This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is a movie often considered one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work, Pet Sematary (1989), directed by Mary Lambert (director of Madonna’s best music videos, like “Like a Prayer” and “Material Girl“). The film was requested by ECW Press Creative Director (and my books’ copyeditor), Crissy Calhoun. She’s also the author of numerous books on pop culture, like Love You to Death: The Unofficial Companion to The Vampire Diaries. The DVD was provided by my local video store, Queen Video.
A young, white family drives their station wagon to their new home in the Maine countryside (this is Stephen King, after all), and we instantly know from the bumper sticker that one of them is a doctor. That doctor is Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), and he and his wife, Rachel (Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar!), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), toddler, Gage (Miko Hughes), and the blue-gray family cat, Winston Churchill (or “Church”) have moved from Chicago so that Dr. Creed can work at the university hospital. This perfect new home is, unfortunately, right beside a very busy road frequented by many an eighteen-wheeler. “One mean road,” as a character later proclaims. In fact, toddler Gage nearly toddles right out onto the highway and it’s only new neighbour Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne – Herman Munster himself!) who prevents him from becoming road pizza.
Thankful for their helpful neighbour, Rachel asks the older man what the mysterious path behind their house leads to, and Jud, font of homespun wisdom, cryptically says, “That’s a good story. We’ll talk about it one day.” That day occurs one night soon after, when, over beers, Jud tells Louis the path leads to a pet cemetery, in which many of the four-legged residents met their dooms right on the roadway in front of his house. After the family meets their new housekeeper, Missy (Susan Blommaert), a perennially agitated woman with stomach problems who laments that she never met a doctor, they go with Jud on a field trip to the pet cemetery. Or “pet sematary,” as the sign reads. (“It’s misspelled,” Rachel says. Are we sure she’s not the doctor?)
Jud reveals his dog Spot (who died in 1924) is buried here, and this leads to a general discussion of pet mortality. One that Rachel is not prepared for her young kids to have. Jud, however, feels the need to expose the youngsters to the idea of finality, and waxes poetic on the pet cemetery, noting, “the graveyard is where the dead speak.” All the death talk affects young Ellie something fierce, and soon she’s complaining to her dad about her cat Church’s inevitable end. Louis tells his daughter that neutering Church will make him less likely to run into the road and get hit by a car. Upon Rachel’s urging, he literally promises Church won’t get run over by a truck. (Can you see where this is going?)
Cut to the university campus, where a bunch of students are hauling a gruesome car accident victim to Dr. Creed. Unfortunately, there’s nothing Louis can do for the young jogger, but after the victim flatlines, he seemingly springs momentarily to life and cryptically whispers to the doctor, “The soil of a man’s hear is stonier, Louis.” How did he know the doctor’s name? The dead jogger, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), soon visits Louis in his sleep. Death hasn’t improved his massive head wound any, and he beckons Louis to follow him to the pet sematary. He says he wants to help Louis because Louis tried to help him. Standing in the pet graveyard, he gestures to the hill beyond and warns him not to go to “the place where the dead walk,” for the barrier was not meant to be crossed. Louis awakes in the morning, convinced it was just a vivid dream, but when he pulls his sheets back, his feet are caked in dirt!
Thanksgiving looms on the horizon. Rachel is taking the kids to her parents’ place, but Louis (who starts to look more and more like Dr. Michael Mancini from Melrose Place) won’t be joining them. (Her dad isn’t a fan of Louis joining the family, for reasons not fully explored.) Promptly after his wife and kids leave, Louis discovers the cat, Church, has been hit by a car. He goes over the Jud’s front lawn to retrieve the corpse and pulls it from the frostbitten ground. (“Like a sticky note off a letter,” Jud remarks on the sound.) Louis frets over how he’ll break the news to Ellie, but Jud tells him there may be a better way.
Jud and Louis, dead cat in hand, hike beyond the pet sematary and up that hill the ghost warned Louis about. They clamber over dangerous bramble and hear terrifying animal sounds until they reach a series of concentric circles and stones situated on the earth. The spot is a Mik’maq burial ground, Jud informs him, and it’s where Louis should bury Ellie’s cat. When Louis asks why, Jud mysteriously says he has his reasons. The process of burial takes well into the night – Jud can’t help Louis dig, he insists – and when they return to the Creed household, Jud suggests Louis not tell his family what they did. He then quotes Pascow’s line about stonier hearts and Louis is freaked right out. So much so that when he talks to his kids on the telephone, he can’t event respond when Gage says he loves him. Daddy can’t talk right now; his heart is all stony.
Working in the garage the next day, Louis hears a monstrous yowl. Church has returned, though his glowing eyes suggest he might not be exactly the same. Louis inspects the cat more thoroughly and it seems fine. He goes to Jud, assuming they accidentally buried the cat alive, but Jud knows better. Jud describes how he first buried his Spot in that Mik’maq burial ground, but when the dog came back, he was still cut up and wasn’t the same dog at all. When Spot died a second time, they buried him in the pet sematary. Louis asks the forbidden question – “Has anyone ever buried a person up there?” – and Jud is horrified by the mere suggestion.
Later that night, Dr. Creed draws a bath and indulges in some much-needed “me” time, but before long, the undead Church tosses a dead rat into his bath and begins to hiss at him. Chuch came back not quite all right, and Ellie already suspects something half the country away in Chicago. When Louis meets his family at the airpot, Ellie can’t believe her cat is okay. She’s been having dreams that Church was hit by a truck and Jud and her dad buried the cat in the pet sematary. Ellie also notices, once she sees the cat in person, that Church has acquired an awful new stench. “Can cats have shampoo?” she asks.
Around this time, Missy, unable to take her chronic stomach pain any longer, hangs herself in her basement. The Creeds’ attendance at her funeral prompts some existential questions from Ellie about life and death and what happens after. Given recent events, Louis tells Ellie he believes there’s something after life. Rachel, overhearing the conversation, is torn. She’s proud her husband can discuss death with their daughter in such a frank, loving way, but all the death talk reminds her of her childhood. In flashback, we learn Rachel had to take care of her older sister, Zelda, who had spinal meningitis, and whom her parents kept in the back room “like a dirty secret.” Zelda looks like a twisted skeleton, driven mad by her physical infirmity, and Rachel recalls how she sometimes wished Zelda would die. (Eventually she did, obvi.)
Because basically everyone and everything in this movie gets killed by a speeding truck, Louis and Rachel’s young son becomes the next victim to the mean road outside their house. In a truly troubling scene, Gage runs out into the road during a family picnic and is hit (off-screen) by a tractor trailer. In the days that follow, Rachel becomes nearly catatonic, while Ellie maintains that God could bring Gage back if He wanted to. Jud (always offering hot takes on mortality to other people’s kids) says he doesn’t think God works that way. Or does he?!
At the funeral, Rachel’s dad violently attacks Louis, yelling, I told her something like this would happen!” The resulting scuffle causes them to knock over the miniature-sized coffin and send little Gage’s body flying out. (Just in case you were wondering if this movie was going to pull any punches.) Louis goes home, sees his demon cat lying on his distraught wife’s chest and begins to wonder. Jud, drinking downstairs, already knows what Louis is thinking and attempt to stop him. He recounts the story of Timmy Baderman, a boy killed on his way home from World War II. His parents buried him up by the Mik’maq burial ground, and he returned, but death turned him into a deranged zombie, clawing at his own flesh, stalking neighbours. Eventually, the townsfolk turned on the Baderman boy and a small mob set fire to the Baderman house with the boy inside. “Sometimes death is better,” Jud assures Louis. “The Indians knew that. They stopped using that place.”
Ellie begins to dream of someone called “Paxkow,” and Rachel decides to take Ellie with her to her parents for a few days after Louis and her dad make peace. Louis has to work and can’t join them for a few days. But when the cat is away, the mice will play. And by “play,” I mean “dig up his dead son and perform an unoly rite to bring him back to life.” Pascow visits Louis as well as his daughter, and warns him again that the ground is sour. But Louis is undeterred. He reasons if Gage comes back wrong, he can always put him “back to sleep.” I guess because killing your undead toddler is a totes easy thing to do. That night, Louis heads to the not-pet sematary and starts digging.
Back in Chicago, Ellie is again visited by a ghost she calls “Paxkow” in her sleep. She tells her mom about “Paxkow” and that he’s a good ghost, trying to watch out for her dad. The name triggers something in Rachel’s memory, and the ghost of Pascow begins to, unseen, guide her back home. Rachel calls home and no one answers. Her dreams are haunted by the terrifying spectre of her dead sister Zelda, who says she and Gage are coming for her. Rachel decides to immediately take a flight home. Every step of the way, Pascow helps her, delaying flights so Rachel can make her connection, guiding car rental agencies to suggest other cars when all options seem impossible. She is, of course, too late. By the time she gets behind the seat of her rental car, Louis has already buried Gage in the place where the dead walk. Or, rather, piled a bunch of stones on top of his corpse.
Nevertheless, Rachel speeds home, driving so quickly she surely wouldn’t be able to stop if a child were to run into the road. Her tire blows out, so Pascow uses his ghost Force to make a trucker pick her up and drive her the rest of the way. (A trucker! Like the kind who ran over her kid!) That very same night, li’l Gage returns, dressed in his Sunday best, and, first-things-first, he secretly rummages through his dad’s medical bag and extracts the scalpel.
Across the roadway, Jud has fallen asleep on his front porch. When he wakes, he’s startled by small, wet footprints that lead into his house and the distant sound of giggling. Jud follows into the house to the sounds of a child exclaiming, “Hide and go seek!” Following the sounds, he enters his bedroom and takes out his hunting knife for protection. He’s just about look under the bed when Church yowls and distracts him. Gage, hiding under the bed, takes the opportunity to cut deep into Jud’s Achilles tendon with the scalpel. He then slashes his neighbour across the mouth, and finally bites into Jud’s throat, tearing it out.
The trucker brings Rachel to her door, and Pascow, riding shotgun but invisible to both riders, informs the audience he can’t help any further. Rachel goes to check on Jud, and in his bedroom finds Zelda, who says, “I’m going to twist your back so you never get out of bed again!” (Which is not really how spinal meningitis works.) Rachel blinks and Zelda has been replaced by her son, Gage, dressed in Zelda’s old clothing. “I brought you something, Mommy,” he says. Spoiler alert: it’s a scalpel.
Louis Creed, apparently a fairly heavy sleeper, wakes up to find Gage-sized footsteps on his floor and the scalpel taken from his doctor’s bag. The telephone rings and his father-in-law asks if Rachel arrived all right. Louis, in shock that something may have happened to her, pretends Rachel arrived fine. Rachel’s dad is insistent on talking to her, as Ellie has been hysterical with nightmares that her mom has died. Louis hangs up on his father-in-law. (That’s not going to win him over.) When the phone rings almost immediately afterward, it’s not him, but Gage, who spookily says, “First I played with Jud, then Mommy came, and I played with Mommy.” The final confrontation is at hand.
Louis crosses the street to Jud’s house with a hypodermic needle in hand. Church sits outside like a gargoyle, protecting the unholy house, but Louis lures the cat into a false sense of security with a raw steak, then jabs it in the butt with his needle full of death. Inside, Jud’s house appears filled with rotting goo, but it’s just an illusion. Upstairs, Louis finds Jud’s mangled corpse, then backs into the hallway, where – horror – his wife’s body drops from the attic, hanging by a noose. From that same attic, Gage leaps on his dad from above and begins slashing him with a scalpel. After a fierce struggle, Louis gains the upper hand and slowly stabs his undead son in the neck with the hypodermic needle. Gage topples backward and dies a second time.
Gasoline jug in hand, Louis begins the task of setting Jud’s house on fire. But he doesn’t leave the burning building empty-handed; he’s brought Rachel’s body with him. Pascow’s ghost returns to dissuade him from repeating his mistakes, but Louis has rationalized it to himself. He waited too long to resurrect Gage, he says, this time he’ll bring Rachel back right away. The final scene of the film shows a rotting Rachel, one eye merely a gory socket, returning to the Creed family kitchen. Louis and the undead Rachel passionately kiss, then she reaches for the knife.
- Pet Sematary succeeded as my favourite of the horror movies I’ve watched so far, probably because it’s one that tackles a theme that interests me immensely: how we (as a society, as a culture) deal with death. The various viewpoints presented – Jud’s frank discussion of death with his neighbour’s children, Rachel’s attempt to shield the children from death, Louis’s refusal to bow to death (fitting, given his profession) – present differing ways people cope with death. What really got to me was Rachel’s story about her sister Zelda, and how her family treated her (and her slow death) as a “dirty secret.” North American culture (and WASPy North American culture, in particular) tends to treat death as a dirty secret, as something that should be kept behind closed doors. The general thesis of the film seems to be that it’s better to accept death as part of everyday life. Visually, this point is garishly made when Gage’s little corpse is knocked out of its closed casket. As Jud says to Louis (several times), “Sometimes death is better.”
- For Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, this movie is obviously an inspiration for the episode, “Forever,” in which Dawn attempts to bring her and Buffy’s mother back from the grave. They make the same conclusion, that sometimes death is better.
- The film also participates in that horror movie trope of “the mystical indigenous person.” “Indian” burial grounds always seem to have supernatural powers, and the Mik’maq burial ground in Pet Sematary is no different. This mystical treatment of a modern indigenous culture is a bit troubling, to say the least: as if slowly destroying indigenous society through a process of cultural genocide weren’t enough, we’re also going to make you our boogeymen. Enjoy!
- Most of the movie I spent trying to place Jud Crandall’s accent. Apparently it’s a Maine accent, but I couldn’t help picture Jimmy Stewart who had drank one too many scotches.
- Let us take a moment to praise the work of the cat actor who portrayed Church. I have never seen cat-acting like that featured in Pet Sematary. Church was played by seven different cats, but the scene that most impressed me was the death scene. The cat’s movements were so convincing, I was a little worried they just straight-up murdered a cat. Bravo, seven cats who played Church. Bravo!
- In what seems like an impossible coincidence, Pet Sematary is the second horror film in two nights to feature a Ramones connection. The careless trucker who runs over Gage is blasting “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” at the moment of impact, and the end credits feature an original Ramones tune, “Pet Sematary.” To whit: “I don’t wanna’ be buried / in a Pet Sematary.” Too true, Joey Ramone.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Pet Sematary mostly lives up to the hype. Sure, there are scenes or lines of dialogue that seem a little hokey, but there are also really unsettling scenes, including the unbearable suspense leading up to Jud’s gruesome death and the truly upsetting sight of Rachel’s zombie-like sister, Zelda. Plus, the movie has a friendly ghost! One of my favourite things! But friendly ghost or not, I was still a bit creeped out.
Best outfit: Rachel Creed is by far the best-dressed character in Pet Sematary, but it’s hard to rank one of her outfits over any others. Perhaps her “jaunt to a cemetery” outfit – comprised of a crisp white blouse, long plaid shorts, and high socks – is the best of the bunch.
Best line: “He’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat! Let God get his own cat if he wants one!” – Ellie Creed, learning about pet mortality
Best kill: Two of the worst injuries I can imagine are having your Achilles tendon cut and having your smile widened by a knife. That Jud Crandall’s unceremonious death incorporates both at the hands of a toddler is, frankly, really impressive.
Unexpected cameo: It’s always a pleasure seeing Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) get work. And Blaze Berdahl, who plays Ellie Creed, is better known as one of the young sleuths on the 90s children’s television show, Ghostwriter. But best of all is the author of the book, Stephen King, portraying a minister at the housekeeper Missy’s funeral.
Unexpected lesson(s) learned: (1) Even if you’re sleeping outside, always wear shoes without open heels. I bet Jud regretted his choice of slipper when he felt Gage’s blade cut through his ankle. (2) When you’re buying a new family home, try to visit it during a weekday so you get a sense of how busy the nearby traffic is.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Pascow’s Ghost. Or, taken from a tombstone in the pet sematary: Biffer, Biffer, a Hell of a Sniffer.
Next up: Ju-On (2002).