“Sometimes dead is better.” Like worms wriggling in the soil of a freshly dug grave, those words first burrowed into the psyches of horror fans back in 1983 with the publication of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary—arguably his most unnerving work put to print (it certainly has my vote). Those same four words dug deeper into viewers’ brains in 1989 when the first Pet Sematary film burned an indelible mark on the big screen. Now, nearly three decades after Zelda’s creepy cackle haunted our nightmares, Paramount Pictures is taking us back to the place where the ground is sour with the trailer for the new Pet Sematary film. Over the summer, Daily Dead was invited to join a group of journalists on the set of Pet Sematary in the Québec countryside—you could call it “Jud Crandall country”—outside of Montreal, where we witnessed the craft and care that goes into adapting one of the scariest books ever printed.
We arrived at the farmhouse the same day the Creeds did, at least in the timeline of the film. Dark red paint gleamed in the mid-July sunlight as the crew efficiently—and happily—set up the shot. This was the big arrival scene, the one where the Creed family—comprised of dad (and doctor) Louis Creed, (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), young girl Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and toddler Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie)—pulled up to their new house for the first time as a family. With a cozy front porch and charming weather vane perched atop the roof, the house looked like it was ready to receive new inhabitants with open arms.
Moving the family from the big city to the countryside can be a jarring transition, but the adventurous Ellie was the first to leave the vehicle and approach their new abode, and Louis’ playful banter with his daughter only added to her growing excitement. The only thing that tarnished the moment’s infectious cheerfulness was the tanker truck that suddenly rumbled down the road, its close proximity to the house a stark reminder of just how dangerous this property can be—especially to a family with a cat… and wandering children.
Later in the day, in between puffs on his hand-rolled cigarettes, Louis’ neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) advises him to get his cat, Church, fixed so that he doesn’t get the primal itch to cross the road, which is frequented by semi-trucks coming and going from the plant down the street. Sporting a white beard and taking savored drags on his cigarettes, Lithgow (who in real life does not smoke) really transformed himself to play Louis’ comfortable country confidante in Pet Sematary, and although he’s never seen the 1989 film or read the book, he was good friends with the late, great Fred Gwynne, who played Jud in the original movie, making this role a full circle experience for Lithgow.
“I was captivated by the story,” Lithgow told us. “I hadn’t read the book when it came to me, nor had I seen the movie. The closest I came to knowing about this was being an old friend of Fred Gwynne’s. He’s the only actor I’ve worked with on stage who’s taller than me. I read it [the screenplay] and it scared the hell out of me. The first shocks on the page were the first shocks in the film, and they really shocked me. I thought it would be really fun to be in this.”
As we watched scenes from King’s classic book come to life in the gorgeous Canadian countryside, it was hard to ignore that we were only a few hours from Maine, aka Stephen King Land, where the first Pet Sematary film was made. Although King has been writing books for over 40 years and people have been adapting them for almost as long, we’re still living in the Golden Age of King on both the big and small screens, with a plethora of adaptations released every year for new generations to enjoy.
Directors of the critically acclaimed Starry Eyes, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have had their eyes on the new Pet Sematary movie for quite some time. Sitting in the backyard of the Creed house, with mid-summer sunshine burning brightly on wide-open horse pastures beyond the yard, the filmmakers shared their excitement at finally getting the chance to direct their own version of Pet Sematary in the latest “Stephen King Renaissance.”
“IT came along and blew the doors wide open,” Widmyer explained, “and suddenly we’re in the Stephen King Renaissance, probably about the fourth one he’s had in his career [laughs]. They looked at this and said, ‘This is one of his seminal books,’ the guy’s written over 70 novels, and this is probably one of his top five novels, so they’d be nuts not to make this.”
“And how it came to us,” Kölsch said, “is after Starry Eyes, when we were going on meetings to take jobs, Pet Sematary was around, and that was a studio job that we really would have liked to have gotten, but at the time there was another director attached, and our reps were like, ‘No, there’s no chance, you’re not going to get it. And we got attached to a few other things, and then somehow the planets aligned, and IT came out, like Dennis said, and blew the doors open. The other director that was on here had left, our projects that we were attached to just never went, and we were available again. It just all lined up perfectly.”
Sharing in Kölsch and Widmyer’s enthusiasm for the new movie is Jason Clarke, who immersed himself in the fatherly role of Louis and the story’s eerie atmosphere by reading King’s Pet Sematary multiple times, using it as a constant point of reference while bringing his character and the book’s haunting “what if?” to life.
“I found the book heartbreaking,” Clarke told us. “It’s one of the great ‘what ifs?’ What would you do? I think everyone can relate to it. [Louis] was just a normal dude, a dad, who gets handed this dark secret and does something like Frankenstein’s Bride or Monster of Frankenstein.”
As much as the character of Louis is a focal point in Pet Sematary, Rachel is the driving force and heart throughout much of the story. This new film adaptation certainly looks to be no exception, as Seimetz brings a fierce love of family to the role of Rachel, and it helped that she was no stranger to Stephen King before coming aboard Pet Sematary.
“I read the book when I was eight. I read a lot of Stephen King when I was young. I think my parents allowed me to read [his books] just because they were excited that I was reading in general—Cujo, Christine, Pet Sematary, and IT, which was also terrifying. Pet Sematary, when I was younger, was much more disturbing than a monster or a car or a clown—the clown is pretty terrifying, though—or a dog that’s rabid. Those seemed much more supernatural. The thing that stayed with me when I was little, and even still, is the exploration of grief and death and the denial of death, and not really wanting to accept death.”
As intriguing as the human characters are in the new Pet Sematary, it’s the titular location that is the most mesmerizing of all. Located deep in the Québec woods where the mosquitoes reign supreme and you can practically hear Mother Nature murmuring through the leaves, the “Pet Sematary” that Jud introduces to the Creed family is a masterful, jaw-dropping arrangement of children-made pet graves set against a backdrop of a massive deadfall. It is, quite simply, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, and walking through the rows of faux graves gave me a serious case of the goosebumps.
With the image of the Pet Sematary still emblazoned on my brain, it’s no wonder that it took production designer Todd Cherniawsky and his team several weeks to create what is sure to be one of the most gorgeous and haunting locations on the big screen in 2019. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in theaters.
Until then, please enjoy the new Pet Sematary trailer below, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for Part 2 of our set visit report before Pet Sematary haunts theaters on April 5th, 2019, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Synopsis: "Based on the seminal horror novel by Stephen King, Pet Sematary follows Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), who, after relocating with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two young children from Boston to rural Maine, discovers a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near the family’s new home. When tragedy strikes, Louis turns to his unusual neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unfathomable evil with horrific consequences."
Pet Sematary was directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, written by Jeff Buhler, and stars Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Hugo & Lucas Lavoie, and John Lithgow.