Published on July 17th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Pet Sematary 
Summary: One of Stephen King's best ideas makes a passable film, mostly due to limp acting. The plot is genuinely frightening and surprisingly grim for a box office smash. This one's ripe for a remake.
R | 103 min.
Director: Mary Lambert
Screenplay: Stephen King (based on his novel)
Starring: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $11.5 million | U.S. Box Office: $57.5 million (#23 of 1989)
Some story ideas are so perfectly simple, they deserve to be made into a great film.
A well-meaning doctor moves his wife and two small children to a nice house in rural Maine, situated on a country road that has proven so deadly to neighborhood dogs and cats that a makeshift cemetery for pets has been built just a short walk into the woods. But a hike beyond the cemetery reveals a Native American burial ground that has proven magical for desperate, grieving pet owners. It’s said that if you bury your departed furry friend in the haunted grounds, they will rise from the dead and return home like nothing happened — save for a deadly change of attitude.
So what happens when the family’s preschool-aged son is killed in a tragic accident at home? The doctor gets the idea that if it works for a cat, why not for a child.
That’s the setup for author Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which was made into one of 1989’s surprise box office hits. I feel this is a story so straightforward, obvious and elegant that it deserves another look from Hollywood. Pretty much every successful horror film — whether a masterpiece or a heap of garbage — has been remade in the last 20 years, so why not revisit one that was a bit mishandled the first time around? This film, directed by Mary Lambert and written by King, isn’t a complete miss but it certainly could be better with a more active cast.
A great film typically starts with its lead and this is where Pet Sematary stumbles immediately. Dale Midkiff stars as Dr. Louis Creed, the patriarch of the aforementioned family who move to the Maine countryside at the movie’s opening. His character — like all in this story — is mostly one-dimensional but is certainly given chances to get intense and show off his chops. The problem is, Midkiff never takes advantage. He plays Louis in such a limp manner that it never appears he’s interested in what’s happening, despite the fact that his family is on the verge of collapse.
In the first scene of Pet Sematary, we see the family pull into the driveway of their new home and are immediately made aware of the dangers that the road that stretches by their house possesses. The late Fred Gwynne (Herman from TV’s The Munsters) acts as a one-man exposition machine. Any intriguing facts that move the story forward are spewed by Gwynne’s character Jud Crandall, the Creeds’ neighbor who’s a lifelong resident of the area. I would call Crandall the most interesting character in the film but that’s mostly because Gwynne gives the film’s best adult performance. The problem with Jud is that he’s always wearing overalls — lest we forget he’s the local — and Gwynne uses a New England accent that makes you want to mute his dialogue.
I realize it sounds like I’m shitting all over this film, despite the fact that I’ve given it a score of 3/5 stars. But it’s not the stock characters or flimsy screenplay that make Pet Sematary a cut above low-rent ’80s horror, it’s the shock factor of its plot and the unforgettable face-heel turn pulled by its main child actor that separate this one from the pack.
We’ve all seen a lot of violence and a lot of shocking moments in horror over the years but the idea that you could take a 3-year-old boy, brutally kill him an hour into the film before bringing him back as a bloodthirsty zombie bent on murdering anyone in his path with a razor-sharp scalpel, is almost too grim to believe. We’ve certainly seen children used as effective horror villains before but typically they are empathetic characters whose villainy isn’t their fault and who can be redeemed in the end. In Pet Sematary, there is no chance for little Gage Creed to be saved.
King’s story blends elements from some of the horror genre’s greatest hits. There are elements of Shelley’s Frankenstein, Romero’s zombies, Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Hitchcock’s The Birds all at work in Pet Sematary. Also, its main character is a good man under immense pressure which leads him to make a horrible choice that will lead to the downfall of everyone he loves. This film is a case of the parts being greater than their sum.
For King, the novel came during one of his most prolific periods. In 1984, the author released three books — one of which was Pet Sematary. By the time the film was made, 14 movies based on King’s works had already been produced. It was a mixed bag of legitimately great movies (Carrie, Stand by Me and The Shining), decent entertainment (Children of the Corn and The Running Man) and pure crap (Maximum Overdrive and Firestarter). I’d place Pet Sematary on the middleground.
His adaptations had been handled by some of the most talented directors to ever work in cinema. Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, George Romero and John Carpenter had all made King-based films, as had a few no-name filmmakers. For Pet Sematary, the job was given to Mary Lambert, whose career had consisted of high-profile music video work during the height of the MTV revolution. Lambert has crafted videos for Madonna, Lionel Richie and Janet Jackson. Prior to this film, she helmed the clip for Madge’s classic “Like a Virgin,” as well as directed a 1984 Go-Go’s concert flick. Lambert has directed few theatrical films since Pet Sematary — including its 1992 sequel — with no additional box office hits to her record.
Her limited experience in feature filmmaking shows during Pet Sematary because it doesn’t seem like she was able to energize her cast at all. The composition of this movie is totally fine, with no glaring weaknesses in cinematography or sound editing. Like many ’80s horror flicks, the makeup work is perhaps its greatest strength.
The makeup crew that worked on this film was led by David Anderson, who has consistently been among the best makeup men in the business since Pet Sematary hit theaters. Anderson won back-to-back Oscars in 1997 and 1998 for his work on The Nutty Professor and Men in Black. He also did eye-catching work on 1997’s Spawn and 2004’s outstanding Dawn of the Dead remake. Interestingly, a deeper look at the Pet Sematary makeup crew shows a young John Blake credited as “makeup effects assistant.” Blake has since worked as makeup department head for great films like 2007’s There Will Be Blood and 2012’s The Avengers, but perhaps his best work was turning Robert Downey Jr. into a black man in 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
Anderson and his crew really got to shine in creating the look for a character that haunts Louis Creed’s nightmares throughout Pet Sematary. Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is a young college student that is treated by Dr. Creed after being involved in a horrible car accident. Pascow dies on Creed’s table but not for the doctor’s lack of trying, which leads him to become a disfigured guardian angel of sorts to the troubled man. The makeup department also nail the subtle effects that make young Gage look so creepy after he’s killed and resurrected. The kid’s eyes are black as oil and his skin is powdery white, giving him an unsettling doll-like quality.
Gage is played by child actor Miko Hughes — just over two years old at the time of shooting — who remained a recognizable face after the success of Pet Sematary. A year after its release, he delivered the most memorable line from Kindergarten Cop, stealing a scene from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He later had a long-recurring role on ABC’s Full House and appeared as Tom Hanks’ son in Apollo 13.
And why shouldn’t Hughes have kept getting work after the film? His performance is the most memorable part of Pet Sematary. Hughes was able to combine creepy and cute in a way not many kid actors can pull off. His squeaky voice delivering the line, “Now I wanna play with you,” is chilling as hell. It’s also the best line of the picture, not because it’s original (which it isn’t) but because of how Hughes delivers it, stretching the final word to sound like, “yeeeewwwww.”
Little Miko Hughes turns killer and delivers the film’s best line.
Conversely, star Dale Midkiff’s career dropped off after the movie. He hasn’t carried another smash film since Pet Sematary. His co-star and onscreen wife Denise Crosby has fared a bit better. Since 1989, she’s found steady work with recurring roles on some of television’s biggest hits, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Walking Dead and NYPD Blue. Most recently, Crosby has been seen on Showtime’s Golden Globe Award-winning series Ray Donovan.
Apparently I’m not alone in wanting a remake of this flick. Reports as far back as 2011 indicate talks of a reboot have been floating around Hollywood. At one point, director Guillermo del Toro was in talks to bring the title back but those rumblings have since disappeared. Perhaps it’s time to haul King’s novel to an Indian burial ground, stick it in the dirt and pray for the best.