Pet Sematary is a 1989 horror movie that was written by Stephen King (both the original book and this screenplay), and directed by horror-regular Mary Lambert. The movie is in that odd space of being definitively classic, but a little bit more on the fringes than your Nightmares on Elm Street or your various Fridays the 13th. Check out the trailer below and then continue on down for our thoughts on the thing. But watch out for 28-year-old spoilers.
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Mark: Pet Sematary. Stephen King’s entry into the “reasons why you should never resurrect dead things” sub-genre of horror. Jack, this was your pick to watch. Why’d you choose this?
Jack: Main reason? The random-decade-generator picked the 80’s for me. Then the first three movies I picked we’d already watched, so I kind of panicked a little. But also, this is a classic, and it’d been a little while since I’d seen it.
Mark: Surprisingly enough, I had never actually seen this before this outing. I’ve seen it parodied a ton, specifically the South Park episode, but never actually watched the original movie. It kinda sets up as an interesting combination of something that is good enough to parody, but not so good to really demand that I watch it for any special reason.
Jack: I dunno man, I’ve never seen Citizen Kane, but I feel like I have because of the Simpsons, and that sure as shit doesn’t mean it’s not good (I assume . . . again, never seen it). Sometimes, if you haven’t seen the basis for the parody, that’s gotta be on you.
Mark: It doesn’t mean it’s not good? What the hell do those words even mean, man? We’re off to a rough start. Speaking of starts, the movie starts out with the Creed’s moving into their new house that is basically on top of a state highway. Before the days of Trulia, buying houses sight unseen must’ve had a lot more surprises than we realize. I bet this thing was listed as “car enthusiasts will be in heaven” and “fans of Native American lore will be thrilled.” Goddamn sheisty real estate agents.
Jack: They are a son of a bitch, man. As soon as they move in, they let their baby son wander off toward the highway which is very busy with semis going about a billion miles an hour. Enter Jud, their across-the-way neighbor who scoops up their son and then starts immediately throwing down both Buds and life lessons. Seriously, he drinks a lot of Budweiser.
Mark: Before long Winston Churchill Creed, the daughter’s cat, get’s semi-trucked straight into Jud’s lawn. Jud calls papa Creed over and they quite literally peel the cat off of the ground. I have no idea if they intended this to be comic relief, but if they didn’t then the sound effects were a bad choice.
Jack: Jud, being the old and wise neighbor he is, worries about the daughter losing her cat and tells the patriarch, Louis, to grab that darn cat’s corpse and follow him up to the pet cemetery (spelled “Pet Sematary” by the neighborhoods apparently illiterate kids). But they don’t stop there. They continue on up past that to where the ground has “gone sour.” In fact it’s an old First Nations burial ground, and Jud tells Louis to bury that fucker right there.
Mark: Basically my biggest takeaway from this scene was that Louis sucks dick at digging holes. He’s given a shovel and a pick and it takes him like 4 hours to dig a hole big enough to bury a cat. Really? Is the indian burial ground built atop an adamantium mine?
Jack: Look man, Mamma Creed ain’t never worried about teachin’ her kids to dig holes. And that’s clear, because holy fuck does Louis Creed suck at digging this hole.
Mark: As you might expect, the cat comes back, but it’s much more of a dick. It basically turns into a heat seeking missile of dick baggery. And in that way, it becomes a much more realistic portrayal of a cat. Jud explains to Louis that what you put in the ground isn’t necessarily what comes back out. Jud has this whole story about how he buried his dog there when he was a kid and the dog turned into a goddamn asshole and attacked a bunch of people. This begs the question, why the hell would he tell Louis to bury the cat up there? What the hell, man? Party foul.
Jack: Yeah man, Jud fucking knew better, but he just went off spouting his mouth. Probably drunk off his ass on Buds. But ol’ Winston Churchill hauls his undead ass out of the grave and returns to the family. He’s more of a dick this time around and smells like shit, but you know . . . he’s a cat . . . so that’s par for the course there eh’ bud?
Mark: As the family is celebrating their cat-full life by flying kites in a field, Louis drops the ball really fucking hard and let’s Gage, the two year old son, get obliterated by another semi truck. Lots to unpack here… first off, the kid’s name is Gage Creed. That’s a tough hand to be dealt. Even if he didn’t get red-misted by the truck he probably woulda grown up to be a weirdo anyway. Second, is the family allergic to fences? You have multiple small children and there is a fucking highway ten feet from your front door. Dawg, you’re a doctor. Pay somebody to build you a goddamn fence. Thirdly, when they have the kid’s funeral he basically just has a Harry Potter scar on his forehead. I am not a “medical doctor” or anything, but I’m fairly certain there would be more damage than that.
Jack: Yeah, it really feels like he should’ve been reduced to a fine red mist. Predictably, his death sends the whole family into a spiral of grief and despair, and Jud has to sedate Mrs. Creed. Something something Ramones reference. Hey, that’s a good segue! Did you know the Ramones wrote a song called Pet Sematary after talking to Stephen King about the original book? Did you also know that Johnny Ramone struggled to play the chords? Seriously, listen to this. Johnny Ramone couldn’t play that. A virtuoso, he wasn’t.
Mark: In one of the least surprising narrative turns in horror, Louis decides to resurrect his somehow still-in-one-piece son despite the fact that his cat is now a full on asshole. Even if he wasn’t already thinking about it, Jud goes out of his way to suggest it to him. It’s a bit of a strange story element. I think Jud might get a commision based off of the number of things he reluctantly convinces people to resurrect.
Jack: Shockingly, Louis gets it in his head to cram Gage’s body into the ground, despite Jud’s strong protestations. In Louis’s defense, a guy named Gage Creed who has literally come back from the dead is a guaranteed badass. Stone cold. Strangely, Louis is able to dig up Gage’s body with astounding ease given how hard it was for him to bury the cat. And into the Indian burial ground (which is really a First Nations burial ground) goes Gage.
Mark: Yeah, so remember how Jud said that the things that go in the ground are different from the things that come out? Well, what comes out is the spirit of Rachel’s sister who died as a child because she was lousy with meningitis. Her sister's name was Zelda, because what else would you name your creepy meningeal man-daughter. They actually had a heavily made-up man play her to increase the strangeness factor. Having a hard time picturing her? Here’s a painting to help you out.
Jack: They do a whole thing with flashbacks and hallucinations, man. Meningitis-woman aside, it doesn’t really feels like it fits in the movie.
Mark: Things go about as sour as the ground the people are buried in, and the now demonic Gage goes ham on Jud, and then his mom. There’s some solid practical effects at work with a famous achilles cutting scene. The problem is that they’re mixed in with the effects that make this 2 year old kid seem powerful enough to be scary. There’s one scene in particular where they basically throw a baby doll along fishing line to make it look it’s jumping at someone. It’s…. not great.
Jack: It’s terrible. It instantly ruins any immersion or tension the thing had going. It’s genuinely comical. Regardless, Louis manages to give Un-Gage a lethal dose of morphine. To be sure he’s finished the job, he sets fire to his house.
Mark: I have a question. If you are dead because of being-hit-by-a-semi-truck related reasons, and are magically brought back to life by being buried in the sour ground, then why would a dose of morphine do anything? Regardless, now Louis has a twice dead cat, a twice dead toddler, a dead wife, a dead neighbor, a burnt down house across the street, and a few acres of woods haunted by a Native American spirit all because he couldn’t fucking figure out what “sometimes, dead is better” means. So what does he do to make it all better? He resurrects his goddamn wife. For being a doctor this guy is pretty dense. He’s fucking 10 ply, bud.
Jack: He’s overcome with grief buddy. As he says to the ghost of the guy he failed to save at the beginning of this movie (we forgot to talk about that, what the hell was the deal with that anyway? Exposition? It felt like exposition) it’s going to work this time because his wife hasn’t been dead as long. . . . Sure buddy. Sure.
Mark: Oh yeah, Pascow the friendly ghost. He was there too. His character arch didn’t really add much aside from a few bits of comic relief and a terrible green screen shot. The movie ends with Louis making out with his not-zombie wife as she goes grabs a knife to stab him. Married life, am I right?
Jack: You know it, buddy. Ratings?
For 1, think of how you’d rate the Waitress’s knowledge of the internet:
For 10, think of how Alan would rate the quality of his friendship with the guys from the Hangover:
Jack: 7 - This is a good solid story. It’s been done before and it’ll be done again, but this just gets all the parts of it right. Probably because Stephen King wrote the screenplay adapted from his book. Some of what it does gets to be a little much, but overall, it’s fairly well-contained.
Mark: 6.5 - The story is a pretty straightforward story that reminds me quite a bit of the old monkey paw folktale. To be clear I’m not saying they’re the same story, just that they deal with a similar theme of “let’s maybe not resurrect everyone that dies in a horrific accident.” The addition of the backstory with the dead sister, and Pascow the friendly ghost round this whole thing out pretty well. The only quibble I have really is that there are some deus ex machina plot elements that have to fall in line for the narrative to make sense. Why wouldn’t you just build a fence?
WORLD BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Jack: 4 - I like the world they build. Stephen King knows Maine, and always makes the setting almost a character in the story. I also like the cemetery itself. But holy diver this thing is not immersive. From the stilted dialogue to the bananas-terrible effects of Un-Gage, it’s hard to get sucked into this one.
Mark: 7 - Same as story, I feel like the world they build is a pretty interesting one. The characters have backstory and interesting quirks. Fred Gwynne’s performance is awesome and infinitely impressionable. There are two spots where the effects take me out quite a bit: the aforementioned child being thrown at Louis scene, and the introduction to Pascow when he is clearly standing in front of a green screen.
Jack: 4 - This gets a bump up because of how much it fucked me up as a kid. That scene of the meningitis-woman writhing on the bed is horrifying. Beyond that, there’s one or two alright scares, but the climactic moment of Un-Gage attacking Louis is fucking horrible.
Mark: 4 - I respect that this movie fully traumatized some people. Reading reviews online makes it seem like this movie is capable of single handedly giving people PTSD. That being said, small children and cats just aren’t very scary. If you can’t beat up your two year old then there is something seriously wrong with you (or your child, I suppose). I get that it’s a necessary evil that goes along with addressing the concept of losing a child, but I would’ve liked if there were a more intimidating villain.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Jack: 4 - While I like what they did with some of the set design, the dead cat and the dead kid are too much to bear. They’re terrible. It evens out to slightly below average.
Mark: 6 - I said earlier that there were two significant points where effects took me out of it, one being a bad implementation of practical and the other being a bad use of green screen. Outside of those two things the rest of the effects are very solid. The achilles cutting scene looks good. They literally burnt the facade of a house down for the fire scene. The candlelighting of the dead cat’s eyes is a good touch. The movie misses at times (the glow in the dark kindling pile in the actual pet cemetery also comes to mind), but the misses are largely outnumbered by the things it does right.
Jack: 6 - This is a pretty enjoyable movie that deserves its place in, but not near the top of the pantheon of horror movies. It’s definitely worth a watch, whether you’re just trying to catch up with classics or looking for something fun to watch.
Mark: 7 - If this movie came out more recently I would probably be giving it a lower score, but I feel the need to upwardly correct it a bit based on the fact that it’s almost 30 years old. This one doesn’t really connect with me the way it has with other people, but it still deserves some respect. I had fun watching this movie, and even more fun imitating it. Give it a watch sometime if you haven’t already.