Be aware there are spoilers for both the 1989 and 2019 versions of Pet Sematary, as well as the original novel.
If you’ve seen the new spin on Pet Sematary, heck even if you’ve just seen the trailer (don’t read this if you’ve only seen the trailer), you know that the latest adaptation of Stephen King‘s classic novel takes some liberties and makes some big swings. Of course, there’s the big switch — it’s not the toddler Gage who dies in this version, it’s his older sister Ellie, and that key shakeup has all kinds of ramifications on the end product.
But it’s the new take on the ending that’s bound to become the big moment people walk out of the theater debating. Fortunately, if you’re looking for a little insight into why the new version of the film delivers an even bleaker ending, I’ve got some answers for you. On the heels of the film’s SXSW debut, I went straight to the source for some explanation and spoke with the cast and filmmaker about how the whole bloody affair came together.
In case you forgot, the book also ends on a total downer moment, and it’s just as ambiguous-but-not-really as the one we get in the new film. King’s novel follows the Creed family — father Louis, mother Rachel, daughter Ellie and toddler son Gage — freshly relocated to a quiet country town where they’re looking to start anew. Instead, all they find is death and destruction. Housed up on a busy country road where semi-trucks regularly careen past their quiet home, the Creed’s beloved cat Church gets run over in short order. In the hopes of helping his newfound friends escape grief (and compelled by a mystical force he can’t quite explain,) Louis’ neighbor and father figure Jud Crandall takes Louis to an ancient burial ground hidden in the forest behind their home, where the dead come back to life. Louis buries the cat in the sacred/sour ground and Church returns an undead shadow of himself, violent where he was once loving.
Things get really tragic when young Gage wanders into the road and suffers the same fate as the family cat, killed on the spot. Now that Louis has visited the graveyard, he finds he can’t resist its pull and against all good sense, he buries his son in the hopes of bringing him back. Of course, Gage comes back wrong. He kills Jud, then Rachel. Louis kills the reanimated Church and Gage, but once again beside himself with grief, he takes his wife to the burial ground, convincing himself that because he’s burring her quicker than he did with Gage, she’ll come back in better shape. Probably not. The book ends with Louis playing solitaire in the house, waiting. He hears the door open, footsteps behind him, and draws the Queen of Spades. Behind him, the re-animated Rachel puts a cold hand on his shoulder and with a voice “full of dirt,” simply says “darling”. The end.
Mary Lambert‘s beloved 1989 film adaptation, which was based on script King wrote himself, is extremely faithful to the material if less ambiguous. Waiting for his wife to come home, Louis watches the reanimated Rachel walk through the door, dripping blood and ooze, and rises to embrace her. They share a passionate (and disgusting) kiss and just before the scene cuts to credits, she picks up a knife and starts to raise it in the air.
By contrast, Paramount’s new adaptation from Starry Eyes filmmakers Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer takes a whole lot of freedom with the material. Sure they include some things that were left out of the original film — most importantly the Wendigo and hints at the mythology behind the burial ground — but they also make some huge diversions. Until Ellie dies things are more or less the same, but as soon as she comes back from the dead the movie becomes a whole different beast. In this version, Rachel suffers greatly before her death, taunted and tormented by the ghoulish spirit inside her daughter’s body before she’s brutally stabbed to death. This time, it’s not Louis who buries Rachel, it’s little Ellie who drags her mother’s corpse to the burial ground and brings her back to life.
Louis is close behind and just as he’s ready to finally bring the whole thing to a close by killing his daughter, his reanimated wife sneaks up behind him and stabs him through the back. Together, Rachel and Ellie bury Louis to bring him back as one of them. The film ends on Gage, the last living member of the Creed family (a nice inversion from the book) who is locked in the car, just kinda chilling. Through the windshield, he sees the living corpses of his mother, father, and sister walking towards him. Just before the credits roll, Louis walks to Gage’s window. Like the endings that preceded it, the implication is clear, but the ambiguity remains.
Speaking with Kölsch and Widmyer after their premiere, the directors explained that they didn’t necessarily set out to reinvent king’s ending, it was a byproduct of earlier changes in the script (which was already written when they signed on.)
“It wasn’t necessarily an idea like, ‘We have to change the ending.’ It was just sort of other things changed within the movie,” Kölsch explained. “We changed it from Gage to Ellie, then obviously Ellie then being this character that could now have the awareness to know what’s going on with her and to have conversations about it. It changed the scenes afterward.”
As it turns out, the ending they landed on wasn’t the one in the original script, and it was quite a process to get there. Screenwriter Jeff Buhler, who re-wrote the script from an existing draft (which already had the Ellie/Gage switch), explained that there were countless conversations about how to end the film. “Any permutation you can imagine, we discussed and many of them were written,” he said, including a version where Louis did kill Ellie. “I wrote many alternate versions and then we even covered a couple of them.” Producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura added, “We had three different ideas. Dark, darker, and darkest. We chose darkest.