A lot of what I liked about the new Pet Sematary was how it diverged from the source material and faithful 1989 movie. I didn’t want to spoil those surprises for the fans, and I didn’t even want to hint at them in my main review because even vague analysis would spoil it. Now that Pet Sematary is out, I want to examine what this incarnation says about the themes of Pet Sematary, for others who’ve seen it like me.
Let’s start as early as possible. We come to learn why Rachel (Amy Siemetz) isn’t ready to broach the subject of death with Ellie (Jete Laurence) and it is sympathetic. Rachel not only experienced the death of her sister Zelda as a child, she blames herself. It was Rachel’s fear of Zelda that made her use the dumbwaiter to bring Zelda her food. She knew the dumbwaiter was broken and Zelda died trying to climb in. It’s not really Rachel’s fault but one can understand how a child would blame herself, and still not be over that when she’s a mother herself.
That added detail about using the dumbwaiter makes Zelda more than just something that was too intense for young Rachel. She put the food in the dumbwaiter instead of carrying it up because she was scared, and we can all objectively say Zelda didn’t have to climb in and fall to her death, but we all know that’s not going to make Rachel grow up with any less baggage.
So when Church dies, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel do discuss having the Church talk. Louis is adamant about the importance of not lying to Ellie, but he agrees to put it off to comfort his wife. That’s a very compassionate reason to go against your better judgment. When you love someone, alleviating their anxiety becomes more important to you, even if deep down you know you could be making it harder by putting it off. He knows one day they’ll have to tell Ellie about death and he’ll have that difficult talk with Rachel too, but it doesn’t have to be tonight.
Bringing Church back becomes worse than either option. That was Jud (John Lithgow) imposing his desires on the Creed family. Louis didn’t know he was burying the cat to bring it back to life. Were he given that option ahead of time, he might have still tried it, but he didn’t get a say in the matter. And I believe Church set out to punish Louis for violating natural law.
And there’s the added detail that Louis can’t bring himself to euthanize Church when he’s become too dangerous to keep. Louis thinks he’s being kind by setting Church free in the wild. It also makes Louis more culpable in his child’s death. In the book and the first film, it’s an accident, and Louis just makes bad decisions after the tragedy. Here, the cat he brought back is directly responsible for Ellie being in the middle of the road.
That is an important truth. Everything you do to try to “fix” something can make things even worse. I’ve written about how Pet Sematary was about the inevitability of bad decisions. In this one Louis literally sows the seeds of his own destruction long before he buries any people.
I also think the Church revenge angle probably wouldn’t have worked with Gage. Gage isn’t old enough to be attached to the cat, although maybe a three-year-old would chase an animal anyway. Anyway, I was on board with the change to Ellie being the Creed child who dies because the earlier parts of the film made it so much her story. Three adults around Ellie try to decide how she should learn about death. Then she’s the one who actually comes back from the dead. That’ll show ‘em.
Louis is more calculating this time. He anticipates Jud would stop him from burying his child so he makes arrangements by drugging Jud. When Louis does do what he sets out to do, he has no backup plan. When it was Gage, previous Louises prepped a syringe just in case he came back bad, and Louis would ultimately use it in the book and the film. This Louis is all in. He ain’t making plans to re-kill Ellie.
This film gives more time to Louis’s reunion with his child before the murder begins and that’s very poignant. It gives her a chance to ask where exactly she’s back from (good question for Dr. “There’s No Heaven” Creed) and demonstrate the cost of having her back even in domestic life. Her body is still dead. It doesn’t heal from the scars of her accident. Laurence gives a brilliantly subtle performance with her eyes just a bit off kilter. What was Louis’s plan to re-acclimate her into life? Everybody knew she died. Now here’s my zombie child?
By the end, Ellie attacks Jud for self-preservation, not just because. Ellie knows Jud considers her an abomination and would destroy her. Although, everyone comes back from the burial ground a murderer anyway so she would’ve killed him eventually.
It becomes clear there’s no living a Norman Rockwell life for the Creeds anymore. When Rachel gets home, she and Louis finish their talk about death only now they’ve switched positions. Louis is the believer now and he has proof!
Now, it’s Ellie burying the rest of her family, bringing them back as her army of killers. This is different than Louis being the instigator. He buried his wife who was murdered by his son whom he buried to bring back to life and it all ends in his death no matter what. Now that it’s Ellie’s motivation, it still illustrates the theme of Pet Sematary, that if you avoid dealing with grief it’s just going to pile up and destroy you in the end. Only now it’s not going to leave you dead. It’s going to keep spiraling and make a whole family.
It’s almost as if this Louis Creed tried to learn from the mistakes his predecessor made, but no matter how you try it, dead will always be better. I love the way this movie ends. It’s open to interpretation but I have to say, I don’t hold out much hope for Gage waiting them out. I think he didn’t get hit by a truck, but this adaptation only put Gage’s death off a little while longer.