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Pet Sematary (1989)

by Alex Kirschenbaum May 23, 2019

Spoilers for all three Pet Sematary films abound throughout this review. Read on, if you dare.

TFH Guru Mary Lambert‘s excellent, intense and darkly funny film adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary debuted on April 21st, 1989. 30 years later, it has terrified untold oodles of pet owners, who’ve no doubt pondered the lengths to which they’d go if their beloved critters (and, eventually, family members) were to be, say, leveled by a truck. Beyond birthing millions of nightmares, Pet Sematary has also spawned a solid sequel and a middling remake.

When he gets a cushy new gig as a doctor at the University of Maine, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) relocates his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar), their small children Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), and Ellie’s beloved cat Church from Chicago to the small town of Ludlow, Maine near the college. The Creed parents look forward to raising their children peacefully, as Louis anticipates a far less demanding job than he had helping victims of the Windy City’s mean streets.

Louis and Rachel quickly meet folksy older neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) and their off-putting, bitter housekeeper Missy Dandridge (Susan Blommaert), both prone to occasional dire pronouncements. Beyond the colorful locals, the Creeds soon discover two curious drawbacks to their new home. First, the house stands mere yards away from an interstate road frequented by massive, noisy trucks. Second, those trucks have so decimated generations of family pets that local kids long ago built a crudely constructed pet cemetery in the forest on the other side of the road. As soon as toddler Gage wanders near the street within the movie’s first ten minutes (only to be saved by Jud in this instance), we begin to suspect trouble for this family. 

Louis quickly discovers just how deadly small town life can be when he fails to salvage fatally wounded undergrad Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) at work. The kid was — what else? — hit by a truck while jogging. Victor’s grisly spirit appreciates Louis’ efforts to save him, however futile, and begins to make the nocturnal rounds haunting the good doctor and issuing cryptic warnings about the cemetery. Soon, we understand why.

After Church almost inevitably doesn’t make it across the road one day, Jud advises Louis to bury the deceased feline beyond the confines of the pet cemetery, in the dirt of an ancient Native American burial ground, before Ellie can find the body. When Church returns to the house that night, the reanimated cat is eerily angry and smells like the uprooted corpse he is. But hey, at least Ellie, Rachel and Gage are none the wiser, right?

Unfortunately, the Church resurrection serves as a kind of gateway drug for Louis. Jud explains that many townsfolk in the past, himself included, tried resurrecting felled pets — and, in one ominous recollection, a zombie World War II vet. All returned wickedly changed: cruel and reeking of death, they would eventually become homicidal. The Micmac tribe’s burial ground possesses restorative powers, and though Jud had hoped Ellie’s love for Church would perhaps buck the trend of those powers restoring the dead into less-than-savory states of reanimation, he now vows to steer clear of the process. When adorable toddler Gage is killed on the road in a stunning directorial achievement of pacing through perfectly-framed images and cuts.

The fallout is understandably extreme. As Rachel struggles to cope with Gage’s passing, she finds herself beset by uncomfortably vivid flashbacks of a traumatic childhood, where she helped care for her older sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), who was crippled by spinal meningitis. Meanwhile, Louis’s grief inevitably clouds his judgment. He resurrects the child, and that’s when the movie really kicks into high gear. As relations between Louis and Rachel grow increasingly distant (Louis never divulges the true nature of the cemetery’s powers until his wife is six feet underground herself), the crippling of that romantic link artfully grounds the film’s more outrageous horror elements with its poignant emotional through line.

Lambert handles this cheerfully brutal third act passage with terrific skill and style. Even if the movie’s first two acts boasted plenty of death and violence, they were mere appetizers for its gory finale, which arrives rife with tragic twists and turns. “They’re not going to go there,” you may say to yourself in the dark, before quickly remembering that, after having killed off a small child, this movie has established that it will take you wherever it wants in the service of unsettling scares.

Lambert’s excellent direction works in glorious harmony with King’s screenplay adaptation of his own novel to imbue the pitch-black proceedings with a healthy dose of humor. One source of this is the movie’s two cheerfully morbid, distinctively-accented Maine country folk, Jud Crandall and Missy Dandridge. The doc’s standoffish relationship with his father-in-law (Michael Lombard), who astutely has never trusted Louis, descends to WWE-level blows at Gage’s funeral. Rewatching the movie recently, this viewer was struck by how much I was rooting for the father-in-law here. He proves to be a terrific judge of character, after all. Lambert and cinematographer Peter Stein create a spooky, rural atmosphere, employing an understated, muted color palette, high-contrast lighting schemes, and tactfully applied wide-angle lenses.

Mention should be made, too, of some terrifically effective special make-up design work by Lance Anderson, and special make-up effects work by David Anderson. The Ramones’ immortal theme song shares the movie’s name and its mournful, bittersweet heart. Apparently written by Dee Dee Ramone in Stephen King’s basement over the course of just one hour, “Pet Sematary” runs almost at the pace of a funeral dirge compared to the Ramones’ rapid-fire early punk numbers.

Happily, Pet Sematary was a big hit, and Lambert was commissioned to helm Pet Sematary II in 1992. This time, gentle veterinarian Chase Matthews (Anthony Edwards) and his animal-loving son Jeff (Edward Furlong) lose Jeff’s mother and Chase’s ex, actress Renee Hallow (Darlanne Fluegel), to a freak on-set electricity accident. Furlong always excelled in troubled kid parts throughout the 1990s, and he crushes it again here in one of his first roles hot off the heels of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

The Matthews boys leave Hollywood for Renee’s small-town childhood home, and quickly meet Renee’s high school sweetheart, sadistic town sheriff Gus Gilbert (Clancy Brown, perhaps best remembered as the sadistic jail guard Captain Hadley in another great Stephen King movie, The Shawshank Redemption). Unfortunately for them, that small town happens to be Ludlow, Maine, and they discover the titular cemetery near the Creed family’s old house. Though its first act may be a bit more deliberately paced than its predecessor, Pet Sematary II eventually goes for the jugular with a series of brutal deaths. When Gus kills his stepson Drew (Jason Maguire)’s dog Zowie, a distraught Drew commissions Jeff to help him bury the critter on the ancient Micmac burial grounds. As the body count and resurrection tally both begin to escalate, we watch in horror as PSII equips its two twisted pubescent protagonists, Drew and Jeff, with a fascinating dual seasoning of naïveté and sadism. This time, the resurrections come with a fun wrinkle. The revived humans and animals operate as murderous protectors for the people who bring them back. The Ramones returned for the end credits here with their last great single, another morose mid-tempo masterpiece called “Poison Heart.”

Last month’s Pet Sematary remake, directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and written by Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, makes one massive adjustment that kicks off the story’s third act. Ellie, not Gage, falls prey to a comically digital-looking truck accident on the road — on her birthday, no less! Clearly this was done to distinguish the remake from the original for fans of the latter, a means of justifying the new movie’s existence. The flick hit screens on April 5th.

There are some additional plot adjustments: In the original Stephen King novel and the remake, Zelda, Rachel Creed’s spinal meningitis-afflicted sister glimpsed in eerie flashbacks, is a 10-year-old girl. In the original Mary Lambert take on the novel, one of its most inspired tweaks of the original tome is aging Zelda up to her late teens and casting a man, Andrew Hubatsek, to depict her. It all lends an extra level of unsettling creepiness to the affair. We also learn, via the undead Ellie, that Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) once resurrected his deceased wife through the Micmac burial grounds — and we can only assume that went about as well as Louis Creed’s various revivals did. Also, this Jud Crandall is frustratingly devoid of Gwynne’s terrific Maine accent.

The remake is competent, and in the moment certainly packs in plenty of jump scares. But it lacks the charm, personality, and stylistic flourish of Lambert’s original two stories. It fulfills the function of repackaging a familiar genre brand for a new generation of mouth breathers, but it also serves as a frustrating reminder of just how unnecessary this practice tends to be. If the remake was going to take such a different plot turn from the original novel and the original film while at the same time being otherwise reverent, maybe it would have been better served as a flat-out direct sequel, Pet Sematary III with an entirely new family, so that it didn’t serve to functionally erase its two predecessors out of its cinematic universe.