage die because I introduced you to the power,” and when Pascow addresses Rachel on her way back to Ludlow to check on Louis. He follows her on her journey, and we get the sense that Rachel senses him, but can’t hear or see him, though he does like to talk and around her. After her tire explodes and she drives into a ditch, he says, “It’s trying to stop you! Do you hear me? It’s trying to stop you!”

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In the book, Louis remarks that he feels great on the way to burying his daughter’s cat, and feels even more so immediately after the deed is done. That is clearly a weird, unnatural thing to feel, implying that something else is at work. The truck driver who hit Gage even said that something compelled him to speed that day, which implies that the burial ground can extend decently far outside of itself to affect fate. That is one of the most terrifying things about it; how much of what happens is Louis’s own doing and how much can be blamed on the burial ground?

Also, at the end of the book, Louis’s friend Steve comes to check on him and follows Louis to the pet sematary, as he prepares to carry Rachel to the burial ground. Steve almost follows him past the deadfall, feeling terrified and crazy as he attempts to climb the death trap behind Louis, but he stops at the very top. He gets the sense that something is regarding him, considering something…but then passes over him, uninterested. Realizing what he is doing, he climbs back down the way he came, while Louis continues onward.

Jud and the other men of the town seem to treat the knowledge of the existence of the burial ground like a bizarre rite of passage in the book; something that really shouldn’t exist or be known to anyone, but once you know about it, you guard the secret with your life. Animals that are brought back are regarded with wariness, but despite their unnerving, obvious “wrongness”, they are pretty harmless to people.

But moving from animals to people has proven to be a slippery slope, even for those who have never used the burial ground before for anything (Bill Baterman, for example).

The burial ground seems as though it can manipulate who tells who what and when, such as reinforcing Jud’s decision to tell Louis in the book. Louis saved Norma from a heart attack and, coupled with his own growing bond with the man, Jud followed his instinct to want to spare Louis and Ellie from grief. Clearly, the place has a consciousness and schemes frequently, but its end goal is unknown.

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Based on what I’ve read, I look at the Micmac burial ground as a metaphor for grief run amuck. Good intentions aside, trying to expedite (in this case, reverse) the painful but necessary mourning process by giving in to your base emotions for relief can cause problems for you and the ones you love. If you, say, tear apart a store in a fit of grieving rage (anger is a well-documented expression of grief), you are still liable for the damages you caused and the people you may have hurt. Why you did what you did doesn’t ultimately matter.

But that’s just my individual interpretation.

Also, because of the lack of narration, Louis’s fall to insanity is conveyed only by actor Dale Midkiff looking catatonic. It’s sympathetic and tragic, but not as much as it was in the book. The book is definitely stronger in this and many regards.

 

To Be Continued

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

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