Sometimes Dead is Better: Horror Obsessive Team Celebrates Thirty Years of Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary is on the tip of everyone’s tongues right now, including ours here at Horror Obsessive. The original Mary Lambert film is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s new adaptation is already a smash and one of the most interesting and hotly debated films of 2019. Members of the Horror Obsessive horror crew recently sat down to discuss Stephen King‘s 1983 source novel, the original Mary Lambert film, and thoughts on the new adaptation. Join myself, Aaron D. Schweighardt, and Holiday Godfrey for a  deep dive round table discussion on all things Pet Sematary.

Steve: The 30th anniversary of Mary Lambert’s seminal original adaptation is actually coming up. With that in mind, what’s everyone’s first memory of that film? What do you immediately think of when you think of that movie?

Aaron: Well, 1989’s Pet Sematary is probably on my top 10 horror movie list. I realized recently that I usually forget to mention it as part of my history with horror. But I remember seeing the box of it when I was real little, probably when my parents rented it, before I was allowed to see it. I was maybe 4 or 5 then. But by age 8 or 9 probably I had seen it at least on TV, and it creeped me out for years. I’m not sure what I first think of, but I’m sure most people would say Zelda.

Steve: It’s definitely part of my horror DNA as well. The box always stuck with me, as a kid I remember watching it really young and Zelda scaring me of course but oddly the woman hanging herself always bothered me as a kid. I was always enamored with Brad Greenquist’s Victor Pascow too.

Aaron: Zelda is one of the creepiest things about that movie, but I might first think of Miko Hughes as Gage. I mean seriously, he wasn’t even 3 years old when he appeared in it, but can we put him on the list of greatest child actors just for that one role?! (And yes, he would appear later in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.) I mean, he gets some of the best lines too, in the finale!

Steve:  And episodes of Full House! No, I agree. He’s awesome.

Holiday: Ah, the first time I saw the original adaptation I was young, around 8 years old. I vividly remember the Zelda scene and nearly running out of my childhood bedroom screaming. It’s a very nostalgic film for me, so usually when I think of it I think of being a kid laying in the bottom bunk of the bunk bed hiding my eyes behind my fingers trying to see but also not scream every time Pascow would pop up on the screen.I also remember thinking how much I hated the mother in the movie (and the book to be honest) she’s just annoyed me to no end.

Steve: Yeah, Zelda was very effective I’ll come back to it when we get to it but one thing I liked about the new one is they didn’t try to out do things the original did better if that makes sense…but anyway Denise Crosby is a strong point for me in that adaptation.

Zelda (Andre Hubatsek) terrifies her sister Rachel Creed in the 1989 version of Pet Sematary.

Aaron: Rachel annoyed me more in the book, but yes, I agree. But for me, that’s more the character than the performance by Denise Crosby, who I think does fine. Also, maybe if it wasn’t for her stubborn refusal to accept death (which is also understandable, in a sense), maybe this all wouldn’t have happened??

Steve: That’s a fair point, Aaron.

Holiday:  She was definitely more annoying in the book, but that could just be because we had a whole book to deal with her, instead of just an hour and a half like in the movie.

Aaron: There were a few things that didn’t work. I’m not sure how well Victor Pascow works, both in service of the story (he doesn’t really prevent anything bad from happening) or in terms of comic relief (though Brad Greenquist has admitted that he at least was influenced by a similar character in An American Werewolf in London). The moment where a face comes out of the rocks is silly. Missy Dandridge’s suicide kind of serves as the substitute for Norma Crandall as the human death before the big death, but doesn’t really fit. Jud’s memories, with Timmy Baterman being a more traditional zombie comes across as a little silly. The moment where Jud’s house is transformed when Louis walks in during the finale seems out of place. I still love the film regardless. I did also want to present a question, while we’re on the subject of things that may not work.

Steve: See? We differ there as Victor Pascow is a strong point in the original. It’s one of the few things I think the original did better. Yeah, the face in the rocks is really bad isn’t it? I have a connection as a kid to Pascow as I said but I get ya.

Aaron: I think Victor Pascow is a strong VISUAL. I don’t despise the character by any means. His picture on the videobox creeped me out too as a kid. And Brad Greenquist gives a good performance. I just meant how useful he ultimately is.

Steve: Yeah, the new one didn’t work for me.

Holiday: Pascow makes sense to me. In that he’s probably a friendly omen sent from the Mi’kmaq tribe. His body is just a vessel it seems for someone to get a message through, someone who knows exactly what’s going on, the power of the land, its intentions and all that. So I think he serves more purpose than just visuals.

Steve: He’s almost like a Greek chorus or a conduit from the audience shouting at these people who won’t listen and keep making the wrong choice at every turn.

Holiday: Basically that’s what it seems like.

Steve: Agreed.

Aaron: Yes, let me rephrase, I think he TRIES to help, but since nothing he does seems to help, I wonder how necessary he is.

Steve: I don’t know. I’d have to think on it but my immediate mind just asks if I could imagine the story without him and that would have to be a no, I can’t.

Holiday:  I think him not being able to help is the whole point, trying to show how powerful the land is.

Steve: Sure! I can see that as in not even the supernatural can prevent what’s about to happen derived from the power of that place.

Holiday: Or he could definitely just be great drug fueled nightmare juice. I like to think the former is true though.

Steve: Either one still essentially serves the same purpose. Ha!

Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) tries to save the Creed family from beyond the grave in Pet Sematary 1989.

Aaron: Mary Lambert has stated before that she viewed Victor Pascow as the “good angel” and Jud Crandall as the “bad angel.” I think this is interesting as far as playing with expectations based on appearances. You know, a kindly old man vs. a decaying corpse. I think that’s an over-generalization of Jud or maybe I’m just a big fan of Fred Gwynne and Jud Crandall.

Steve: I think he’s one of many villains in Pet Sematary. I agree with her on that point for sure.

Aaron: Oh, get out! NO! I love Jud!

Steve: It would be different if he didn’t already know exactly what that place does to people and it’s power which I think the new one shows more, where he admits that deep down he just had to do it again. I know that feeling, trust me, but yeah I think Jud is a bad friend to say the least lol, great character though.

Aaron: I think this does bring me to the book. I think the book might be clearer in the fact that there’s this spirit called the Wendigo that is pulling people towards its evil intentions against their better judgment. I would apply this idea to Jud. The book makes it clearer that he’s less of (or not) a villain, and more of a good character weak against evil influences. They mention the Wendigo in the new film, but cut that aspect from the 1989 version, though there’s a couple of moments in the film that were left in that were supposed to wrap into that aspect. Something knocking the tree in the woods over, the supposed “loon calls”.

Holiday: I think Jud has a lot of grey area, he’s clearly a good person but is being tormented over things he has no control over, in the book and original adaptation. Norma seemed to anchor him to the lighter side of things where as this adaptation, I was 100% irritated that Norma wasn’t in film. I didn’t like how she was shoe horned in at the last minute, and she wasn’t there to give Jud the softness his character has.

Fred Gwyne (Jud Crandall) gives an iconic performance in Pet Sematary 1989, but is he friend or foe?

Aaron: Norma wasn’t a living character in either movie, and I don’t think she was even mentioned in the 1989 film.

Holiday: Sorry, I’m thinking more about the book I guess. I do have a question about the Wendigo in the new film. When Louis is carrying Ellie up to the burial ground and they stop in the middle and the camera zooms in, is that big hulking mass in the back that looks a bit like a tree supposed to be the Wendigo? I was trying to sort it out in my mind while watching it but didn’t get a long enough look at it.

Steve: I really have no idea. Aaron might know.

Aaron: Ha! Nope sorry. I honestly didn’t catch that Holiday.

Steve: I don’t even remember it.

Holiday: Damn. I wanted to yell for someone to rewind the movie.

Steve: [laughs] maybe something I’ll catch next time so…

Aaron: I’ll keep my eyes out the next time.

Steve: When you both think of the original film and when you saw it as a kid, specifically relating to death, what do you think of?

Holiday: I never really remember myself believing in heaven, like I don’t actually remember believing in Santa, but I remember this film really making me wonder what happened to things when they died. It kind of comforted me in that there may be something after death, but at the same time, the unknown became a bit more frightening because it could be totally terrifying, instead of peaceful.

Aaron: It’s hard to articulate, but it speaks to that impressionable age so much in terms of our fears of death. I don’t know what to make of it, but there’s this moment where the camera lingers on an old photo of Jud in the finale after he’s died, which seems to be nailing the point home that the character is no longer with us. His spirit only lives on in memory and photographs, and that creeps me out and really sells the loss which death causes. (His voice over at the end also serves to remind us of his loss). I think the whole finale in the film is creepy, with the dreams of Zelda (“Gage and I will get you, for letting us die!” and “I’ll twist your back like mine so you’ll never get out of bed again. NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!”), Jud’s death with the scalpel slicing through the Achilles tendon and then over his mouth (“Let’s play hide-and-go-seek!”), Rachel’s death which is mixed with a shot of Gage’s death as if to convey that Gage is taking revenge for his own death (“I brought you something, mommy!”), and then of course the last stinger, with Louis kissing his undead wife, while pus oozes out of her eye before she reaches out for the knife…

Steve: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite thing about this entire ordeal, the Ramones!

Aaron: Why on earth would the Razzies nominate “Pet Sematary” for Worst Original Song?!

Holiday: In the new film when they finally played “Pet Sematary”, and it was a cover, I nearly threw my drink at the screen.

Steve: I could have done without that as well. That’s maybe my favorite song by my favorite band, and it was a lackluster cover that didn’t fit the film.

Holiday: I was thinking…you guys could have just had them listening to it in the car while driving, or the truck driver that hits the kid…but no. You did this, and it was awful.

Aaron: love that Ramones song. And yes, I also was not expecting any version of it in the reboot even though I wanted it. And I dug the cover by Starcrawler myself! There’s a real garbage cover of it on the Frankenweenie soundtrack by the Plain White T’s that you should avoid at all costs though. I really dig “Poison Heart” featured in Pet Sematary 2 as well.

Steve:  Pet Sematary 2 is a movie that definitely didn’t do well and has its problems but definitely has a cult following. Did you either grow up with the film?

Sheriff Gus Gilbert (Clancy Brown) give an over-the-top gonz performance in the cult film Pet Sematary 2.

Holiday: I honestly only watched it once when I was a kid. I’m thinking about rewatching it tonight though, and I could add in some thoughts about it then.

Holiday: Nah, I remember it vaguely, and remember watching it mainly because when I was little I thought Edward Furlong was cute.

Steve: He was cute!

Aaron:  Well, Mary Lambert wanted to do the sequel focused on Ellie, which might’ve been a good idea, but the studio nixed it. But as far as the Pet Sematary 2 we got? Well, Stephen King wasn’t involved. Maybe as a result of that it’s a bit goofier. I think of Clancy Brown’s over-the-top performance (not in a bad way) and women with dog heads. Maybe more tongue-in-cheek? I think it plays it less straight than the first. But I still enjoy it. It’s got this grungy, alternative style to it, helped by having Edward Furlong in it. I think Mary Lambert still retains her visual flair. And I was even sad when Drew and his mom are taken out by Clancy Brown and the potato truck. Though I thought for years the bully in the film was Budnick in Salute Your Shorts, when really it was Tom Hanks’ friend in Big.

Steve: That’s an easy mistake to make to be fair, but yeah i agree with most of that although I’m quite fond of it. I’m 33, so early 90s films have a soft spot in my heart.

Aaron: Yeah, no I really enjoy it, I probably sold that short. It’s just a different tone but I dig it.

Steve: When I was a kid I always thought the director on the fake horror film was Wes Craven.
It isn’t at all.

Aaron: It was similar to the opening of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, maybe you were mixing them together?

Steve: It’s [Pet Sematary 2] enough of its own movie to warrant existence. Yeah probably.
I was the same age roughly (when PS2 and New Nightmare were released).

Aaron: And the Miko Hughes connection, so…

Steve: Mystery solved!

Aaron: Who, by the way, grew up to be a stud. Even though he’s still a little guy.

Steve: Have you both read the book?

Holiday: Yes.

Steve: At what age?

Holiday: Ah my first time, probably 16, and most recently about 6 months ago. I’ve read it randomly again and again over the years.

Aaron: I read it about 10 years ago straight through after a few restarts (due to time constraints), when I was just out of college. Re-listened to the audiobook in the last couple weeks. Michael C. Hall’s voice for Jud sounds just like John Lithgow, which makes me wonder if the people behind the remake were inspired.

Steve: What do you both think is special about the book that neither adaptation captured?

Holiday: Oh. I’m going to need a second to think on that.

Aaron: I like the book, though I wouldn’t quite put it among King’s best. I think there’s some good build up. But maybe too much build up, spending way too much time on details of Gage’s coffin, and his grave robbery and re-burial. While I feel it moves almost too quickly through the last section, I think it’s interesting how it doesn’t deal with Gage’s death in real-time. The end of the first section alludes to it, while the beginning of the second section starts after it’s happened and flashes back at times to catch us up. But I don’t know, I almost want to say I like the 1989 movie better than the book.

Steve: I just want to point out that I think Dale Midkiff sucks. That’s all.

Holiday: Agree. Jason Clarke was so much better.

Aaron: I’ve never gotten the hate towards Dale Midkiff. I think I must be immune to bad acting in horror movies of my youth.

Steve: I think he’s really bad in it.

Aaron: I’ve heard that, but I just don’t see it.

Steve: I wish I could not see it glaring at me.

Holiday: It’s honestly, just…so awful. It’s not over acting like say, Return of the Living Dead, it’s just not great acting period.

Steve:  He spends the film either over reacting or not reacting enough…and he’s always missing the right emotional cues. It just feels weirdly off.

Holiday: I feel like I don’t know how to put it into words.

Steve: And when he loses it it’s just off-putting in a way I can’t even begin to describe.

Holiday: It’s like when you’re watching a movie and the audio and video go out of sync.

Steve: And honestly? This might seem petty, but his voice!

Aaron: Something I didn’t get to was other emotions the first movie got out of me besides fear, which relate to Midkiff. Like, I am genuinely sad at Gage’s death, the fight between Louis and his father-in-law at the funeral, the moment when Louis has to kill his son a second time. They all cause me to get a bit choked up. On the flip side, when he starts losing his mind, I find it gleefully entertaining. Like they’re bad lines, but I’m still so amused when he says to the cat, “Today is Thanksgiving day for cats…but only if they’ve come back from the dead…that’s right, lie down, play dead, be dead!!!”

Steve: And his hair?!

Holiday: You try not to pay attention but it drives you insane.

Steve: I laugh at all that Aaron. I think that’s all so melodramatic and silly, but different strokes.
That’s actually hitting the nail on the head as to what I don’t like about the Lambert film: the melodrama.

Holiday: The last 20 minutes of the new film I swear had me laughing pretty hard. Not just me, but a surprising amount of the audience

Steve: Let’s talk about the new Joe Kolsch and Denis Widmyer adaptation. Anyone other than me like it?

Children on a procession through Maine in Pet Sematary

Holiday: I actually did like it. They made a few decisions I really enjoyed.

Steve: What do you both think it did better than the original film?

Holiday: The ending.

Aaron: I liked the new one enough to recommend, but nowhere near as much as the original.

Holiday: Sorry, but 1000%, the ending was better in this film.

Steve: Anything specifically when you saw it though that you both thought “oh that’s better?” Yeah, I totally agree Holiday. I think the ending to the original is pretty bland.

Aaron: One thing I thought they did better, even if it could be seen as a minor detail, was getting better use and creepiness out of the cat.

Holiday: I think they did God’s Little Swamp way more justice in this film. It looked amazing.

Steve: Did anyone see that cat in its tie as a side note?

Holiday: I don’t think I did? I’m interested now though haha.

Aaron: I loved those red carpet images of the cat haha. But I strongly disagree on the ending. I like how they gave time to showing what having an undead kid might be like before getting to the killing, with sleeping beside this cold dead thing with crossed eyes, brushing her taut hair and her word zombie ballet dance. But the rest just wasn’t creepy like the original was.

Steve: Haha! Sorry…the new film’s premiere featured Church in a tie, one of the cats from the film at the premiere. Also, I didn’t find the original creepy. I found this one unsettling and darkly comic
and scary.

Aaron: Oh man, we gonna fight. I’ll give you darkly comic, but wasn’t unsettled in the slightest.

Steve: Nah, I’ll just go home before fists fly.

Aaron: Having Jud be killed in daylight was a total mistake. Movies like Halloween have pulled off the creep factor in daylight, but not this one.

Steve: Having Jud be a human instead of a cartoon was not a mistake, and I didn’t think the time of day mattered one bit personally.

Holiday: The ending was actually pretty comical to me while still being creepy. The best shot in the entire movie to me was the dead family all standing together to come get Gage when Louis drops the gas can.

Aaron: Fred Gwynne > John Lithgow. At least just in terms of Jud Crandall. People have turned Fred Gwynne’s performance into a caricature or cartoon as you put it, but I think Gwynne did great. Lithgow was fine and I generally am a fan of his, just “less than” by comparison.

Steve: It sounds like you both have plenty of problems with this new film. Give it to me. What did they do wrong here in your opinion? How did they miss the mark?

Holiday: That’s the thing though. Everyone thinks the first movie is better because of Fred Gwynne, and it’s simply not true. Fred Gwynne is exactly what made the first movie, without him it would definitely not be as iconic.

Aaron: I think the ending was an interesting reversal, which wraps into other moments where I feel like the filmmakers were playing with the fans of the original. Other moments including how they do still put Gage in danger of the truck, only to suddenly switch to Ellie. Or when the camera lingers on Jud’s foot, but it doesn’t get cut when you expect. I appreciated that, but damn that second trailer for spoiling it. But I did want to ask…why Ellie instead of Gage? Was it just safer? Easier? Or should it be celebrated for doing something different?

Steve: I second that. Can’t stand that terrible trailer.

Holiday: I think that second trailer angered me far more than anything in the movie. Why would you give nearly the entire movie away in a trailer? That was ridiculous.

Steve: Why would you have such, in my mind, a brilliant twist, and spoil it like that? Fire the marketing department!

Holiday: Agreed.

Steve: And we all agree haha! Whether or not you like the choice, giving it away like that was so dumb.

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is about to find out the meaning of

Aaron: I personally prefer having a baby over an older girl. I think it’s a cop-out in one sense, because it’s harder to work with a baby. But it did provide some interesting stuff that I already mentioned.

Holiday: I didn’t hate the switch as a choice really.

Steve: I prefer Ellie. It was way more interesting and more they could practically do.

Aaron: I don’t know, I don’t think they can top, “Now I want to play with yoooouuuu.”

Steve: I thought they just did though.

Holiday: I liked that we definitely got to know her character a bit more, since she could…speak sentences and everything.

Aaron: No fair, no fair.

Steve: Yes, I enjoy the loss of their first child.

Holiday:  Ha!

Steve: Final question. Actually I have one more fun one. Well I think it’s fun…

Aaron: Well then…I brought you something, momm…er, Steve and Holiday.

Holiday: Oh dear. Please do not give. Do not want.

Steve: How does this film compare to the Mary Lambert version overall?

Holiday: I really tried to not compare them so much, but there were a few scenes that were in the new one that just seemed funnier. Less like the first film where it just tried so hard, this one felt a little more at ease with itself, maybe that’s because they made so many different decisions…and didn’t feel chained to the book.

Aaron: I think the remake plays with interesting ideas and reversals not in the original. And again, I’d recommend it. But I don’t think it’s nearly as scary or creepy. Mainly because you don’t have Mary Lambert’s strong visual style or Elliot Goldenthal’s creepy score (one of my favorite horror scores) which has a theme reminiscent of the Amityville Horror theme with its child’s choir (two of the strongest elements of the 1989 film I forgot to mention earlier). I also think that, while all the actors give good performances in the remake, they feel less connected than in the original. Like in the book, Louis viewed Jud as a father figure. In the remake, it feels much more hostile.

Steve: I have to give it to the remake. They had me with their first film Starry Eyes and just to counter I do find it way scarier and creepier in every way almost in its visual style and I give all credit to Lambert but I just preferred this film aesthetically as well as narratively.

Aaron: I sensed that bond between Fred Gwynne and Dale Midkiff, whatever you haters have to say.

Holiday: I definitely agree with Louis and Jud’s relationship in this one. I kind of think that was my least favorite part of this adaptation.

Steve: See? It also worked way more for me (in the new film). I thought Jason Clarke was so good.

Aaron: I still prefer Dale Midkiff. Again, I just don’t get the hate. I tend to not see “bad acting” in other horror like the Friday the 13th films either I think simply because I grew up with them. I thought the worst, or most annoying performance in the original were twins Blaze and Beau Berdahl playing Ellie. But beyond that, I didn’t think the acting was bad. But I like Jason Clarke in general too.

Holiday: Louis really seemed to keep Jud at arm’s length in this film, which is another reason I hate them not putting Norma in the film, that rustles my jimmies. I didn’t know anything about Clarke before I watched this movie and legit pulled my phone out and IMDb’d him to figure out where the underlying accent was from.

Steve: Okay. So in a word…original or remake?

Holiday Oh…rude question. lol

Steve: Haha…If you were in the mood to put one in…

Aaron: You don’t have to answer. Don’t let Steve win.

Steve: Steve always wins in the end. I never specified how to answer.

Aaron: I like them in chronological order: 1, 2, remake.

Steve: Flip that around for me: remake, 2, 1. ooohhhhh what?!

Holiday: So for me it would be 1, remake, 2.

Steve: It seems I’m outnumbered. The original is favored amongst us 2-1. I choose the Ramones. Ramones always win. I do have one more question I want to ask. Inquiring minds need to know the answer from the both of you…if the pet sematary (or the ground beyond) were accessible to you and you just lost a loved one/family member/pet would you used it?

Holiday: Absolutely not, I don’t want to go down that road.

Aaron: I’d want to say “no” to your question, but I don’t want to underestimate the powers of the Wendigo.

Steve: I’d have to go with yes. I’ve always wanted to see someone undead.

Holiday: But I do actually have a pet cemetery on my property, so when tragedy strikes I’ll let you know what happens.

Pet Sematary is currently playing in theaters nationwide. 

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Written by Horror Obsessive

This article was written either by a Guest Author or by an assortment of Horror Obsessive staff.

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