Reader Beware! Spoilers for both the novel and the movie, and Pumpkinhead (1988), below. Some gory images.
1. Man Tempts Fate and Immediately Regrets It is my favorite basic plot, and it’s not nearly as satisfying when paired with the less graphic genres. I know this is a bad movie- it gets worse with every rewatch- but that’s what keeps bringing me back to it. Pet Sematary is a neat, quick little story that you can summarize in under a minute, yet it still retains a certain fascination…
2. …because even though the protagonist gets limited character development, we can understand his motivations. I’m not a parent, and from the outside I’m turned off by how much control over your own life (and the kids’) that you have to relinquish. You can have the most stable family and schedule in history, but you can’t predict the future, or protect your kids from it. That concept scares me more than anything.
Protagonist Louis’ most human character trait is his desire to insulate his family from loss. Clumsily appropriative “magick” happenings aside, the Creed family’s story arc is nightmarish, realistic, and ultimately unavoidable. Every parent risks and fears their child’s death: creation and destruction are married concepts. But because this is a Man Tempts Fate horror movie, Louis insists on being an exception to the rule.
3. Unlike novel-Louis, movie-Louis doesn’t seem to go out of his mind with grief so much as refuse to accept it. Stephen King novels only click with me about 20% of the time, and I held on to Pet Sematary because novel-Louis’ unraveling is so realistic that it borders on logical. Pet Sematary is enjoyable because it gets you to agree with a deteriorating man’s terrible decisions; Pet Sematary is enjoyable because a kind of douchey white guy tells death “Nuh UH!!” and ruins his own life so thoroughly that it’s hilarious. Again: this movie is awful.
4. I also recently watched Pumpkinhead, a similar story better on every level. Characters are consistent, the monkey’s paw lore is satisfyingly developed, and amidst all the atrocities, we see and feel regret from all sides. No one’s quite innocent in Pumpkinhead, and they all know it.
The fundamental draw to Pet Sematary is the horrible mishmash of corpse and baby, badly stapling Evil Dead tropes to the most innocent among us. NegaGage only appears in the final third, kills a few people, and laughs like Tickle Me Elmo before getting taken out by Louis, who was told he’d regret bringing him back and doesn’t seem to argue the point. There’s no emotional payoff at all, and no real character development: Louis then carries his wife off to the graveyard to keep the franchise alive. In the novel, Louis has a genuine what-have-I-done moment just before Rachel reappears- a very satisfying final emotional sting. Here, she comes in dripping and stabs him while they make out. We can maybe assume he has regrets, but the credits are rolling before we can be sure.
Contrast this to Pumpkinhead, whose draw is that freaky cover art monster. A man loses his son because some asshole ran him over. He takes the body to his neighbors, who know a witch who can bring the kid back, and they roundly tell him that that’s a terrible idea and he ought to accept his fate. (Familiar, right?) One of the neighbor’s teens sneaks out and helps the man anyway. The hills witch can’t revive the kid (and emphasizes that she’s sorry but that’s a terrible idea) but she can summon a demon to get the asshole that ran him over. The caveat, which the man and the audience realize together, is that the man will slowly turn into the demon himself.
When the man realizes what’s happening- it begins with him seeing how the victims are killed through the demon’s eyes- he returns to the witch and begs her to call it off. He can’t bear to see the cruelty he’s unintentionally doling out, but she tells him what’s done is done. After failing to kill himself, he realizes that he and the monster feel the same pains, so he approaches the kids it’s terrorizing and beg them to kill him instead.
Here we have the entire grief cycle, ending with regret and remorse in place of acceptance. The horror makes you gape at what we might do in response to loss rather than recklessly and needlessly demonize the innocent. Somewhere between page and screen, Pet Sematary dropped the fact that Gage isn’t frightening: Louis is. Pumpkinhead tells the real story better than the adaptation.
5. And these are all the reasons I watched Pet Sematary for the fourth time last night. I love it when something this bad becomes iconic in horror culture: we’ve all seen it, and no one seems to unironically enjoy it. If you haven’t seen Pet Sematary, I’d skip it in favor of either the novel or Pumpkinhead… or literally anything else. The actors, plot, and effects have all the depth of a puddle, and are about as impressive.