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Pet Sematary 2019

FLASH LIGHT, RED LIGHT: Jason Clarke, left, and John Lithgow learn the stoniness of man's heart in Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's Maine-set, Montreal-shot adaptation of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary."

“You do it because it gets hold of you. You do it because that burial place is a secret place and you want to share the secret. … You make up reasons. … They seem like good reasons. … Mostly you do it because you want to. Or because you have to.”

— Jud Crandall

In the new “Pet Sematary’s” wake, I’ve encountered thinkers (you call 'em "analyses," we in the churn-biz call 'em "thumb-suckers") exploring a hot take du jour: Jud Crandall, VILLAIN. After all, he initiates the spiral that nearly wipes out the Creed family and gets himself killed in the process. With an actual body count, by God, he’s worse than Daniel LaRusso under the same retrospective scrutiny.

I’ve loved the Stephen King novel and that character for more than three decades now, since plucking the Doubleday from a Safeway rack in 1984. At 12, I was probably too young for it. But I’d already inhaled “’Salem’s Lot,” “Different Seasons,” “Night Shift” and “Christine” by then, so redemption was not in the cards.

Yet “Pet Sematary” remains my favorite of King’s work, wringing terror from everyday tragedy. The author’s narrative mastery is true and Jud Crandall’s his strongest creation — in my mind, King’s perfect realization of the avuncular New England type, with a cozy patois to match: “ayuh” for “yes,” “rud” for “road.” The book never paints him as malicious, just well-intentioned and heartbroken by the damage he’s wrought.

The problem fueling these theories, I fear, is the novel’s two big-screen adaptations, both of which excise a character to present Jud as a lonely widower moping about the “rud,” an old mongrel for the Creeds to adopt.

The first film, released in 1989, has subsequently become a generational gateway to “Pet Sematary”; by now, most people see the movie often years before reading the book. The former’s revered as a classic despite being, uh, just OK. Props, however, to director Mary Lambert, tasked with essaying what most people called an un-filmable story. (At the time, “Sematary” was a 5-year-old bestseller of some notoriety, not a classic, and the hit-and-miss King, whose batting average nevertheless made him the country’s most popular writer, had yet to be canonized.)

Central to its rewatchability are a Ramones song — recorded in the vast chasm between the band’s seismic blastoff and posthumous ascent to godhead status — plus several scenes involving Andrew Hubatsek as Rachel Creed’s gnarled sister, Zelda; Brad Greenquist’s winking portrayal of the undead Victor Pascow; and Fred Gwynne’s impeccable Jud Crandall, a 6-foot-5 tower of Maine geniality. He’s the movie’s tragic heart; without him, it fails. His is the movie’s best performance. Unfortunately, he’s supporting Dale Midkiff, who plays Louis Creed like the cover of Steve Winwood’s “Roll with It” album trapped in arcadian Gehenna.

John Lithgow is just as important to the 2019 remake — albeit nonessential for exposition, thanks to Louis Creed’s (Jason Clarke, eclipsing Midkiff by continents of country miles) efficiency with Google. One of the novel’s great pleasures, reduced to morsels in PS19, were Jud’s winding yarns over too many beers. He made an ideal conduit for King’s ease with a character’s grasp of language, detail and rhythms. He’s not needed for that purpose here, when newspapers.com is only a click away.

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Lithgow’s Jud (6-foot-4; we grow our Juds tall) is sadder and more grizzled than Gwynne’s, a dirt-whiskered hermit enlivened by the arrival of a couple with children. There’s a genuinely sweet scene where he’s invited for dinner with the Creeds. His concession to propriety: a wet combover. It’s inspired casting; despite his rough exterior, Lithgow’s innate gentle goodness reigns, and his affection for the Creeds feels real. (His look of delight as he watches their young daughter, Ellie, dance is an example of fine subtlety in an age where such expression is suspect.)

But an important character is missing from both films, although she’s mentioned in passing. In that medium, she’s always been dead. Only on the page does she live: Jud’s wife, Norma Crandall.

I’ve always thought Norma critical to the narrative, as she and Jud blossom from friendly neighbors into surrogate grandparents for the Creeds’ children, and the Creeds become the family extension the Crandalls never had. Her absence erases Jud’s main motivation for introducing Louis Creed to the Other Place, beyond the pet cemetery, where death’s but temporary inconvenience.

In the novel, Norma suffers a heart attack. Louis, a doctor, saves her (a privilege he couldn't extend to the doomed Victor Pascow). So, when Ellie loses her cat, Church, to those damned speed-demon Orinoco trucks, Jud thinks he’s sparing the family premature grief by taking Louis to the Mi’kmaq tribe’s abandoned burial ground. Louis gave Jud more time with his Norma; Jud returns the favor by giving Ellie more time with her cat. She wouldn’t experience life’s cruelties too soon. They could both cheat fate: Louis with medical training, Jud with the unexplained.

Maybe it’d be different than before, though Jud should have known better. Soon, Norma’s gone — the story’s only natural death — and most everyone else follows. (In the novel and 2019 film, Norma reappears as a supernatural manifestation to torture the old fella in his final minutes.) What he does is stupid, not villainous. And let’s face it: At some point, a despondent Louis Creed seizes the baton and carries it to the finish line for a ribbon the looniest hue of blue, robbing graves, seeking answers in a sour earth.

Without Norma, Jud’s motives aren’t as clear. Was he under the influence of unspeakable darkness? Probably (see epigraph above). Did he love the Creeds that much? Oh, without a doubt. He says so, although at 400 pages, the novel has time to develop that relationship while the films do not.

Alas, he understood the risks of disturbing the ground beyond the path. He’d lived long enough to experience its power. No man or animal came back the same, and all they brought was suffering. Onscreen, he’s an accidental villain, a lonely semi-eccentric with a secret. On paper, he’s compelled by misguided gratitude.

Sometimes, as he says, dead is better. But Norma, at least, deserved a chance to even live.

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Cory Frye still has nightmares about poor Timmy Baterman.

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