“There’s no rational explanation for why he’s doing it.”
1989’s Pet Sematary doesn’t quite get the love it deserves, but it remains one of the best Stephen King horror adaptations. People don’t often think of it though as the King horror film conversation is typically divided between the early “classics” like The Dead Zone and The Shining and the later, lesser efforts like The Mangler and Graveyard Shift.
The power of Pet Sematary comes in the horror of losing a child and the equal pain of getting him back. The grief is palpable, and credit for that belongs to all involved from King’s own script to the direction of Mary Lambert. The film was a big success grossing nearly $60 million in the US, and Lambert returned for a misguided sequel (that still made a profit) before directing one dud (The In Crowd) and disappearing into much smaller-budgeted films as punishment. She recorded a commentary track for the film’s Blu-ray release years later, and we gave it a listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on her commentary for…
Pet Sematary (1989)
Commentator: Mary Lambert (director)
1. She credits the film’s success to King’s novel and his skill at observing and capturing the lives around us. The book is one of her favorites, and she sees it as “his most successful foray into the interior life of a character.”
2. The opening title sequence with credits over images of handmade headstones in a pet cemetery came straight from King’s script.
3. The tree that Ellie Creed (Blaze Berdahl) swings on after first arriving at their new home made such an impression on Lambert and King that they dug it up from a field where they spotted it and re-planted it in front of the house. They had searched all summer for the perfect house with a tree and never found it, so they compromised.
4. Her first choice for the Jud Crandell character was Fred Gwynne. She hasn’t been as lucky since in securing the cast she first imagined in a role. “He told me that he put that character on like a pair of overalls.”
5. Gwynne’s hair was actually black, so it had to be dyed white on a regular basis.
6. One of the things that draws her to horror is the genre’s opportunity to make up your own rules as a filmmaker. “You can create a world that exists with its own set of rules. You can ignore physics, but the only thing you have to do is then adhere to those rules.” She says Pet Sematary does a great job establishing and following its own rules.
7. “Horror movies deal with the taboos that society doesn’t want discussed in a polite way,” and the topic of death is chief among them. It’s at the crux of the story here in the obvious horror way but also in how Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) tries to avoid the topic around her children. That avoidance leads to Louis Creed’s (Dale Midkiff) promise about Gage the cat’s safety and his unwise decision to bring the feline back from the dead.
8. They shot the film in Maine because it was in King’s contract that production would take place there. She says it worked out beautifully though as the landscape has “iconographic quality and archetypal resonance.”
9. She sees Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) as “the good angel.”
10. They had to shoot Pascow’s “Don’t make me tell you twice” scene twice because “it was felt that Dale Midkiff looked too sexy. He was sleeping shirtless.”
11. A set was built for the house’s interiors as the rooms inside old New England-style houses are too damn small to film in comfortably.
12. One of the hardest elements for the production design team was the path to the cemetery as it was described as “shining in the moonlight.”
13. “Jud is the bad angel,” she says, as the friendly old man is the one Louis should be ignoring. His wardrobe, especially the large hood he’s wearing when Church the cat is found dead, is meant to suggest the darkness.
14. She “dragged the crew all over Maine” to find various geographic difficulties to include in the trek to the old Indian burial ground.
15. There was pressure on her to hire twins for the role of Gage Creed (Miko Hughes), but “after I met Miko I just knew that he had to play the part.”
16. Ellie is psychic in the novel, but Lambert’s not convinced she was able to convey that in the film.
17. The effort to cast Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek) began with little girls, but they were all just too sweet. “The thinner they were the sweeter and more appealing they were.” She eventually thought to cast a boy in the role as he “would be more into the idea of looking ugly and coughing and spitting up and retching.” She also thought it would be creepier, and she isn’t wrong.
18. She suspects part of the reason King chose her for the job was because The Ramones were among her “circle of friends” thanks to her career as a music video director.
19. Even watching with the commentary track playing the sequence where Gage dies still works beautifully as an emotional blow.
20. Some people, probably producers or studio executives, suggested cutting the funeral scene for fear it would inject too much reality into the horror film. This is why studio execs aren’t filmmakers.
21. She tried getting Berdahl to cry for a scene by suggesting the young actor think back on something from her life that was very sad, but the girl had nothing. Lambert instead ended up offering her more money if she’d cry.
22. Gage’s hand lurching from the grave is something of an homage to the end of Carrie.
23. She promises that the scalpel handled by zombie Gage “is not sharp.”
24. The discussion as to how to present the zombie Gage onscreen touched at one point on the possibility of using a little person. Instead, and wisely, they settled on a combination of the real Hughes and a puppet.
25. The original ending was more “sad and quiet and emotional,” but early screenings convinced them the film needed a “punchier” one.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Isn’t Fred Gwynne great?”
“Did that scare you?”
“It’s not a bad thing that the dead should speak.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to film muddy footprints.”
“One of the hardest things in this movie was to get the cat to eat a pork chop.”
“He looks a little like Chucky there.”
Lambert recognizes the collaboration with King as a major accomplishment but also acknowledges the film had a suitable budget to tell the story they wanted to make. Someone needs to give her a worthwhile budget again with another strong horror script. Her commentary is both complimentary of her cast and crew and informative as she shares anecdotes and filmmaking details. It’s a good listen on a great movie.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.