Retro Review: Pet Semetary (1989)

With the release of the new Pet Semetary about to drop, now is a good time to revisit director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most well-known novels. Since King wrote the screenplay and oversaw production, the original Pet Semetary doesn’t deviate much from the novel, and after 30 years, much of it still holds up well, specifically the gore and special effects. The novel’s key themes of grief and loss are handled well by Lambert, especially a child’s questioning of death’s process and the cycle of life.

Pet Semetary follows the story of a young doctor, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), who moves with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and their children, Gage (Mike Hughes) and Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), to a small, rural town in Maine. Their new home is only feet from a busy highway, where semis roar down the road at all hours of the day. Soon after the move, the family befriends a white-haired, wizened Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who shows Louis a “Pet Semetary” near their property. There are crocked wooden crosses in memorial to cats, dogs, and even a goldfish. When the Creed family’s cherished tomcat Church is killed, Louis takes Jud’s advice and buries the cat in an ancient mystical burial ground, imbued with reanimating powers. The cat doesn’t come back the same. It hisses, growls, and has glaring yellow eyes (one of the few special effects that hasn’t aged well). When Gage is killed by a semi, a grief-stricken Louis buries him in the pet semetary, and of course, he doesn’t come back the same. The scalpel-wielding, sneering Gage is one of the scariest parts of the film, especially his wicked laughter and dialogue, “Will you play with me, Daddy?” Furthermore, Louis’ realization that he’ll have to confront and kill his son and go through the grieving process all over again is a gut-wrenching scene.


A re-animated Gage (Mike Hughes) out for blood

Lambert’s film has two key strengths: its handling of grief and its special effects. The most powerful scenes, years later, are how a family deals with heavy loss, first with Church and then with Gage. Early into the film, Ellie starts to question what, exactly, it means to die. She tells her parents that Church will eventually die before lashing out at the notion that “God” would ever take her pet from her, stating that Church isn’t God’s pet to take. In the introduction to the novel, King mentions that this dialogue was taken word for word after a conversation he had with one of his children about death. While some of the film’s dialogue and acting is  a bit hammy years later, Ellie’s questioning of death  is surprisingly powerful and realistic. Dealing with one loss after another, it’s not surprising that Louis takes Jud’s advice and buries the cat and then his son. He does what he feels is right to lessen his family’s pain.

The special effects work of Dave and Lance Anderson and John Blake enhance the film’s most terrifying scenes,  especially the moment when jogger turned spiritual guide Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is shown with half of his brain visible and leaking blood, or the few scenes when Rachel’s ghostly sister, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), returns from the dead to torment her. The make-up and effects of Pascow and Zelda are one of the film’s real highlights 30 years later. No CGI needed to make these characters ghoulish and memorable.


Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist)

Overall, Lambert’s Pet Semetary is one off the better adaptations of King’s work, especially in how it deals with the novel’s key themes- death and grief. While some of the dialogue and acting is a bit dated (Gwynn’s take on Jud irked me, for instance), the practical effects have aged surprisingly well.

The recent King renaissance will continue this spring when the latest take on Pet Semetary is released, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Unlike Lambert’s film, King didn’t write the screenplay or oversee production, so it will be interesting to see how the new film deviates from the novel. The trailer already spoiled one major change- it’s Ellie who dies and is brought back, not Gage. Why the trailer would spoil such a major change is anyone’s guess, but that alone may create a different take on King’s novel.

The trailer for the new Pet Semetary:


With that said, the new film has earned positive reviews from Blood-Disgusting and other horror sites after its screening at SxSw in March.  King also tweeted a few months ago, “This is a scary movie. Be warned.” So the new film has his seal of approval. It hits  theaters on April 5.





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