Stephen King never meant to publish Pet Sematary. After writing the manuscript, he put it in a desk drawer and left it there. Not because it wasn’t good — but because it was so bleak. This, coming from the man who staged a child orgy in a sewer in It, and crushed a couple under a mass of sharp-toothed toads in Rainy Season, and terrorized teenagers on a raft with a creature that dissolved flesh and bones upon touch in The Raft.
Yet King distinguishes even the most shocking horror sequences from the plot of Pet Sematary, a story about a grieving man who tries to bring his dead son back to life. ”There’s no hope for anybody at the end of that book,” King told The Paris Review in 2006. For that reason, King calls Pet Sematary his most frightening work, and likened it more to an unremittingly grim thought exercise than a novel. In the sense that the latest movie adaptation, out April 5, ends hopelessly, it’s just like the book. But the new Pet Sematary deviates from the 1983 book and the 1989 movie in a few major ways, including the ending.
The Creed family moves to a farmhouse in Maine with the intention of finding the Good Life. After years toiling in a Boston hospital, Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) craves a slower pace with his wife Rachel, (Amy Seimetz) and two kids, 8-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). But their rural bliss is frequently interrupted by the ominous whirr of fast trucks hurtling down the road outside their house.
King drew this premise from real life: He, too, moved his family to a house in rural Maine that bordered a truck route. One day, his 2-year-old ran towards the road while flying a kite. King stopped his son in time, but was haunted by what-ifs. As in, what if the worst had happened?
In Pet Sematary, the worst does happen. The Creed family suffers an unimaginable loss. And here’s where the first major change between the 2019 Pet Sematary and King’s original version arrives. Whereas in the book and 1989 movie, Gage was killed by a truck, in the 2019 version, both Creed kids are in the road when a truck exceeding 100 MPH runs down the road. Louis pushes Gage out of the way, but Ellie is fatally struck — adding another entry to the long list of young girls dying in horror movies.
The loss of Ellie is sudden, unimaginable, unfair. And the grief-stricken Louis believes he has a way out. When Ellie’s cat was hit by a truck earlier on in the story, Louis’ neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow) made the mistake of showing Louis a far-off indigenous peoples burial ground with the magical ability to bring people back from the dead.
The beings that come back are not who they once were. As Jud warns, “Sometimes dead is better.” Church 1.0 had been a sweet cat; Church 2.0 is a demonic hell-raiser with claws bared and bad intentions.
Still, Louis hopes it’ll be different with Ellie than it was with Church. It’s not. The Ellie that returns in the dead of night is not Ellie — because none of the beings resurrected from the graveyard are their past selves. They’re bodies animated by an angry, seething, intelligent spirit called the Wendigo.
In fact, the Wendigo may be responsible for all of the movie's bloody events. Ellie is only lured to the middle of the road because she sees Church, who she’d been told had run away. Church, as we know, was possessed by the Wendigo. In the 2019 version of Pet Sematary, the Creed family never had a chance: They were dominos in the Wendigo’s game. This greatly contrasts with the 1989 version, which had no mention of the Wendigo – Louis’s decisions are entirely his own.
What follows is a bloodbath. First, Ellie kills Jud. Then, after Rachel and Gage return from Boston, Ellie kills Rachel and drags her to the burial ground. The resurrected Rachel kills Louis. Together, they burn down the house. Just before the movie ends, the three zombie Creeds walk toward Gage, who is locked in the family car. The movie cuts out, but we know what’s next: They add Gage to their undead clan. The human Creed family may be annihilated, but their bodies will live on together in some freaky afterlife, a la The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix.
If you can believe it, the original book features even more trips to the burial ground. After Gage kills Rachel, Louis realizes Gage has to die — again. He puts down his own son. Then, bowled over by the loss of his wife, he brings her to the burial ground. You’d think Louis would have learned by now. But so desperate is he for his loved one to come back from the dead that he forgets the truth: It’s impossible.
So, while Louis is playing solitaire, his resurrected wife approaches him from behind and says, “Darling.” The couple’s reunion in the 1989 movie is even more dramatic. Rachel is missing parts of her skull. And they share a steamy kiss — before she stabs him.
The only survivor? Ellie, who’s staying with her grandparents as the massacre unfolds. Should she ever return to the site of her childhood home and her family’s death, we know exactly who’d be there to greet her.
King never wrote a sequel to Pet Sematary. Sometimes, dead is better.