Revisiting 1989's Pet Sematary

Before the Remake, A Look Back at a Cult Classic

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What Stephen King calls his most frightening novel makes for a bloody, but muddled film. Directed by Mary Lambert and penned by King, Pet Sematary is written faithfully close to its source material, but stiff acting and off-balance pacing dampen its effectiveness. Packed with 80s camp, including some stellar gore and creepy-kid horror riding off the coat-tails of 1988’s Child’s Play, the film is vintage fun, but is probably viewed through rose-colored glasses. Die-hard King fans may be able to appreciate the sickly silliness, but not if they’re searching for a sincere scare.  

Adapted from what Stephen King calls his most terrifying story, 1989’s Pet Sematary is a cult classic embedded in the hearts of many horror fans. Helmed by music video director Mary Lambert, the film’s strengths lie in its all-in cinematography, campy horror, and - under-utilized until the very end - child actors. Nevertheless, my frustrations arise with its weighty script and hopscotch themes, which seem to disrupt the director’s intention despite her admiration of King’s work. Where the novel is a harrowing treatise on grief and the fear of death, its adaptation, however well-intentioned, is…something else.

So the story goes: Dr. Louis Creed (a soulless Dale Midkiff) has uprooted his nuclear family, including wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), and kids Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes) from Chicago to take a job at University of Maine’s health center. They settle into a large house, sandwiched between a children’s pet cemetery and a menacing road stacked with zooming semi-trucks, which soon make a snack of Ellie’s cat Church. Jud Crandall (the inimitable Fred Gwynne), their new neighbor, helps Louis resurrect the dead cat on a Native American burial ground that just so happens to be situated next to the pet cemetery. The film has plenty of moving pieces to position in its 103-minute runtime, and even after excising the novel’s Wendigo folklore, it’s a lot to set up. We are introduced to Creeds on the day of their arrival in Maine following the post-credits scene. Their perfect white-washed house accented by green grass, blue skies, and idyllic weather - a typical “family suspects nothing is wrong with their home” entrance. The blonde Rachel is wearing a navy polka-dot dress, Louis a white t-shirt shirt, their son Gage dawdles n the lawn as Ellie finds a tire swing. It’s overt Americana. Suddenly, a glaringly loud and bright red semi truck tears down the road, immediately grabbing the audience’s attention with its disruptive volume and speed. Gage stands too close to the road, and it’s a few seconds of pure terror. The truck disappears and the serenity of the scene is quickly restored. 

Lambert gravitates towards deepening the sense of fear and wonder her characters experience when encountering the uncanny, an effective attempt at unsettling the audience. Repetitive red semi-trucks, perfectly-manicured green grass, and too-blue skies run a stark contrast to scrap metal grave markers, the coldness of the Micmac burial grounds, and fleeting images of death. Lambert derives stylistic choices from the likes of Frank Capra, complete with an initially saccharine story and setting, only to destroy it through the course of the film with equally bright, but oppositional, disturbing imagery - just take a look at Rachel wearing her gingham shorts and a crisp white linen shirt, looking all-American AF when she joins her family in finding the Pet Sematary. 

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“Lambert derives stylistic choices from the likes of Frank Capra, complete with an initially saccharine story and setting, only to destroy it…with oppositional, disturbing imagery.”

It’s an aesthetic that makes sense following King adaptions such as Brian De Palma’s Carrie, which earned Sissy Spacek an Academy nod for best actress in 1976. Lambert is clearly following in De Palma’s footsteps, with an excess of colorful landscapes to start and then gore to warp the heightened and “perfect” reality. Her lengthy career as a music video director for the likes of Madonna and Janet Jackson also contribute to the film’s overall aesthetic. When Louis hallucinates that Jud’s home is covered in moss, decay, fungi, and mold, it looks like the aftermath of Chernobyl, but also as if it could double as a set out of Thriller. It’s visually inspired. It’s almost enough to make you forget that George A. Romero had originally and wanted to direct Pet Sematary. Almost.

Much like the book, the movie takes a sharp spin into darkness once toddler Gage bites the dust, hit by one of the foreshadowed semi-trucks. However, in a disappointing departure from the source material, we spend only a limited amount of screen time with Louis’ grief, a massive disservice that dodges one of the most gripping chapters of the novel where Louis pretends as if Gage hadn’t been hit at all, envisioning a future for his recently-deceased son. Instead, the script fixates on the novel’s dullest details, yanking the audience out of Lambert’s carefully-crafted filmic reality. A myriad of literary flashbacks to “explain” the “magic” of the Pet Sematary make the film more 90s melodrama than 80s horror - the film is oddly confused about its own genre. In its final act, the scares start to roll out, namely with the resurrection of Gage and grotesque visages of Rachel’s spinal meningitis afflicted sister, Zelda. The movie submits to complete 80s camp, casting aside the heavy script to embrace Lambert’s vision. There’s a certain flair to Gage’s characterization, hilariously aided by the use of puppets, gone from adorable toddler to sophisticated tormentor. Lambert effectively utilizes low angle shots prior to Gage’s resurrection as a way of giving his perspective power, making adults look large and frightening in the frame. Now that Gage is the predator, it makes his perspective frightening as if he is lurking just behind the film frame, ready to attack. Meanwhile, Zelda’s character as played by Andrew Hubatsek is an exhibit in body horror and contortionism, a classic Stephen King Motif. Cap it all off with some good old fashioned matricide and Louis making out with his zombie wife as her face oozes blood, and we’ve fully descended into 80s fun. Did I mention there is an animated corpse that literally rents a car? What more could you want?

Pet Sematary is a fondly remembered exercise in camp, but is it worth revisiting? The short answer is yes, if you have time to kill. And it’s on TV. And Carrie is, for sure, not an option. Sure, it's ham-fisted, but I can definitively enjoy its vintage and gory charms, even if the film is all over the place.

KT Heins is a social media manager operating out of Denver, CO where she lives with her partner and two chihuahuas. She is an avid horror enthusiast and prefers ghosts over ghouls. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @ktotheheins