During Ellie's birthday party, Jud can be heard in the background saying, "There was a big Saint Bernard. He got rabies...". This is an obvious reference to Cujo (1983), another movie based on a Stephen King novel.
Animal trainer Melissa Millett revealed that a total of five cats, all rescues, were cast to play Church, although ultimately one of them dropped out after getting scared on the set. The feline actors were accommodated in five trailers, along with their human trainers, although one had to be kept in a separate trailer from the others because it did not get along with its cast mates. Millett noted, "The only good working cat is a happy cat...They were quite spoiled." The film crew even built an area near the trailers, nicknamed a "catio," where the hard-working kitties could play and relax between takes. The cats spent two months in training for the shoot, which took around 10 weeks. Aside from the one cranky cat, the rest reportedly got along well with each other and with the movie's human stars, including Jason Clarke and John Lithgow. The quintet of feline stars all found homes after the shoot was done: two were adopted by the movie's animal coordinator, Millett found homes for another two with friends, and kept one herself.
For the five cat's makeup, egg whites and Cherry Knoll chalk block was used to make their fur look matted, then leaves, pieces of dried grass, and light dirt were stuck on. To create a fake blood effect they used corn syrup mixed with organic food coloring. The cats did not appear stressed, rather they ate food and treats, drank water, and even used the litter box, while getting their makeup applied.
Sadly on May 30th 2019 the main cat who portrayed the undead Church 'Leo' passed away. Kir Jarrett who adopted him after filming, announced the sad news on an Instagram account dedicated to his furry friend. "It is with great sadness that we tell you that Leo has passed away. He will forever be missed by his human and fur family. May his star always shine bright."
Unlike Pet Sematary (1989), Jud provides a hint at what this being is when he explains to Louis what he has learned about that secret burial ground. Jud's home is full of books about Native American lore, part of a lifetime of research about the woods. As Louis flips through one book, he sees the same warning markings that he spotted on the trees, then an illustration of the Wendigo: a towering figure with the antlers of a deer.
The name of the cat in the movie is Church. Named after Winston Churchill. When Ellie explains this to Jud (played by John Lithgow) he says "I know who Winston Churchill is." Coincidentally, Lithgow played Winston Churchill in The Crown (2016-) .
Gone is the specific reference to the Micmac tribe that Stephen King wrote into his novel as Jud's explanation of the place's origins. Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch chose a more culturally sensitive explanation, that indigenous people also encountered the grounds but fled after discovering its power.
Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer told Polygon they were concerned about how to approach depicting Zelda. "We were a little worried about [the character]," Widmyer said. "There was ideas of possibly not doing Zelda because we were so in awe of the actor from the first movie." Rather than backing away from the challenge, Kölsch and Widmyer took a different angle, one they felt better represented her depiction in the novel. "That whole idea of taunting the sister with your own sickness because you hate yourself, and you hate your sister because she's healthy and you're not," Widmyer said. "This is a very grounded, sad story, even if you strip out the supernatural aspects."
When Louis does research on his MacBook about reanimation incidents in Ludlow, he comes across articles about Hanratty the bull and soldier Timmy Baterman. In this remake Baterman is updated from a WWII Veteran to a Vietnam Veteran, due to being set in the 2010s rather than the 1980s, in which the book and original Pet Sematary (1989) were set).
While five cats were used throughout the film, it was primarily Leo and Tonic who played Church in the key moments, with Tonic playing the role of a living Church and Leo taking over whenever Church was required to be undead. As trainer Melissa Millett explained to AV Club: "We did end up using Leo for almost all of the undead stuff. Tonic did some action for him, and Tonic was the family pet, because their looks went together so perfectly. We also trained cats as backups for the two main cats: Tonic was an action cat, and Jaeger was an action cat. JD excels at quiet staring, and Leo excels at quiet staring." Fellow trainer Kirk Jarrett added in the same must-read interview, "Leo is a confident sit-stay cat. His role is as the undead Church; that was his whole purpose, to be the poster child. The cat you see all across the different platforms, and in the trailer, almost any time he's in in the undead makeup--that was Leo." After filming wrapped, Jarrett adopted Leo and Millett adopted Tonic, and both trainers had fun with their newly adopted stars by giving them their own Instagram accounts.
Producer Di Bonaventura notes that Kevin Kölsch and Widmyer gave Stephen King an early heads-up on the big twist. "We wanted to see if he had any objections, and he was more than cool with it," said the producer. "In some ways it's true to the book because in the book the conversations about death are with Ellie. In that respect we're following the book. We call it wrapping it up in a black ribbon," said co-director Widmyer. "It is wrapped up, but not how you think it's going to be."
All of the changes from the novel were driven by the desire to find a new angle on a familiar story. "When you're making an adaptation, you want to do as much new, fresh things that you can because there's already an existing movie," said Kevin Kölsch. "But at the same time, you want to make sure that you're staying true to the essence of the book so that people still feel like they're getting Stephen King's Pet Sematary."
According to the cat groomer Tanya, It took almost two months of training to get the five cats fully comfortable with the makeup. "We used a protocol with desensitization to really get them used to that. We started out with just doing a cat in a dry tub having catnip parties. That was a lot of fun. Then we did the cats enjoying the dry tub with lots of treats, so they got some pâté and kitty treats. Then we started doing a little bit of water each time, slowly increasing the amount of water each time just to make sure they were comfortable with that process. We did it so progressively that the cats were comfortable with the bathing and comfortable with the makeup. We knew that if we didn't acclimate the cats to the makeup, they're licking it off."
"It's not only about modern sensitivities, but we thought it was interesting if this is one of those places where something supernatural happens that can't be explained," said Kevin Kölsch. "You think of all these places, like the Mystery Spot, Stonehenge and Easter Island - it's the way we think about a lot of stories or religions, that these are people's ways of explaining phenomena." "Or coping." added Widmyer.
According to Stephen King lore, Ludlow is about an hour drive from Castle Rock, the setting of quite a few works by the writer, including The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, and Needful Things. It's also the setting of the Hulu series, Castle Rock.
"Ever hungry, they craved human flesh, which is the only substance that could sustain them," wrote Ojibwe storyteller Basil Johnston in The Manitous. "The irony is that having eaten human flesh, the Wendigoes grew in size, so their hunger and craving remained in proportion to their size; thus they were eternally starving." Eventually, after wandering the woods of Canada and Minnesota, the ever-starving Wendigo made its way to Ludlow. Jud, Louis's neighbor, sheds some light on the history of the Wendigo and Ludlow. A lifetime resident of Ludlow, Jud knows well enough not to venture into the burial ground too often. Judging by the the archives that Louis pulls up on his computer, the burial ground's powers seem to be common knowledge in Ludlow. Residents have been using the burial ground's powers for decades as someone once brought back a bull and a dog.
The character Jud is played by actor John Lithgow who graduated magna cumme laude from Harvard University in 1967. In the original 1989 Pet Sematary the character Jud is played by actor Fred Gwynne who graduated from Harvard University in 1951.
On October 30, 2017, it was announced that Paramount Pictures had officially greenlit the film which was expected to be directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler and David Kajganich (the latter went uncredited). Producers were slated to include Di Bonaventura, Schneider, and Mark Vahradian.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In Pet Sematary (1989), the driver of the gasoline truck that struck Gage is listening to Sheena Is a Punk Rocker by The Ramones. In this version, the truck's driver is distracted by a call on his cellphone. The caller's name is shown as Sheena.
Kevin Kölsch and Widmyer credits Jeté Laurence, who turned 11 during the shoot, with a preternatural talent for slipping into her character's sinister side. "She was a natural," said Kölsch. "I don't know necessarily where it came from! Before we would do certain takes in certain scenes where she was evil Ellie she'd say, 'Hey guys, could I just have a minute?' And she'd go stand off by herself, look down and think for a minute, then she'd go: 'OK. I'm ready.' And she'd come back and she'd be evil Ellie. And she was so convincing."
Jud's wife Norma is alive in the novel, while she has died prior to the events of the film. She almost dies of a heart attack early in the book, but Louis saves her, which is one of the reasons Jud takes Louis to the burial ground.
Stephen King proposed an alternate ending, where Gage is walking up the middle of the road, dawn is approaching, and a truck is heard coming, "and think, 'Oh my God, he's gonna get greased in the road. That's how this is gonna end!'" King said. Then at the last second, this woman pulls him out of the road and rescues him, and says, 'Where's your mommy and daddy?' "And that's how you end the thing. But that isn't what they show." he stated.
While Rachel and Ellie are taking a break from unpacking, Ellie is watching Spongebob Squarepants. The episode she is watching is "Squidward The Unfriendly Ghost" wherein Spongebob and Patrick are convinced Squidward's dead and persist in preparing a proper burial for him.
Multiple versions of the ending were written and a couple of them were shot. One of them was the original ending from the book, and when they showed both endings to test audiences, the new one got the best response, according to producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. "A lot of times with endings, you kind of just let the audience tell you what they're feeling. We got to screen both of them to people and it just seemed like audiences really responded to that one."
In both endings, Louis Creed is served with the terrible consequences of his desperation to keep his family together at all costs, says Kevin Kölsch: "It was a different sequence of events that was also dark that was arriving at the same, or somewhat similar conclusion of the arc. It was just about finding the one we thought worked better to serve the theme." "We call it wrapping it up in a black ribbon," said Widmyer. "It is wrapped up, but not how you think it's going to be." "There are so many movies, even horror movies, that end in happy endings [where] somebody beats the bad guy," said Widmyer. "Films like 'Hereditary' or 'Rosemary's Baby' have these dark endings - 'Rosemary's Baby' is a good example because it's a dark ending, but she's kind of happy that she has her kid. You get to leave the theater not exactly sure how you feel, which is always more interesting to me. Whenever you're able to do that, it's a victory for the genre."
Ellie no longer wants Church in her room because he scratched her while she was brushing him. In the book and Pet Sematary (1989) it's the cat's smell that causes her to banish him from her room. She does, however, comment on his bad smell right before getting scratched.
While the movie ends ambiguously regarding the fate of Gage, the beginning shows us the aftermath of the final scene, namely a small bloody handprint on the car window with a trail of blood leading up to the front porch.
Another detail absent from the new film in the interest of keeping its plot streamlined was the bad blood between Rachel's parents and Louis. "There's a small remnant of it where you can see the father-in-law give [Louis] the dirtiest look at the funeral, and that's a tip of the hat to the subject matter," said Di Bonaventura. "That's one thing I would have loved to put in the movie, but we didn't really have room for it."
According to Kevin Kölsch, Zelda's death scene change was based on a news story Widmyer read in which a waitress fell into a dumbwaiter and broke her neck during her first week on the job. "The idea of dying that way was just so horrendous to me that we said, you know what, what if we tried to do more with this." Widmyer said. "This still chills me when I think about it."
Stephen King decided Norma Crandall, Jud's wife, wasn't vital to the story when adapting his own book for Pet Sematary (1989) because she doesn't appear at all. She shows up briefly in this version to torment Jud.
In the novel, when Louis considers bringing Gage back by burying him in the burial ground, Jud tells Louis the gruesome story of WWII Veteran Timmy Baterman, the last person who was resurrected by the burial ground. However, the story of Timmy was not included in the film. In the film while Louis is doing research on the burial ground after Church is resurrected he comes across an article about a Vietnam Veteran who is spotted after his funeral. His name is Timmy Baterman.
Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer told EW the twist in screenwriter Jeff Buhler's script allows the story to explore some new aspects of a child returning from the dead, since the older girl can say and do things a 2-year-old simply cannot.
The Wendigo is a folktale originating from Northeastern tribes that share the Algonquin language. It was a human-devouring beast that served as a cautionary tale against snowbound people turning to cannibalism in the throes of starvation. In various stories, the Wendigo is either created when this abomination happens, or it can possess someone and drive them to feed on the survivors (or the deceased) among them. In Stephen King's novel, this evil presence is what reanimates the dead and sends them back bloodthirsty and hungry for flesh, it appears in the final third of the movie, where a grief-stricken Louis Creed is carrying the exhumed body of his 9-year-old daughter beyond the ruins of the Pet Sematary to the ancient resurrection grounds that lie deeper in the woods. As he passes through Little God Swamp, standing amongst the trees, the mist closes around the shape, and it's gone. Like the audience, Louis isn't supposed to be sure what he's looking at, which is exactly how it plays out in King's novel when he sees (or thinks he sees) the towering figure of the creature in Little God Swamp.
At the time, Stephen King tweeted out the trailer that unveiled the switch and added praise for the film ("This is a scary movie. Be warned"), but he never specifically reacted to the alteration the April 5 film made to his story. His positive reaction clashes with the unhappy reactions of some of his constant readers. "It's something different," King says. "They did a good job. Boy, I saw all the stuff that came online when people realized that it was Ellie rather than Gage that got run over in the road, and I'm thinking like, 'Man, these people' It's so nuts."
Unlike the novel or Pet Sematary (1989), it is not Gage who is killed and resurrected, but Ellie. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer stated there were numerous reasons for the change, including an 8-year old girl being more physically intimidating than a 3-year old boy, and the fact that Ellie is able to share quieter moments with other characters before the tragedy, unlike her brother. The film does tease Gage being the one to be hit by the Orinco truck when he runs out into the street to warn Ellie when she finds Church, but, unlike the original story and film, Louis pulls him out of the road in time, ensuring that the truck crashes into Ellie.
When they're discussing death, Louis tells Ellie she has nothing to worry about that "Mommy, Daddy, and Church will be around a long, long time", foreshadowing the ending when they become resurrected. Ellie asks, "And Gage too?" Illustrating the ambiguity of the finale.
Ellie refers to herself before and after she becomes resurrected as "Ellie the Great and Terrible." The nickname foreshadows her fate and is an Easter egg to the novel. Zelda had a picture on her bedroom wall of "Oz The Great and Terrible" that smashed when she died, and in the Oz novel, there are themes associated with the supernatural and death.
Widmyer points to the Gage of Stephen King's book and his uncanny knowledge of things he shouldn't know, particularly when it comes to Jud's late wife, Norma. In the new film, Ellie uses the memory of Norma against Jud by conjuring the woman's visage and similarly uses Rachel's deeply repressed guilt over the childhood death of her own sister against her. "That was important to us to bring into the movie, to psychologically kill a person before you physically kill them," said Widmyer. "That's why she says, 'You wanted your sister to die. You prayed she would,' and makes Amy confess to her darkest sins. That's almost worse than stabbing her."
The filmmakers had three ideas for endings that were ranked by 'darkness', and they chose the darkest one for the theatrical release. They never intended for Pet Sematary to have a happy ending, and screenwriter Jeff Buhler said it gave the film an extra punch. "It felt right to have an ending that had a little punch to it and was kind of a wink. Like, 'We're in a horror movie people, it's Friday night, you're out with your friends, have some fun."
Kevin Kölsch told Collider that the ending changed organically during filmmaking and it wasn't a change they initially set out to make. "It wasn't necessarily an idea like, 'We have to change the ending.' It was just sort of other things changed within the movie. 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."
In March 2019, producer Di Bonaventura admitted that a prequel to the film is possible if the film is a success financially, saying, "I generally don't start thinking about [sequels] until they're a success. I think if there's anything here, there's a prequel. I think if you look at the book, we didn't cover all that stuff that happens before the Creed family moves in. So, I think there's a movie there, and I think I'd be particularly interested in doing that, because, again, it's the source material and you are going toward something that also has a lot of crazy, creepy feelings about it."
The novel ends with Louis burning Jud's house and burying Rachel in the burial ground. Then, Louis sits with his back to the door playing solitaire, listening to Rachel's reanimated corpse walk up behind him to drop a cold hand on his shoulder. In the film, Rachel is stabbed by Ellie and she buries her in the burial ground, then Rachel reanimates and stabs Louis to death. In the 2019 film, the undead Creeds burn Jud's house to the ground.
The novel stated that most animals revived just come back 'off' rather than explicitly bad, Jud explicitly states that everything he's heard of that was brought back to life came back mean and cruel, and also acknowledges that the place has the power to twist minds so that they tell themselves it might work out better this time. This is explicitly demonstrated in Church, who far from the stinking, slightly dull cat of the novel or the hissing glow-eyed feline of Pet Sematary (1989), is actively malicious. It's implied that Church lured Ellie out into the path of the truck in revenge for Louis abandoning him outside of town.
It took ten minutes to apply the undead makeup per cat, to get the makeup on animal trainer Melissa Millett would get the kitties all excited. "There was a fine line you wanted to make sure the kitties were happy during makeup but still hungry enough that they wanted to work during scenes. We had to control the amount of treats we were offering, we had to ration their treats. We'd break those Temptations into the tiniest pieces possible so that we still had hungry cats. That was a real challenge."
After Louis has a nightmare about Victor's warnings, Gage appears to pretend to scare Louis in a monster pose to wake him up in the morning, a nod to Gage having become an actual monster in the original book and Pet Sematary (1989).
There are subtle references to Stephen King's "The Shining (1980)" in the film. The most notable example is when Ellie is trying to break into the bathroom to kill Rachel, in the same manner as Jack Torrance. Ellie is bashing against the door while Rachel grabs Gage and helps him out the window that she can't fit through, similar to Wendy Torrance.
Ludlow, the main setting of the book and movies, is also where Stephen King's novel The Dark Half takes place. Interestingly enough, both novels deal with how the main character's darker side gets those around him killed.
The film has multiple red herrings to Gage being the child hit by the Orinco truck, as was the case in the novel and Pet Sematary (1989). When Louis is talking to Elle about death, he emphasizes that Gage will be around for a long time, creating the potential for dramatic irony. Gage also walks towards the oncoming Orinco truck, but Louis manages to save him this time, with Elle being hit instead.
When speaking in a interview shortly after the films release, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer talked about a lot of material that was cut from Pet Sematary's final cut. Amidst remarks about deleted content that fleshed out the relationships between Louis and Jud, as well as Louis and his daughter Ellie, an entire alternate ending was shot for the film; an ending that, according to Dennis Widmyer's remarks below, was pretty hard to cut: "That [alternate] ending we shot first, and then we decided, you know, to have this other ending, so the studio could test two different endings we [edited] them both and both endings [test] scored pretty equally. They're both disturbing and dark. [But] I would say that the current ending [in the final film] sends off the audience with a smile on its face, while at the same time though, [they're saying] 'That was messed up!' Whereas the other one, I don't think anyone would be smiling. The other one has more of a bleak, kind of sad tone to it."
Also similar to original Pet Sematary (1989) and book is the ending, where one of the undead parents checks up on a still living family member. Except instead of Louis encountering an undead Rachel, it's Gage encountering an undead Louis.
The alternate ending was of Rachel and Ellie both back from the dead. And there's a shot of [Louis] with Gage in his lap. Both of them are normal. It's like a family portrait. And then, mom walks in. She's clearly out there in another world. And daughter comes in, and daughter says, 'Hi, mommy. I love you.' And then the camera's on them like a family portrait. And then it just pulls back, the little kid's crying, and [Louis] just looks like he's been run over by a bus."
Cat's Eye (1985) is also stealth referenced as Church attempts to suffocate Gage. Cats stealing breath was a plot point in one of the segments of that film - only in that case the cat was trying to prevent it.