30 Years On, “Pet Sematary” Looked at Parental Anxiety and Little Else

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

When I brought my first son home from the hospital, my mind suddenly played out every bad thing that could happen to him. Such borderline hallucinations are surprisingly common for new moms; we’re burdened with this incredible responsibility, which makes us protective and terrified for our children. Several years and another child later, and the what ifs haven’t stopped for me one bit. 

Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary taps into that very real fear, the trauma of what happens when your worst nightmare comes true. In 1989, Mary Lambert directed a film adaptation of that novel, and while it suffers the fate of many a King adaptation, this exploration of parental trauma and fear still rings true.

Rachel (Denise Crosby) and Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) are parents who move with their young daughter and toddler son— Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes)— to the woods somewhere in Maine. In these woods hides an ancient Native American burial ground with the power to resurrect the dead. Their Victorian-style house is clearly too close to the highway, with what appears to be the same red truck plowing down their street and in front of their house constantly. 

Their kind yet strange elderly neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) warns them that the trucks have taken the lives of many a pet over the years. That’s when he introduces Louis to the burial ground. Past the makeshift “Pet Sematary” sign – where dead dogs, cats, and other pets lie – is an ancient Indian burial ground with a sinister power. 

In a morbid series of events, the family’s cat is killed, buried, and resurrected. After two-year-old Gage is also hit and killed by the aforementioned red truck during a family picnic, grief pushes Louis to consider the same fate for his son.

It’s safe to say that King himself exorcised a few of his demons with Pet Sematary, inspired by his own experience moving to a house too close to a road where his own two-year-old son played. In his introduction to a 2017 reissue of the novel, King wrote of a time in which he barely saved his son from being run over on that road. “But a part of my mind has never escaped from that gruesome what if: Suppose I hadn’t caught him? Or suppose he had fallen in the middle of the road instead of on the edge of it?”

The scarier what if, though, is the thought that we might give in to the temptation to resurrect our loved ones if given the chance. Would I die for my children? Absolutely. I say that with honesty and a shocking self-awareness. Would I bring them back from the dead if I could? I don’t know. 

Enter the adaptation itself, which at least captures that same parental anxiety, that feeling that you can never keep your child truly safe, and that you might do anything to protect them (or bring them back). Midkiff’s frenzied, aggrieved performance as Louis makes this question feel all too real. He moves from being skeptical of the supernatural to desperately grasping for anything that will bring his son back fairly quickly – the kind of speed you can expect from a hopeful, terrified parent.  

The key to Midkiff’s performance is his believability; sure, he delivers his Louis Creed as a doctor with the personality of a sheet of notebook paper, but it works. It functions especially well alongside Gwynne’s Jud Crandall, a tragic and lonely character who still manages to be friendly despite his towering presence and secretive nature. 

It’s safe to say that King himself exorcised a few of his demons with Pet Sematary.

The film, however, fails to paint a sufficiently detailed picture of the father/son relationship as in the novel. The death of Louis’ father when he was three is significant in the novel, as it guides the relationship between Jud and Louis. King writes the pair as spending time together bonding and Jud feeling a paternal instinct over Louis. In the film adaptation, Louis almost tolerates Jud’s presence and encounters him as needed—for information and answers about the town and the supernatural powers of its land. Louis and Jud have an awkward, unwelcome neighbor dynamic in the adaptation instead of the family-like bond originally written.

But what about the mother? Pet Sematary disappointingly sidesteps her own maternal anxiety in service to Louis’ grief. As Rachel, Crosby’s only believable in relation to her nightmarish flashbacks of watching her sister Zelda die a gruesomely slow death from spinal meningitis. It’s the catalyst behind her fear of death, and her unwillingness to talk about it. Even if the rest of her performance is a misstep, at least that core tension plays into our innate fear of losing our loved ones. 

It’s these family relationships and relationships with death that elevate one of King’s most uncomfortable and controversial premises into a movie that’s at least worth a look, even if it doesn’t explore these issues with the depth they likely deserve. Is it worth watching twice (or rebooted, as in the case of last year’s controversial remake)? Well, as King himself wrote: sometimes dead is better.

Pet Sematary Trailer:

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