Lindsey T. Stone is an artist, writer and horror enthusiast based in Seattle, WA. Her work can be viewed at lindseytstone.com. Thankfully, she was able to whip up a post on Pet Sematary for Halloween Fifteen this year, documenting the ’80s nostalgia of this notable adaptation of Stephen King’s novel while heaping praise on its female director. Have a read below as Lindsey T. Stone dissects this classic!
Horror movies can take place anywhere- from outer space to deep in the woods to a remote hotel. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is a great example of how some of the most terrifying stories can take place in (or just beyond) our own back yards. In this film, King takes a lovable family pet and an adorable little boy and turns them into monsters before our eyes. The movie has been criticized for being campy and overwrought, and the action is subdued compared to modern horror films. However, the blend of suspense, gore and nostalgia leaves a lasting impression that will scare the pants off of many generations to come.
The story was written after King almost lost his own son to a busy highway, and the manuscript was hidden away for years. King thought that no one would want to read this story, perhaps because many of the themes touch on the true horror of every day life- losing a child in an accident, a sibling succumbing to disease, relationships being torn apart by tragedy- and the supernatural elements are simply the icing on the cake. The film almost didn’t get made, with some studio execs thinking that Stephen King movies were on the way out, but the 1988 Writer’s Guild Strike would prove to be a valuable opportunity for King. This is laughable now, what with the much-hyped “It” reboot coming out in 2017, and HBO adapting the Dark Tower series, not to mention all of the fantastic movie King has been connected to in the 28 years since Pet Sematary was released.
Since King himself wrote the screenplay, the film sticks very close to the book, and was filmed where the story in set in King’s home state of Maine. The story centers around Louis Creed, a doctor who moves to rural Maine from Chicago with his wife and two young children. Early on in the story, he loses a patient who has been hit by a truck, and the spirit remains nearby as a cryptic soothsayer for the rest of the film. Before you know it, the family cat is hit by a truck as well. Creed consults a wise and sympathetic neighbor, Jud Crandall, who subsequently leads Creed past the quaint neighborhood “Pet Sematary” to the ancient Native American burial ground where the real magic happens.
The cat they bury in the mystical grounds returns the next day, but he is just a little different than before. He stinks like death and has a bad attitude. The highway remains right outside the door, with those speeding trucks racing towards the Creed family, as inevitable as death. When the adorable two-year-old son wanders into the road, the story really gets going. Louis is a man desperate with grief from losing his son, frantic with the fear of losing the rest of his family, and incapable of making good decisions. He ignores Jud’s advice, “Sometimes dead is better,” and buries the child in the enchanted plot. The little boy rises again as one of the cutest zombies you have ever seen, and heads straight home to raise some hell.
Jud Crandall, played by Fred Gwynne aka Herman Munster, has some of the best lines in the movie, and his death scene is truly disturbing. Just thinking about the homicidal toddler with a scalpel gives me pause. The demonic child goes on to kill his own mother, but not before we witness a horrifying flashback of her late sister Zelda, who is deformed from spinal meningitis. Louis gets a creepy phone call from the boy and finds he is too late to save his neighbor and wife. Louis kills both the cat and the kid with a humane dose of morphine, then rushes back to the burial ground with his wife’s body. Louis ignores his ghastly guardian, warning him not to make things worse, and buries the wife fully expecting different results. Maybe this is what Jud meant when he says, “The soil of a man’s heart is… stonier.” The final scene is cheesy, dark, a bit romantic, and definitely not a Hollywood ending.
Tom Savini and George Romero both turned down directing this film, and it ended up being a landmark opportunity for Mary Lambert, who is best known for directing many of Madonna’s music videos. It is still rare to see a woman direct a horror movie, and while there are a lot of cheesy moments, I appreciate the true 80’s horror nostalgia of the film. The film is dark but the sets and scenes are as bold as in a comic book. This, plus the fact that 80’s punk icons The Ramones wrote the theme song for the movie, has led to Pet Sematary’s status as a solid cult classic.
Pet Sematary has long been one of my favorite Stephen King films- I grew up on a busy road with parents who could not turn away any stray dog or cat that my sisters and I brought home. Death is hard to understand, and many of us face our first corpse as I did, in the form of a family pet on the side of the road. We all long for second chances, even if it means that our suffering will be prolonged. Perhaps it is these timeless themes that have lead to talk of a reboot but we will have to wait and see if an updated version can balance campy sets and true terror the way Mary Lambert managed in the original.
Post Script: I love films about horror films almost as much as the films themselves. I was very pleased to hear that a documentary about making Pet Sematary comes out this Oct.