Pet Sematary: How a 1989 Exercise in Fright Became One Horror’s Scariest Movies

When the discussion of “scariest movies ever” comes up, we typically hear or read the same go-tos and staple titles like The Exorcist, The Shining, Jaws, and The Thing. One film that gets mentioned, but probably not enough is 1989’s Pet Sematary, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. If it isn’t “the scariest movie ever,” it does at least contain some of the most frightening scenes in film history. Upon looking back at the fright fest that is Pet Sematary, you’ll be reminded of just how haunting certain moments are (that is if you haven’t been able to shake them.) Perhaps more attention-grabbing than the scares, though, is the very basic fact that Pet Sematary is a pretty bad movie overall. It’s a memorably chilling tale, and renowned classic of the genre. It’s also an atrociously acted, almost laughable mess that amazingly still manages to be terrifying as hell.

Pet Sematary, intentionally misspelled, follows handsome Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) as he moves his family from Chicago to Maine after he’s offered a head physician job at The University of Maine. His wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and young children Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes) are along for the ride in this adjustment to a more quaint life in Maine, though Rachel seems uneasy with tractor trailers flying by on the main road just inches off their front lawn.

RELATED: Watch Pet Sematary on the Actual Soured Ground It Was Filmed on in Maine This September

The Creeds meet their sage and friendly old neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne,) who shows them an isolated pet cemetery deep in the woods behind their home.

During his first day on the job, Louis attempts to treat Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist,) a jogger who has been brutally injured after being hit by a car. Just before Victor Passes he addresses Louis by name, despite them never having met, and warns him about the pet cemetery. That evening, Pascow visits Louis as a ghost and brings him to the pet cemetery, urging him to never “cross the barrier.”

While Rachel and the kids are away for Thanksgiving, Ellie’s black cat “Church” is killed by a truck. Louis, unwilling to break the news to Ellie, seeks out Jud’s guidance. Jud takes Louis to an ancient burial ground beyond the pet cemetery, and instructs him to bury the cat. The following day Church returns, though he’s a vicious, smelly version of his former self.

The Pet Sematary - Pet Sematary (1989)

Not long after, young Gage is also killed by a truck. Jud suspects Louis may be considering burying Gage just as he did Church, though Louis denies it. Following Gage’s funeral, Rachel takes Ellie to Chicago for a quick visit, leaving Louis alone with his grim, desperate intentions. Despite Jud’s warnings, he brings Gage to the burial ground.

Before, during, and after the demonic madness ensues Rachel is battling her personal demons surrounding the death of her mistreated sister Zelda, who suffered from a bizarre spinal disease.

For those unfamiliar with the debatably iconic ending, I suggest you give Pet Sematary a watch. Whether the movie’s a distant memory of yours or a frightening treasure held dear, we can all agree it has glimpses of sheer, unshakeable terror. This could be a case of “saw it young, and therefore it’s a distinct and unforgettable kind of haunting,” but specific scenes from Pet Sematary stand out to me as some of the scariest sights I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Zelda in Pet Sematary (1989)

Every moment with Zelda is scarier than the last. Having a dude, Andrew Hubastek, play Rachel’s deformed, sickly thin sister with a rare spinal condition could have been a questionable casting decision. Once you’ve seen the eerie onscreen antics of Zelda, however, it’s impossible to imagine anyone doing a more effectively creepy job. The contorting of her body, and protruding of shoulder and back bones through meatless flesh make for grotesque, scarring visuals. The nasally shriek in which she speaks and projects doom chills you. Few films offer a character more hellish than Zelda.

The scene in which Rachel opens a door to see Zelda hunched over in the dimly lit corner is, for my money, the most horrifying moment committed to film. The way Zelda swiftly stands and threateningly approaches the camera has the capacity to emotionally damage any viewer. Between Zelda’s hollow look, sharp movements, and evil manner of speaking, it’s the special sort of scene that never quite escapes your conscious. Director Mary Lambert deserves her fair share of credit for the Zelda escapades. The character herself is daunting to look at, but Lambert knows just how to shoot Zelda to make her all the more uncomfortable in appearance, and so very capable of visiting you amidst your most vulnerable moments long after viewing.

Gage in Pet Sematary (1989)

Post-burial ground Gage is quite a shocker himself. We all know just how frightening children can be in a horror context, as evidenced by Village of The Damned, Children of the Corn, or The Omen, but Gage is a little force of terror to be remembered. Even after returning from the dead he’s still kind of adorable, but he exhibits all the right behaviors of a demonic tiny cretin. Gage’s voice and delivery are teetering on comical at times, it would be dishonest not to note, but he’s still unsettling to witness.

Of course, the vengeful menace that is Gage can’t be written about without mentioning the infamous achilles slit scene, which has pervaded the world of horror beyond merely those who have seen Pet Sematary.

With so many strong, scary bits working in its favor, how could a flick like Pet Sematary be deemed “not good?” Saying “everything else about it” would be unfair. The movie has its abundance of camp that makes for a fun ride regardless of its age. Beneath the camp is a somewhat palpable, bleak atmosphere, and for first time viewers there’s an admissible on the edge of your seat element that does keep one worriedly curious. Where Pet Sematary suffers most is the performances. “Weak” doesn’t begin to describe them.

Fred Gwynne is an enormous exception. He’s an absolute class-act as Jud. Gwynne makes Jud the powerful, permanently etched into popular culture character he is. He has heart. He carries a possible darkness. He’s phenomenal in the role of a knowing elderly gent who’s aware of much more than he’s sharing. Gwynne propels Jud to be exactly what he is – Unquestionably likeable, yet so difficult to pin down. He’s a wise, sweet man who should be listened to, but there’s an underlying mysteriousness about him that forces you to question just how much he knows and what exactly he intends to do with that information. Enough good things can’t be said about Gwynne in Pet Sematary, and it’s not insane to theorize that the project would have been an outright joke without him.

Andrew Hubastek, as raved about earlier, is fantastic as well. He’ll rightfully be spared from any harsh criticism, as he too is essential in any of this working. Everyone else, however, ranges from dull to the puzzling section of bad.

Rachel in Pet Sematary (1989)

In fairness to Denise Crosby, Rachel isn’t supposed to be a lovable character. She’s a sour woman with demons, and in that sense maybe Crosby was successful in her efforts. The issue is, she doesn’t make Rachel an unlikeable person of the interesting variety. Characters who are malevolent, or at their lightest unkind, should at least be intriguing. Audiences should be outright disgusted by said character, or feel some bit of something about them. Crosby as Rachel is just plain cold. She’s a sheet of rock with a bad attitude. From the very beginning she’s off-putting, and not in an entertaining way, so by the time we’re expected to sympathize with her it’s impossible. Her performance would succeed as a vindictive, evil woman in a daytime soap opera, but it has no place here.

Dale Midkiff as Louis, on the other hand, makes Crosby look worthy of an Oscar. His effort is, in the gentlest terms, confusing. It’s almost performance art given the amount of questions it begs. Was Midkiff being intentionally over-the-top to lend the film some campy value? Was he giving it his genuine best, and under the impression this is how a loving family man behaves? Is Midkff generally just unsure of how human beings operate?

In any case, Louis Creed comes off as a guy who never felt anything before, newly in the position of feeling everything. MIdkiff displays a wide range of emotions, and each one is laughably insane. He’s like the handsome guy in your Level 1 Improv class during the beginner’s exercise when you’re portraying emotions as the instructor calls them out. He’s so psychotically melodramatic you can’t empathize. When he’s frightened you can’t help but laugh. When he’s upset you’re made so uncomfortable that you have to laugh more. It’s like somebody told him he’s in a low-budget B movie slasher, or a groan-worthy made-for-tv thriller. Both in spite of and despite everything I’ve just claimed, the dude is wild and actually enjoyable to watch. He doesn’t fit with the tone, nor seem to have any idea of what he’s doing, but it’s a performance that stuck with me so tirelessly I’m forced to rant.

Pet Sematary is a perplexing exercise in fright. It’s ridden with 80s B-movie performances, yet loaded with monumental blockbuster scares. It’s both one of the most terrifying films ever, and a poorly aged, unintentionally funny pile of cat shit (few piles of cat shit age well.) Something so perfectly nightmarish shouldn’t also be comically bad, yet Pet Sematary exhibits those extremes. It’s one of the most “it is what it is” horrors in existence – it’s horrifying, goofy, and a spooky minor classic that will continue to gain fans as years pass. Pet Sematary unsettles and confuses, though it only intends to do the former. Hell, it’s so confusing I’m writing about it over 30 years after its release. Whatever Pet Sematary was supposed to accomplish, it did, and so much more.

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