1989’s adaptation of Pet Sematary hasn’t quite reached the pop culture ubiquity or infamy of many fellow Stephen King adaptations, but it has enjoyed a cult following since its release. Far from the lofty heights of The Shining but further still from the bargain-basement lows of The Tommyknockers or Cell, it’s remembered fondly by those who remember it. But why exactly has it managed to stick around in the hearts of horror fans? With the upcoming second attempt at a direct adaptation, many will be revisiting the original and trying to decipher that for themselves. Many will also likely come to the same conclusion: that rather than doing any one thing spectacularly well, Mary Lambert’s adaptation does almost everything just right enough.
Dale Midkiff stars as Louis Creed, family man and proud new owner of a house in rural Maine. After their pet cat is killed by a truck, new neighbor Jud makes the terrible decision to show Louis a Native American burial ground deep in the woods that causes anything buried there to return — albeit with more aggressive tendencies and a bad smell. But when Louis’ young son meets a similar fate as the cat, he decides to ignore Judd’s advice that “sometimes dead is better.”
The overall atmosphere is top notch, with sharp camera work and lighting adding to a spooky, faintly Gothic vibe that the film has overall. The effects, courtesy of now-industry vets David LeRoy Anderson and Lance Anderson, are usually effective at bringing to life sights like the mangled spectres that haunt the characters. The cast, however, are easily the most mixed element; Midkiff, despite his best efforts, seems to strain under the burden, often coming across as flat and wooden in the demanding role of a grieving father. Perhaps he was trying to exude a sense of weariness or numbness, but more often than not he just seems half-asleep. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Fred Gwynne as neighbor Jud. Where Midkiff feels flat, Gwynne’s performance is vibrant. His often-imitated turn is easily half the reason the film is remembered as much as it is, with just the right mix of paternal warmth and folksy wisdom. He can sometimes be more than a bit hammy, but the memorable kind of hammy.
Being one of very few King adaptations scripted by the man himself, the script also does an excellent job at paring down the story to the essential elements. Pet Sematary is one of those rare adaptations that doesn’t feel overly compromised by the transition. King’s dark tale of mourning and desperation feels as comfortable on screen as it did on the page, lacking the telltale marks of botched adaptation that leave many of its peers feeling constrained by the medium.
Crucially, the film also doesn’t hold back when it comes to the third act ramp-up, and the rampage of a certain character after having been resurrected by the cursed burial ground remains shocking to this day. The film goes to places that many other horror films would consider off-limits when it comes to child characters, and alongside Fred Gwynne’s performance, that willingness to dive headlong into the darker aspects of the material probably ensured its legacy. That’s not to say it’s preoccupied with transgression, but just that it doesn’t hold itself back.
The Pet Sematary remake has a high, if not insurmountable legacy to overcome. The original, for everything it does well, does suffer from its lead actor. That slack, however, is mostly picked up by the supporting cast — Fred Gwynne chief among them, and it’s his shoes that will be toughest to fill. Even if the remake is a flop, it’s good to know we’ll always have the original.