1989’s Pet Sematary is a timeless tale of terror that has earned its reputation as one of the best horror films of its era. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Pet Sematary was brought to the big screen by Mary Lambert. Up until that point, Lambert had mainly been involved in directing music videos, with only one other feature under her belt. Since then she has gone on to helm a number of short films, some TV episodes, several documentaries, and a handful of features. But looking back on her career, it’s easy to see why Pet Sematary is remembered as her crown jewel.
Pet Sematary stands as a one of a kind film for a number of reasons. First, Lambert remained close to King during production, as the author penned the script. Lambert wanted to stay true to King’s vision of the story. And thankfully she did. The end result is a faithful retelling of the novel that (naturally) can’t fit everything from the tome into its runtime but does a great job of hitting most of the important notes.
Something that adds a certain sense of eerie ambiance to the feature is that the pet cemetery depicted was a real place for the exact reason portrayed in the film. The area was located near a busy road riddled with oil trucks, and such. And it, unfortunately, left numerous animals dead in its wake. Take this, coupled with King’s grim imagination and you get one of the scariest tales ever told. The filming created quite a stir in the community, and brought with it a devoted cult following.
The film relies on several taboo elements. There is something of an unwritten code in filmmaking that dictates you should never kill an animal or a child. But this film violates these commandments not once, but twice! Due to the care with which the subject matter was handled, however, viewers were able to get past the broken code and enjoy the film in spite of its unusually dark subject matter.
So, what makes this film so special? Well, for starters, this could’ve easily become just another zombie flick, as I feel the much lambasted second installment did. With that said, the follow up effort happens to be a guilty pleasure of mine. But that’s another story for another time. What makes this film stand out is how relatable it is. [Spoiler alert for an almost 30-year old film] We’re all familiar with the hardships of losing a pet and even those of us without children can that the film doesn’t have to try very hard, if at all, to get us emotionally invested in the characters. We feel their pain and grief, and want, as much as they do, to be able to fix what has happened. Only we (should) know better than to meddle with nature. As next door neighbor Jud puts it, “sometimes dead is better”. But still, if there was a chance, even a small one that would grant you that luxury of hope, wouldn’t you be tempted to try?
Another key strength of the film is the characters themselves. The cast was predominately comprised of lesser known actors. The most recognizable name would have been Fred Gwynne (Jud), who we all recognize from The Munsters. The rest were relatively new to the scene (some having appeared in small roles in a handful of feature films) giving them a better sense of realism. The cast comes across as real people in a series of really dire situations. The veil of fiction between us and them is nonexistent and therefore we are right there with them. But what make it so effective? In the simplest of terms, it’s the theme of death, throughout. It’s no secret what this film is about, but it’s the relation each of the characters has with this formless, nameless antagonist who is only referred to a few times as “it”. In this story, death takes the form of the burial grounds. Some may even make the argument that Jud represents death. Resembling such in the scene where he is standing over Church’s corpse, his hood rendering his face to an almost hollow blackness. And it is Judd who effectively guides Lewis to the other side of the bog to the burial grounds.
Each of the characters themselves has a unique and perhaps flawed perspective on death that might have otherwise helped them cope during such tragic times. Lewis, being a doctor has something of a blind approach to it, due to his profession. His wife, Rachel, has a much different outlook from having suffered such a traumatic experience in her sister’s death… Uhh, Zelda, I still get chills. While their 8 year old daughter, Ellie, and son Gage are both too young to truly grasp the concept. Each of the characters’ perspectives on the nature of death causes them to suffer further.
We all must face death someday, and we all know the pain the characters in Pet Sematary endure. The film is by no means a happy tale, but an important one, nonetheless. With a haunting atmosphere, chilling effects, and a stellar cast, it manages to shake the foundation for anyone brave enough to keep their eyes on the screen.
Now, I’m not saying the film is without its flaws. Any keen observer can catch the numerous inconsistencies throughout, and yes, some of the effects are dated. But you can forgive them all on account of the film presented. the only two real missed opportunities for me are the Wendigo and Ellie’s story.
The Wendigo was a prominent figure in the book, and was reduced to a mere howling in the distance during a few scenes, if, in fact, that’s what it actually was. Many have theorized as such, and I tend to agree. If nothing else adds an extra layer of eeriness.
Ellie was quite an interesting character in her own regard, acting as something of a prophet throughout the film, with visions, and feelings of events to come, I find this to be the film’s biggest missed opportunity. As it stands, she is an underutilized character.
But hey, these are minor flaws in a brilliant film. Pet Sematary will always stand as a picture that takes thick skin to get through. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. For a more in depth look at the production, and interviews I suggest picking up Unearthed & Untold, a feature length documentary into the making of one of the best horror films to date.
Until next time, thanks for reading, and this Christopher Fink (The Horror Seeker) saying good night, and stay scared!