This preview of Pet Sematary: Bloodlines comes from a Q&A after the movie’s world premiere at the 2023 Fantastic Fest film festival.
Fans of Pet Sematary, one of Stephen King’s all-time scariest books, have had a major gripe since the novel was first published in 1983. The action centers on a secret burial ground in the woods near a small Maine town, where anything interred in the earth returns to life. This is a horror story, so naturally, there are consequences.
But new-to-town protagonist Louis Creed is willing to risk those consequences, once he finds out about the place from an aging local man, Jud Crandall. Why the hell does Jud invite Louis to use the pet cemetery’s powers when he knows from experience what will happen? Readers have been asking that question for 40 years now.
Lindsey Anderson Beer’s new prequel movie, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, makes Jud’s actions seem more irresponsible and unlikelier than ever. But as Beer and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura explained in a Q&A after the film’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest in September, they did set out to address Jud’s behavior in a way that would finally fill in what King fans consider the book’s biggest plot hole.
[Ed. note: Very minor spoilers ahead for Pet Sematary: Bloodlines’ broad setup and inspiration. This preview avoids any specific plot spoilers for the new movie.]
Bloodlines is a solid enough addition to the Pet Sematary cinematic library. It isn’t as scary as Mary Lambert’s 1989 movie adaptation, starring Dale Midkiff as Louis and (more memorably) Fred Gwynne as Jud. But it’s better paced and performed, and significantly more thought seems to have been put into making it a human story, as well as a creature feature. It’s also better on all fronts than the dismal 2019 remake with Jason Clarke as Louis and John Lithgow as Jud. And it adds some substantial new lore to the Pet Sematary world that answers some unanswered questions in just enough detail to be intriguing, without dissipating the tension the way so many horror spinoffs do. Most significantly, it clarifies the relationship between the Micmacs, the town’s local natives, and the cursed burial ground.
At the same time, the movie fills in Jud’s backstory in ways that make his later relationship with Louis feel stranger than ever. At the movie’s Fantastic Fest premiere, Beer described her script as a substantial rewrite of initial drafts by 2019 Pet Sematary co-writer Jeff Buhler, who has a co-writing credit. The film was largely inspired by chapter 39 of Pet Sematary, where Jud tells Louis the story of Timmy Baterman, a Vietnam vet killed in action, then placed in the burial ground and revived by his grieving father, Bill. (David Duchovny plays Bill in Bloodlines, and it’s a strikingly understated and effective performance.)
The events, from Jud’s younger days, clearly had a profound impact on him — it’s a horrendously creepy chapter in the book, and a rich vein to mine in the new movie. But after watching Bloodlines, it’s harder than ever to believe that Jud would ever take anyone up to the cemetery again.
In King’s novel, Jud does offer an unsatisfying initial explanation for his actions. He suggests that he wanted to teach Louis’ young daughter a lesson about mourning her pet cat, which Louis resurrects. “Maybe I did it because kids need to know that sometimes dead is better,” Jud says. (“Sometimes dead is better” became a classic tagline for these movies, and it’s intoned in grim voice-over in Bloodlines’ trailer.) Leaving aside the rudeness of grotesquely violating the natural order of the world just to teach someone else’s child an unrequested moral lesson, the lesson itself doesn’t seem worth the price.
Later in the novel, though, Jud offers another reason altogether, stemming from an incident where Louis, a doctor, helped Jud’s wife, Norma, survive a cardiac event. That reason is far more compelling: “It’s an evil, curdled place, and I had no business taking you up there to bury that cat. I know that now,” he tells Louis. “It has a power you’ll beware of if you know what’s good for your family and what’s good for you. I wasn’t strong enough to fight it. You saved Norma’s life, and I wanted to do something for you, and that place turned my good wish to its own evil purpose.”
At the Fantastic Fest Q&A, one audience member raised the question yet again: Why would Jud ever invite anyone up to the burial ground again, after everything he endures in this movie? Beer explained: “When you’re watching any of the other movies or reading the book, you’re going, Why, why, why is Jud telling Louis about the land when he knows about its evil properties and he’s friends with Louis? We were actually hoping to answer more of that in this movie, and give a sense that the evil whispers to you and seduces you. That’s something the book talks a lot about.”
Bloodlines clarifies that the burial ground itself doesn’t have any innate magic. There’s a mysterious dark force in the woods that speaks into people’s minds and manipulates them, though it prefers to animate corpses, because they don’t argue back the way living people like Jud do. Still, Beer says, it gets Jud in the end. “The book intimates that Timmy Baterman is the reason the evil targeted Jud,” she said. “It pretty much suggests that the evil was waiting for Jud to be more feeble-minded, an older person, and then get him. Which, obviously, we know it does.”
“Working on the previous movie, we struggled with that question, like, Why are you letting [Louis] bring the cat out there?” di Bonaventura said at the Q&A. “And trying to answer it, our discovery was that there is no answer. Trying to rationalize evil, the power of evil, it’s an impossibility. I think that runs through King’s work, which doesn’t really try to explain the evils of different things — they just are.”
Di Bonaventura added that he found that discovery amusing, because it flies in the face of movie-studio logic, which says that audiences want all their questions clearly answered in a movie. “The development process in Hollywood is always trying to answer the question,” he said. “The audience is gonna want to answer the question. And in this case, what we discovered is, every time we came up with our own answer, it didn’t make [the movie] stronger, it made it weaker.”
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines debuts exclusively on Paramount Plus on Oct. 6.