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Warning: SPOILERS for Pet Sematary are in play. If you haven’t seen the new adaptation of the same-named Stephen King novel, come back later once you’ve caught up.
Pet Sematary is one of those stories that has such a built-in fanbase, they practically know the basic beats by heart. The big scares, the great heartbreaks and the chilling final moments are all etched in to the minds of those who read the 1983 novel, and that sort of knowledge sits in a book fan’s mind pretty tightly. So obviously, whenever there’s a change to the source material, be it the Creed family being from Boston instead of Chicago or Ellie dying instead of Gage, it’s going to stick out in the mind of those who really liked the source material.
Except in the case of Pet Sematary, there’s a change so great that it alters the outcome of the book to a major degree. And much like with Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist, it all results in an ending that’s absolutely chilling. If you’re still reading, and you haven’t seen the new film currently in theaters, now’s a good time to leave. Otherwise, let’s exhume the film’s ending and do an autopsy of what changed and why it works.
Much like both the novel and the previous film adaptation of Pet Sematary, all of the trouble comes down to Louis Creed resurrecting the family cat and a departed child. Only this time, Ellie Creed is the child who dies at the hand of an Orinco oil tanker, and with this switch comes an entirely different set of problems. After burying Ellie in the sour earth that brings the dead back to life, she comes back to her father, but she’s not quite the same. Much like Church the cat, something evil’s come back with her, and it’s not long before it unleashes itself upon the Creed family.
After racing home with little Gage, who saw the spirit of dead patient/portent of doom, Victor Pasgow, Rachel and the young one are surprised that Ellie is back in the house. Louis tells his wife tearfully that he needed more time to say goodbye to her, and urges Rachel to accept her and hug her tight. But his wife cannot accept her, to which Ellie merely replies that it’s ok, she doesn’t want her mother here either. And she’s does something about that rather quickly.
While Louis leaves the house to search for Ellie, his daughter is really at home, terrorizing her mother with a vision that preys on the guilt of her ill sister’s death. After snapping out of that vision, Rachel is attacked by Ellie and eventually stabbed with a kitchen knife. Running from her daughter, with Gage in her arms, she breaks a window when she sees Louis returning to the house. Dangling Gage out of the window, she pleads that he catch the baby and drops Gage as she’s stabbed in the back by Ellie. After locking Gage in the car, Louis rushes up to the room where his wife was attacked, and before she dies, she begs not to be buried in “pet sematary.”
The final moments of the film run totally against Rachel’s wishes, as not only does Ellie knock Louis out in order to bury her mom, Rachel then kills Louis before he murders Ellie’s undead form and buries him in the soil. At the very end of the film, we see little Gage waking up in the car, with his now resurrected family coming to see him. As we cut to Gage, Louis clicks the car unlocked, and we fade to black.
How It’s Different
A huge chunk of the original third act of Pet Sematary is changed from the initial intent of the novel, as well as the first adaptation. While Rachel did die, and Gage was the child terrorizing the family, Ellie was nowhere near the conflict as she was still with her grandparents in Chicago. So originally, the final act of the story was Louis squaring off with the resurrected Gage and Church, the eventual result being that Louis kills both of them in a combination of a morphine overdose and a housefire. Which leaves the classic final hook that Stephen King’s novel and the eventual screenplay for director Mary Lambert’s adaptation would play to end the film.
Louis, no wiser than he was when he buried Gage, thinks that since he’s burying Rachel quicker than he did any of his other loved ones, it’ll work this time. So he puts his wife in the ground, only for her to return just as screwed up as the rest of the family did, and as she approaches him with a kitchen knife, we cut to black and hear a screaming Louis reaping what he’s sewn. Now while that ending is a classic, and pretty chilling in both classic versions of Pet Sematary, this new ending works quite a bit better, and if Stephen King’s reaction to the film is any indication, he probably agrees.
Why The New Ending Works Better
Pet Sematary is ultimately a meditation on death and how grief clouds our minds. Of course, this being a Stephen King story, that grief happens to go hand in hand with a supernatural entity. In this case, the Wendigo is what haunts the woods of Ludlow, Maine, and just as the textbook definition of this creature says, it possesses anything buried in that sour earth and turns them into an unnatural killing machine. But it lures people into dying, as we saw with Church luring Ellie into the middle of the road, as well as baiting them into burying their loved ones.
In this new ending, the call of the Wendigo isn’t merely something that people hear and heed out of grief; it’s downright psychotic. We see it in Louis’s behavior, right up to Rachel’s death, following a pattern of delusion that all started with his resurrection of Church. Part of it is, indeed, the Wendigo, but Louis’ belief that there’s nowhere to go to in death shakes him to his core. So instead of just grieving for a dead child, he’s dealing with his own feelings on the subject of mortality, and this change digs into deeper, scarier waters. Ellie gets to put the final nail in the coffin when she tells her mother that she technically wins in the argument of if there’s an afterlife or not, but it’s not the type of place you’d want to go.
The best part about Pet Sematary’s new ending though is that it’s a subversive gut punch to audiences old and new, and the proper steps taken to set it up. Every move seems to counter the standard expectations from an adaptation of Pet Sematary. The audience expecting Gage to die gets a shock when they see Ellie get taken out by the tanker truck, provided they haven’t seen the film’s later marketing materials. But even if you’ve had that spoiled for you, when Rachel tells Louis not to bury her in order to trigger a resurrection, seeing Ellie knock him out and do it anyway is a pretty big jaw dropper. From that point on, we’re really in new territory, leaving the big turn where the undead Creed family comes to claim Gage as a cold, haunting finale for all to digest mentally.
It’s a new ending to Pet Sematary, with new quirks thrown in to modernize and update the story for current audiences. But the end, the message is the same: if we’re not careful while grieving, we’re likely to make mistakes that might take everything away from us, especially if there’s a Wendigo involved. In the world of Ludlow, Maine, if you aren’t done with grieving before long, you just might find out that what you grieve isn’t done with you. The Creed family learned this the hard way, as being consumed by grief eventually turned them into literal monsters, and their youngest member is as doomed as he was in that original ending.
Pet Sematary is in theaters now, ready to live its life again as a new haunt for the old crowd.