“When They Think They’re Safe, That’s When You Get Them”: Pet Sematary Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer on Revisiting Stephen King’s Most Unsettling Novel
I first watched Pet Sematary on a family vacation when I was 11 years old—well, watched may be a bit of an exaggeration. My older sister and I made it through the second appearance of Pascow’s rotting corpse before we retreated beneath the hotel bed’s comforter. I eventually braved the entirety on my 13thbirthday, a memorable sleepover double feature with The Fly II.
No movie ever scared me more than Pet Sematary. But while other horror flicks that sent me scuttling under the blankets as a kid now seem almost comically unthreatening in adulthood—your Silver Bullets and My Bloody Valentines—the themes of Pet Sematary have only become more troubling and resonant with time.
Those themes are now being revisited by the Starry Eyes directing duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, who’ve fashioned their own take on Stephen King’s 1983 novel about an ancient Indian burial ground in rural Maine with the power to raise the dead. But, as Fred Gwynne warns in the original film in his heavy Maine accent, “The person you put up there ain’t the person that comes back.”
Filmmaker: Tell me the story of how you first started working together. You both grew up on Long Island and knew each other as teenagers.
Kölsch: We’re from the same area and knew people in common, so we’d see each other at parties or on the basketball court. As far as working together, we were both already writing on our own [before we became friends]. I had just written a script for a screenwriting class when I ran into Dennis at a mutual friend’s house. Our friend was like “Dennis, you write scripts? Kevin wrote a script too.” I lived around the corner, so we walked over to my house and I showed Dennis some stuff. From there we started showing each other our work and giving each other feedback.
We decided that while our other friends were getting together and drinking on Friday nights, we’d try to be productive. So we’d get together, bring our word processors, get some beers and play some music to make it fun. We’d work on pages of our scripts and at the end of the night we’d show each other and give feedback. That turned into helping each other—like if one of us got stuck on a scene, he’d turn to the other and say “I’ve got a problem.” So slowly we started contributing to each other’s scripts and eventually it was like “Why aren’t we just writing these together?”
Filmmaker: When I was a kid, Pet Sematary really scarred me. Was there a movie like that for either of you? Something that terrified you at an impressionable age.
Widmyer: I was a big scaredy cat as a kid so I kind of avoided horror movies. I’d seen Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the Large Marge scene scared the crap out of me. I tell the story a lot and I think people think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I don’t know what it was about that moment because when you look at it now, it’s silly. It’s claymation. But the shock of it and just the whole build-up of that scene is still very effective. That scared me so much that it honestly set me back a few years. I started to avoid any movie that had scares in it, probably until my mid-teens. And then I slowly got pulled back in, first by The Shining, then Alien and Aliens were big movies for me. When I started going to sleepovers and watching movies with friends, it became like a ritual, like “Let’s put on the scariest movie we possibly can!” It was usually something like a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie. It became a fun group experience, which is what seeing movies really should be, and from that point forward I was hooked.
Kölsch: For me, I would say Pet Sematary as well. That came out when I was probably 13. I remember watching it for the first time in a friend’s basement at a sleepover and that really stuck with me. Before that, it was Carrie. I’m the youngest of six kids, so I’d be in the other room trying to peek in on my older siblings watching horror movies. Carrie was the first one that I remember, but I didn’t see the whole movie, I was just peeking at scenes from the other room.
Filmmaker: I hadn’t seen the original Pet Sematary in at least a decade before I rewatched it when your version came out. Revisiting it made me think about why horror movies appeal to me. I’m terrified of doctors and hospitals and death, and I get squeamish around blood and needles, but I’ve loved horror movies since I was a kid. Do you know what draws you to the genre?
Kölsch: Truthfully, I don’t know. I’ve always watched horror movies and I’ve always liked scary stuff. Just over the weekend my brother sent me a picture he’d found of my middle school art folder and it had a big drawing of Freddy Krueger on it. One of my earliest pieces of writing that I’ve found was in a folder from when I was in like second grade and the whole story was just like “I went outside the house. I saw a ghost. My dad chased it away. The end.” (laughs)
Widmyer: I posted this on Instagram maybe a year ago, but I found this short story I wrote. By short story I mean like three sentences, but it’s probably the earliest thing that I wrote that had some creativity behind it. I was probably not even ten, but it was basically some guy running from a killer and falling into a vat of acid.
Kölsch: Yeah, I wish I could give you the thoughtful answer that I’ve heard other filmmakers give—about how it’s cathartic and it’s us facing our fears and all that—but for me I was watching and writing this stuff when I was a kid. I don’t even think I had fears of my own mortality yet at that age.
Filmmaker: I don’t think the appeal for me was ever a sense of catharsis or facing fears. I think it was actually the opposite—that the death in horror movies made the idea an abstraction. That’s probably why Pet Sematary has always gotten to me, because it’s not an abstraction. It’s so specifically about mortality and dealing with death.
Widmyer: Yeah, I get that. The relatabaility of Pet Sematary is what makes the story especially scary, because it’s dealing with mortality and grief and emotions that we’re all going to have to deal with in one way, shape or form in our lives. But I don’t know, when I watch a Friday the 13th movie, I think that’s just fun. There’s a thrill to that. Maybe it’s why people slow down when they see traffic accidents. They don’t want to see anybody hurt, buy there’s something inherent in us that’s drawn to the macabre, I guess.
Filmmaker: Well, Pet Sematary is definitely macabre. When you adapt that story, you’re dealing with the memory of not only Mary Lambert’s film but the original Stephen King novel. Your version changes King’s story in significant ways, but there are moments designed to toy with people familiar with the previous versions. I’m thinking specifically of a shot in Jud’s bedroom where there’s a close-up of his heel that’s a misdirect that only has significance to those familiar with Lambert’s movie.
Widmyer: When you’ve read the book like three times and you’ve seen the movie like a thousand times, you sometimes forget what is specific to the book versus the movie. The ankle thing was specific to Mary Lambert’s movie. So for a second we said, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t do that, ” and then you start to realize that audiences are expecting it, and because they’re expecting it you can sort of lay a trap and use their knowledge against them. So they’re going in thinking “Ah, this is the scene where this thing is going to happen,” then you take your foot off the gas pedal for a second. When they think they’re safe, that’s when you get them.
We originally had a lot more with the ankle. When Jud [played by John Lithgow]leaves his house to go knock on Louis’s door, there was a shot of him looking down and noticing that he was still in his slippers and he almost goes back in and puts on his boots, but then he says “Ah, screw it.” (laughs) So we actually went a lot further with it originally, but I think it’s effective enough as is in the movie.
Filmmaker: The character of Jud has a much different relationship with Louis in your film. His connection is really more with the daughter, Ellie. Mary Lambert has talked about how Jud is almost the devil on Louis’s shoulder. Behind Jud’s small town folksiness she saw a hint of malevolence.
Kölsch: That’s not absent in ours, and you’ll see it even more when the Blu-ray comes out and you can watch deleted/extended scenes. We’re going into spoiler territory here, but nothing that the posters and the trailers and everything haven’t spoiled anyway. But we change the kid [that comes back] to [Louis’s daughter] Ellie. The reason was because Ellie is the one asking questions about death in the first half of the movie and now she has the self-awareness and the vocality to say “You told me we were going to be alive for a long time, Dad,” which you don’t have with a three-year-old [like the younger child in the story, Gage]. But once you make that change, it alters all the dynamics. It changes the relationship with her and her dad and it changes their relationships with Jud.
Filmmaker: When did you decide that John Lithgow would not do the Maine accent that Fred Gwynne has in the original film?
Widmyer: That was an ongoing back-and-forth with John. At first he was up for it, but then he read the book and saw that our interpretation in the script was different. In the book King leans more into the folksiness of Jud and the locality of him. He’s like the quintessential Maine character. But [the accent] is kind of a no-win situation. If you nail it, you’re going to sound like Fred Gwynne, and if you don’t nail it, then you don’t sound like Fred Gwynne, who did a pretty good job with it.
John actually knew Fred. They’d been in a play together and he’d always joke that Fred was the only actor that was ever taller than him, because Fred was 6’5″ and John is 6’4″. He has a lot of respect for Fred Gwynne and so he purposefully didn’t watch the first film. We talked about it a lot and John tried the accent in the read-through and we all thought it was great, but in the end we left the decision up to John. He decided to go his own way and we were actually really happy that he did.
Filmmaker: Of the new scenes that you’ve added, my favorite is when Louis (played by Jason Clarke) combs Ellie’s hair in the bathtub the night she comes back. As he’s struggling to get the comb through her matted hair, he realizes almost immediately that this was a terrible idea.
Kölsch: While we were shooting that was the scene that I was looking forward to the most. In our schedule—because we were filming all the stuff at the Creed house first—we had mostly just done family scenes, like them sitting around the dinner table. Getting to this tub scene was going to be our first glimpse [during shooting] at the horror of the movie, and [for the audience] it’s the first glimpse of where the movie is going in the third act. So it was an important scene to us and it has to capture all these things—it’s got to be scary, it’s got to be emotional, the cinematography shifts a little bit because the tone of the movie is starting to change and we’re going into darker places. A lot really hedged on that scene.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.