Pet Sematary (1989) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 24

by Jovial Jay

I don’t want to be buried in a pet cemetery. I don’t want to live my life again.

Whether this adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary follows the plot of the book is beside the point. As a film it delivers some iconic moments and a hearty number of chills.

Before Viewing

The trailer reveals the titular cemetery where two men take a cat so that it can be born again. Even though the younger man questions this decision about using this “secret” place, he appears to exhume a small coffin and then bury it in the haunted ground. What is he expecting to happen? Well it’s a Stephen King tale, so presumably nothing good!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary (1989) title card.

After Viewing

Louis and Rachel Creed (Dale Midkiff & Denise Crosby) move to a small town in Maine with their children Ellie and Gage (Blaze Berdahl & Miko Hughes). Upon arrival they meet their neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) who shows them the local pet cemetery (spelled “sematary”) off a path behind their house. Rachel is uncomfortable discussing death around the children.

At his new job as a doctor at the local University Louis’ first case is Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) who has been hit by a truck. He dies, but grabs Louis warning him with a cryptic sentence. That evening he appears to Louis in a dream and warns him not to go beyond the Pet Sematary. That Thanksgiving, the Creed’s cat Church (short for Winston Churchill) is hit by a speeding truck on the road in front of their house. Rachel and the kids are with her parents in Chicago, so Louis decides to bury him.

Jud suggests an alternate place and leads Louis over the brambles and far away to a sacred burial ground of the Miꞌkmaq tribe. He instructs Louis to bury the cat and then they return home. Louis is of course surprised to find Church back in the house and alive the next day. Church is different and scratches Louis, no longer the kind cat they once had. Jud apologies, thinking it would be different this time.

Pet Sematary (1989)

Jud meets young Ellie in the pet cemetery and explains about death.

One afternoon young Gage, who is only about two and a half years old, chases a kite into the road and is struck by a speeding semi. Grief stricken, Rachel takes Ellie back to her parents, unable to handle a horrific death which reminds her of how her sister Zelda died. Jud warns Louis not to do what he’s thinking. But as they say, the soil of a man’s heart is stonier. Pascow reappears and warns Louis to stop, but the father digs up his son and re-buries him in the sour ground beyond.

Ellie has bad dreams about her Dad, and Rachel has a strange feeling that something is wrong which urges her to return home. It is Pascow reaching out to Louis’s family from beyond the grave to help him. The reanimated Gage attacks and kills Jud with one of his fathers scalpels. Rachel arrives home and is lured to Jud’s house seeing the ghost of her dead sister, which she blames herself for her death. Gage attacks and kills her as well.

The next morning Louis awakens and finds the carnage across the street. He injects Gage with a syringe of morphine and then sets Jud’s house on fire. But not before grabbing Rachel’s body and carrying her up the path to the ground beyond. Pascow appears again to warn him, but Louis still ignores him. Rachel returns, and with ooze running out of her eye socket Louis kisses her. She reaches for a knife on the table. Cut to black.

Sometimes dead is better.” – Jud Crandall

Pet Sematary (1989)

Later, Jud take Louis to the land beyond the cemetery where the ground is sour. Totally nothing to worry about here.

Pet Sematary is a film about grief and all the horrible things that it can make someone, especially a parent do. Unlike the grief of losing a child presented in The Omen or Don’t Look Now, which are more spiritual in nature, the moments in this film are raw and visceral. The film presents Louis as a man of science. He sees death as a natural process as opposed to his wife Rachel who has more emotion and superstition wrapped up in it. That is, until Louis sees what the sour ground of the land beyond can offer. Like a man who can’t get enough liquor, Louis keeps going back believing that the next time will be better than the last, but unfortunately each new reanimated body is worse than the one before it. His grief drives him to bargain with himself, convincing his logical mind that somehow he can will his son to be better or fix his wife after his poor choices have destroyed them both.

This may be what the quote that is often mentioned in the film is about. “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, then he tends it.” Perhaps it speaks to the capacity for love that Louis is capable of. His heart, like the ground beyond the pet cemetery, is incapable of growing much. And anything that he puts in his heart is twisted and tainted by his care. Maybe Louis is actually blindsided by his love for his son, rather than indifferent to it. His love is so great that he would do, and does, anything for him. Even when it’s too late. But his problem is ultimately the responsibility of Jud, who put him in the mess in the first place without warning.

Pet Sematary (1989)

Church comes back from the dead, with a little more devil in him.

Jud, while an enjoyable character played by the beloved Fred Gwynne, is a horrible human being. What kind of neighbor introduces the idea of reanimating a dead pet without properly consulting that neighbor on the consequences of such an action? Obviously Jud has tried this before on his dog, and had heard the stories of Timmy Baterman, both who came back worse off than they were before. His hope that things might be different this time proved to be his downfall as well, having unleashed the very thing that would do him in. Obviously Jud sees the wrong he committed immediately as he tries to apologize to Louis (using the quote above), but by that time the damage is done and the monkey’s paw is out of the bag. Jud’s later warnings fall on deaf ears as Louis heads out to exhume his dead son and begin the end of both their stories.

Pet Sematary contains some great moments, splitting the horror between jump scares and terrifying moments of human misery. Gwynne’s performance as the aged townie is a highlight in his career. But the standout performance in the film is the use of young Miko Hughes (seen earlier this month in New Nightmare), who was only about two and a half or three at the time of the film. The use of his wide eyed face, juxtaposed with the moments of horror surrounding the reanimated Gage are truly memorable. His death scene also stands out as a truly horrifying and sphincter puckering moment that will make parents’ hearts surely skip a beat. Some other scary moments involve the grotesque body horror surrounding the brief scene with Rachel’s sister, but this storyline doesn’t quite gel as it’s too brief. Overall, Pet Sematary will leave you chilled and hopefully make you give your loved ones an extra hug the next time you see them, as it may be the last time.

Pet Sematary (1989)

Maybe consider erecting a fence along a road where the trucks drive too fast.

Assorted Musings

  • The character of Pascow is very similar to Jack in An American Werewolf in London. Both are gruesome spirits that wander the Earth trying to help those closest to them when they died.
  • Arguably one of the best elements of the film is the closing theme song, “Pet Sematary” by The Ramones.
  • Fred Gwynne may be better known to modern film audiences as the judge in My Cousin Vinny, while old timers and horror fans may know him as Herman Munster from the TV series The Munsters.

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