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Most novice directors might be intimidated. Lambert, a huge Stephen King fan, was excited. Plus, she had more daunting challenges on the horizon. Lambert’s most controversial collaboration with the singer, “Like A Prayer,” would premiere less than a month before the film’s April 1989 release, prompting protests by the Catholic Church, and even a call to boycott from Pope Jean-Paul II. No wonder she didn’t blink at a little zombie horror film set in the heart of Maine.
Pet Sematary was Lambert’s first major studio film (Siesta, her directorial debut, was released in 1987), a significant achievement at a time when women directors had even less access to big budget projects than they do today. Released in April 1989, the film was a box office hit, with a number one opening and an eventual $57,469,467 domestic gross. It remains the highest-grossing horror film directed by a woman. The massive hype around the 2019 remake, directed by two men this time (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer), largely comes down to the special place the original holds in the hearts of fans of King’s book and movie canon.
Jay Carr of The Boston Globe wrote: “Director Mary Lambert, of Siesta and music video fame, doesn't know how to build and pace her material.” At The Chicago Tribune, Dave Kerr praised King’s script, but echoed doubts about Lambert’s style. “There is a crazed, dark poetry here, but Mary Lambert's direction of Pet Sematary captures none of it, and the film falls into a flat, frequently laughable literalism,” he wrote. In his review for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Jay Scott was no kinder. “Had the film version of Pet Sematary, adapted straightforwardly by King himself from the novel, and directed with horrifying ineptitude by Mary Lambert (Siesta), been any good, it would have been a sizzling shockeroonie.”
Even in praise, Lambert couldn’t win. Brian Steele, who ranked Lambert’s film 16th out of 57 Stephen King on screen adaptations over at IFC, nonetheless slipped this zinger into his summary: “One can only imagine what kind of movie we would have gotten if original director George Romero hadn’t dropped out, but as it stands, this is just good, over-the-top horror. Not a great movie, but one that will stick with you.”
Until last week, I’d never seen Pet Sematary. But with the reboot on the horizon, and Lambert’s original available on Hulu, I decided to get acquainted with the Creed family. 30 years later. Some of it certainly is due for an update. The special effects, in particular, are laughably bad. But overall, the film gets at the core of King’s story about the horrible nature of grief, loss, and our most deep-seated fears about illness and death.
If there was ever an excuse not to move to a creepy farmhouse in rural Maine, Pet Sematary is it. Itthe tale of Dr. Lewis Creed (Dale Midkiffe) and his family — wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), young daughter Ellie, and toddler Gage (Miko Hughes) — who move from Chicago the small town of Ludlow so he can take up a position at the University of Maine. Soon after moving in, Ellie makes a strange discovery: a burial ground for generations of Ludlow pets, tucked in the forest behind the house. Soon after, her beloved cat, Church, gets hit by one of the trucks constantly zooming down the road. Wanting to spare the little girl the pain of this first brush with death, next-door neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) takes Lewis beyond the Pet Sematary, and into the woods, to an ancient place where local Native American tribes used to bury their dead. Church comes back — but there’s something wrong with him.
All this is foreshadowing for the traumatic event: During a picnic, baby Gage wanders off into the road, and is run over by one of those same trucks. And having brought one cat back from the dead, what’s to stop Lewis from playing God once more?
There are a few major differences between Lambert’s film and the newly released version, but the most significant is that Ellie, rather than Gage, has the fatal encounter with the truck.
It’s an understandable revision. As a 9-year-old Ellie, Jeté Laurence is able to cope with more complex demands for her character, playing on the deep connection that exists between her and Lewis in the book and past film for greater emotional impact.
In Lambert’s film, Miko Hughes (who was less than 2 years old during filming) is a blond cherub, no less adorable when he’s holding a scalpel and slicing through Jud’s Achilles heel. It’s hard not giggle along with him. Not super scary. Still, Lambert depicts the loss of a child in a particularly affecting way. That same adorable innocence is what makes the final standoff between Lewis and Gage all the more difficult to witness.
It takes a little while for Lewis to realize that his reanimated son is evil. But confronted with wife Rachel’s body, hanging dead from the bannister, and Jud’s slashed corpse upstairs, he can no longer ignore it. After a struggle, he overtakes Gage, and puts him down, using a syringe filled with a lethal cocktail of drugs — just as he did to Church a little earlier.
It’s a quiet scene, but one that’s arguably harder to watch than the more dramatic accident that kills Gage the first time. This is a father, forced to kill a monster that was once his son. It’s brutal.
“I directed that about three years before I had my son,” Lambert told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview. “I don't know if, as a young mother, I could have gone there.”
In the reboot, Lewis has a similar confrontation with zombie Ellie. Without spoiling the outcome, it’s a scene that’s more focused on physical fighting — but watching little Gage wobble as he tries to walk away from his father, only to trip, fall down and finally die with a sigh, feels far more violent.
The enduring strength of Pet Sematary comes from the mood set by Lambert right from the start. Most of the film isn’t full-blown horror — it’s a family drama about learning to deal with death. Perhaps the most traditionally scary part of the film are the scenes involving flashbacks to Rachel’s sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), who suffered from spinal meningitis and died when the former was a child. The memories of Zelda’s twisted spine and cackling laughter are those of a scared kid. We’re seeing her as the villain of Rachel’s nightmares, the ghost who has haunted her for years, rather than as she really was.
The theatricality of it all speaks to Lambert’s background, working with artists like Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, and Madonna, among others. (The end credits song, written by The Ramones specifically for this film, is an added bonus.) Once the film dives into the more supernatural aspects, it doesn’t attempt to explain things so much as let you experience them. It’s a vibe. Just take the bold primary colors of the trucks that barrel down the road. They look like toys, the kind of object that would actually lure a child into the road to play with.
Overall, the acting in Pet Sematary is hit or miss. But when it hits, it’s a bullseye. Gwynne, most famous for his comedic portrayal of Herman Munster on The Munsters, harnesses his Lurch-like frame for peak ominous effect, while his thick Maine drawl roots him in this soil as deeply as the animals buried there. And though less crucial to this plot than in the reboot, Blaze and Beau Berdahl, the twins who play Ellie, exude the kind of charm so specific to serious little girls learning about the world.
In fact, it’s a strange irony that possibly the best version of Pet Sematary unfortunately doesn’t exist anywhere other than in Lambert’s mind. In a recent interview with Slash Film, the director said that had pitched a sequel that would focus on Ellie, who returns to Ludlow as a teenager to find out what really happened to her family. Paramount turned her down, but let her direct the sequel (with a man’s screenplay) anyway.
“It was a time in history when it was – not too long ago – where it was kind of felt that women couldn’t carry a movie, and especially a young girl couldn’t carry a movie.” she said.
Instead, we got Pet Sematary 2, another cult classic with a killer rock soundtrack. Still, just like Lewis, it’s hard to let go of what could have been. Is there a magic burial ground for DOA movie projects? Hand me the shovel!