Pet Sematary (1989)

Because a new film version of Stephen King’s classic 1983 book Pet Sematary is due in cinemas in a few days, I decided to take a look at the film version, which hit theaters in 1989. There were already numerous film versions of King’s works by the end of the ’80s, but this film was unique in that King himself wrote the screenplay.

The film begins with Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) arriving at his family’s new house in Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), their daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), their son Gage (Miko Hughes), and their cat Church. They all seem to take to their new home right away. Ellie even notices a path that leads to woods in their backyard. This happens just before she swings in a tire tied to a tree, and the rope snaps. Their new place is also right next to a road that trucks often barrel-ass down. This point is made clear to Louis and Rachel as Gage attempts to get in the way of one of those trucks while his parents are busy attending to Ellie.

Happily, Gage is rescued by their new neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne). They quickly become friends and Jud even tells Rachel that the path has a story to it, which he says he’ll fill them in on after the Creeds get settled.

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That night, Louis, after getting the bejeezus scared out of him by Church the cat, goes to Jud’s. Over beer, Jud tells him that the path leads to a pet cemetery, as many pets have met their fate on that road. Jud even suggests that Church get fixed to avoid the same fate. Jud soon leads the Creeds down the path to the cemetery, with Rachel noting that the word is misspelled on the sign. As an attempt to lighten the mood, Jud points out that some of the pets buried here died of natural causes, including Jud’s own dog Spot. He goes on to tell Ellie that a cemetery is a place where the dead rest and speak to each other. But this doesn’t stop Ellie from thinking Church’s days are numbered.

Louis takes this to heart, and even takes Church out to get fixed the next day. He promises Ellie he’ll be fine, although on top of that, she also has doubts that her new school will be as fun as her old one in Chicago (this is one scared little girl!). Despite her dad’s promises, he forcefully whispers to Rachel to explain things to Ellie on the off-chance that the worst does happen.

As he leaves, the Creeds’ housekeeper (Susan Blommaert) arrives with laundry, and rejects any help Louis offers for the stomachache she currently has. Rachel comes out and she and Louis kiss and make up, and he goes off to the first day of his new job as a doctor at the University of Maine.

That first day turns out to be quite the doozy for Louis, as one of his patients, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is brought in having been hit by a truck and in a bloody mess. The unconscious Victor briefly revives when Louis is alone with him. He addresses the doctor by name even though they’ve never met. Victor warns him about the cemetery, then dies.

That night, Louis is startled by the appearance of Victor in his bedroom. They quietly walk out of the house while Rachel continues to soundly sleep. When Louis asks Victor WTF?, the latter replies that he wants to help, since Louis tried to save him earlier. They reach the cemetery and Victor tells Louis not to go on to “where the dead walk”. Victor points to a spot just beyond the cemetery, where Victor calls the ground “sour”. Louis wakes up, and sees dirt on his feet.

After Rachel and the kids head off to her dad’s for Thanksgiving (with Louis noting how much his father-in-law dislikes him), Jud informs Louis that he’s found Church’s body near the road. He leads Louis to the same point just past the cemetery that Victor showed Louis, where he instructs Jud to bury Church. He asks Louis not to tell anyone about this little outing, repeating Victor’s earlier words that “the soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” The next day, Church is seen up and about again, but he has a different attitude, to say the least. He’s particularly vicious toward Louis, and those glowing eyes sure don’t offer any comfort. Louis goes to Jud for answers. Jud says that he buried his dog in the same Indian burial ground (yep, that old reliable horror story cliche) when he was younger, and he did the same to Church so Ellie wouldn’t be sad.

Once Rachel and the kids return, Ellie tells her dad that she dreamed that Church was killed and was buried in the pet cemetery. Louis assures her it was just a dream, but not long afterward, the housekeeper hangs herself, with a note saying she has cancer. At her funeral (with the presiding priest played by King himself), Jud asks Louis how Church is, stating that he’s no longer Ellie’s cat, but Louis’s.

At home, Louis comforts Ellie about the housekeeper’s death. But this prompts Rachel to share the story of her sister, Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis. Rachel recalls how Zelda was kept in a bedroom like a dirty secret, and how she had to feed her. She soon started wishing Zelda was dead. One night, while their parents were gone, Zelda died. Rachel cried out, which her neighbors thought were cries of horror, but she says it was more likely cries of happiness. This gives Louis a legitimate reason to dislike his in-laws, since they left her alone with Zelda.

Sadly, more bad news follows: One day, while the Creeds and Jud are enjoying a meal outside and flying a kite, Gage wanders into the path of a approaching truck, and gets killed. Jud blames himself for Gage’s death, as he feels sharing knowledge of the cemetery led to it. He also correctly suspects that Louis wants to bury Gage in the same burial ground. Jud attempts to dissuade Louis from this by saying that, a while back, one of the locals buried his son Timmy in the area. Timmy came out of the ground as a murderous zombie. Jud and others stopped Timmy by burning him inside his home, but his dad, in his anguished state, died with him.

At Gage’s funeral, Rachel’s father (Michael Lombard) gets pissed off at Louis and even starts a fight with him, knocking Gage’s body out of the coffin. Soon after, Rachel and Ellie go to Chicago again. Louis clandestinely exhume’s Gage’s body and buries him at the burial ground.

At the same time, Ellie tells her mom that Victor appeared to her in a dream, and said that Louis was doing something horrible. This prompts Rachel to call Louis. But Jud answers, saying that Louis isn’t available, and is alarmed when Rachel tells him she’s heading home.

Jud spends the night preparing for the possibility of Gage returning, while Louis is sleeping in his own home. Sure enough, Zombie Gage sneaks in and steals a scalpel from his dad’s handbag. He then heads over to Jud’s and basically plays hide and seek. Jud comes close to getting the drop on him before Zombie Church distracts him long enough for Gage to use the scalpel on his tendon. This paralyzes Jud long enough for Gage to use the scalpel to slice Jud’s mouth before finishing him off by eating his throat.

Rachel, with Victor’s prodding, makes it back and heads to Jud’s while being haunted by a vision of her sister Zelda, before smiling at the sight of Gage, who comes to her with the scalpel.

Louis wakes up as the sun rises and sees Gage’s footprints, and his scalpel gone. His phone rings with Gage on the other end saying he “played” with Jud and Rachel and now wants to play with him, too. Horrified, Louis then gets a call from Rachel’s father, saying Ellie needs to speak to her mom, because she had a nightmare in which Rachel was killed. Louis simply hangs up and fills syringes with morphine.

He heads over to Jud’s and distracts Church with raw steak, which the cat chows down on before Louis injects him. He then goes into the house and finds Jud’s body. Rachel’s falls down from the attic, wearing a noose. Gage leaps out and slashes at Louis several times before Louis sadly injects Gage with the morphine. Gage cries and says, “No fair!” before collapsing to the ground dead.

Like Jud with Timmy years earlier, Louis ends this business by torching Jud’s home with Gage inside. But Louis carries out Rachel’s sheet-wrapped body. Victor appears one last time, imploring him not to bury Rachel in the burial ground. Louis counters that Rachel just died, so she won’t be a murderous zombie like Gage. Victor cries out in anguish as he vanishes.

The film ends with Louis seated on his kitchen floor, awaiting Rachel’s appearance. Sure enough, the mutilated Rachel appears and she and Louis passionately embrace. Alas, he pays the ultimate price for his deranged state of mind as she stealthily picks up a butcher knife from the table and thrusts it into his back.

A number of King’s works are, at their core, tragedies, such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, and Cujo. Pet Sematary certainly fits right alongside those works, and as with the respective film versions of those three works, this movie does justice to the tragic aspect of the story, whether it’s Gage’s funeral, Jud’s death, or the heartbreaking sight of Zombie Tasha Yar.

The cast is all terrific, especially Gwynne, who was the perfect choice for Jud, a character King based on himself. The actor’s love-hate relationship with his iconic character Herman Munster seemed to lean a bit toward the “love” side by this time, thanks to his great roles in films like this and My Cousin Vinny.

I’ve heard some say that Louis was terminally stupid throughout much of the film. But keep in mind that the man lost his cat, his son, and his wife all in one swoop. As he tells Rachel’s father, we all lose our minds.

If I had a complaint with this film, it’s that it removes the character of Jud’s wife, Norma. It would’ve been nice to see her in this movie. Overall, though, the film does the book proud, and made audiences forgive King for his previous attempt at filmmaking, the notorious flop Maximum Overdrive.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

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  • Kradeiz

    With this adaptation being so accurate to the novel, I’m wary of what the new one will change.

    • Xander

      Well, the big change from the previews is the fact that it’s the daughter who dies rather than the son. From there, who knows.

    • The_Shadow_Knows

      I’ve seen it. It’s good until the last fifteen minutes – although numerous things are changed from the book – but then it goes down the toilet. The ending shows the filmmakers really didn’t understand the ideas in the book at all.