Pet Sematary 1989
I’m not at my usual shooting location today. You probably also noticed that I’m in a cemetery. That’s because today I’m gonna be talking about the 1989 horror film: Pet Sematary. Now I know what you’re thinking, she thinks she’s so clever filming this one in a cemetery. But this isn’t just any cemetery. This is Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine, which served as the actual filming location for all of the human cemetery scenes in Pet Sematary. In fact, this shot should look pretty familiar to you. Stephen King’s Hitchcockian cameo was shot right down there. I actually only live about ten minutes away and I drive past here every day on my way to work, so I figured it’d be a major missed opportunity not to film this review here.
Pet Sematary stars Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, and Brad Greenquist, and was directed by Mary Lambert. It tells the story of Louis Creed, played by Dale Midkiff, who along with his wife and two kids, moves from Chicago to rural Ludlow, Maine. Louis befriends his neighbor Jud Crandall, played by Fred Gwynne, who shows Louis the pet cemetery in the woods on his new property. Judd also reveals what lies beyond the pet cemetery which kicks off a series of grief-fueled choices that have some dire consequences. I think it probably goes without saying that I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I started reading his novels back when I was in 7th grade. Cujo and Christine were my first two, but Pet Sematary was number three and was the book that really cemented Stephen King as my favorite author.
I loved his novels when I was younger, but I grew to appreciate them, even more, when I came to Maine for college. Most of the settings in his books are real places. Or at least based on real places that are recognizable if you know them well enough. So, now that I’ve been here for so long, it always feels like I’m part of some secret insider’s club. One of few people (globally speaking at least) who gets the little nuance details he adds or recognizes the specific locations.
In Pet Sematary, for instance, Louis Creed is a doctor at Cutler Health Center at the University of Maine, which just so happens to be my alma mater. In the movie, Cutler is portrayed as a large hospital-like building, but in reality, it’s much smaller. So, where is the movie version of Cutler Health Center? Turns out its city hall in Ellsworth, Maine almost an hour away from Maine. Another recognizable area in Downeast Maine. If you’ve ever seen Pet Sematary, then the house behind me probably looks a little bit familiar. That’s because we’re at yet another filming location from the movie – this time in Hancock, Maine at the site of the Creed’s house.
The pet cemetery here was fake, but surprisingly they’re pretty common around here. I actually came across one in northern Maine a couple of years ago. I’ll note that during the time I’ve been filming here, there haven’t been any trucks. Correction: A Dead River truck just went by, kinda like the one in the movie. Kinda windy anybody feels like flying a kite? Alright, that’s enough sightseeing, let’s talk about this movie.
I can remember watching Pet Sematary on tv when I was a kid, years before I ever read the book. It was one of those situations where I didn’t even know what I was watching. The plot didn’t stick with me back then, but certain images did. Certain things were burned into my brain Church hissing, the shoe, Zelda, the scalpel. And it was frustrating because I didn’t know what they were even from until I rewatched it years later.
Over the years, I’ve watched this movie probably another dozen times and each time. I’m always just a little bit more disappointed than the last. Like most Stephen King’s novel adaptations, Pet Sematary has that overly cheesy, almost made-for-tv cheap quality to it. And unfortunately, with Pet Sematary, that takes an incredibly powerful and chilling tale of grief and turns it into something a bit schlocky.
It’s one of those movies that feels very much a product of its time. Not because of the clothes or the soundtrack, or even because something particularly unsavory by today’s standards is said. It’s more the style of the film. As you watch it, it’s very easy to pinpoint it to the late 80’s or early 90’s. It’s got that very choral, but not quite ominous kind of score that actually reminded me of a lot of the score for Hocus Pocus this time around. It’s also got some very blatantly artificial-looking practical effects that are reminiscent of other schlocky horror films of the time. Pet Sematary isn’t abundantly gory.
There are a few instances of blood and gore, but they’re very subdued and, again, very artificial. To round out that late 80s made-for-tv feel, the acting in this movie is frequently cringe-worthy. It’s also very inconsistent. There are instances where something supernatural happens and a character will have an initial reaction, but then very quickly gets over it and kinda moves on as nothing happened and doesn’t really question it until way later than a normal person would. On the flip side, there are very mundane moments, like a character calmly asking a question, that results in a big overdramatic physical reaction of surprise, knocking bottles off of tables. Some of the dialogue also feels very unnatural.
Seriously, who actually says It’s misspelled. instead of It’s spelled wrong? Part of the blame for these issues falls on the writing (which pains me because Stephen King actually adapted the script himself), but some of the blame also falls on the delivery. Midkiff was especially prone to some stilted dialogue here. Despite all the issues with the film, it does have some positive aspects. Obviously, the source material helps significantly in this department, but the film does manage to have some really iconic lines in between the otherwise iffy dialogue.
Of course, everybody knows Sometimes dead is betta, but Ellie’s line about God’s cat is another good one. And of course who can forget the unspoken line, Biffer Biffer, a helluva sniffer? Wait everybody forgot that one? Then, of course, we’ve got the horror elements. For the most part, the pacing, music, and practical effects prevent this film from ever being particularly scary. It’s got some uneasiness to it at times and there’s some decent tension-building during the climax, but this is a movie that probably won’t scare you as an adult, despite what you remember about it as a kid with one exception: Zelda.
The on-location filming Downeast and in Bangor do give the movie a certain veneer of authenticity that might not be immediately apparent to people from away, but it’s there. Jud Crandall is the only Mainer out of the lead characters and Fred Gwynne does a pretty good job with it Bean boots and all. His accent wavers some, but he’s got his ìhears and ìayuhs down alright. At least he tried to do it, which is more than you can say about most of the actors in Stephen King’s movies.
When it comes down to it, Pet Sematary is a film where I like the story and premise far more than the actual execution. I still consider Pet Sematary to be one of my favorite Stephen King stories and have long thought it deserved better than this movie. I’m happy it’s finally gonna get the chance with the upcoming remake. Decent acting and higher production value, combined with this dark and emotionally-chilling story should hopefully be a recipe for success. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one is the premise.
The concept of the pet cemetery is poignant, but the idea of what lies beyond the deadfall is terrifying. Not just because of what it’s capable of doing, but because of what it necessitates of those who utilize it. Most of the credit here obviously goes to Stephen King’s novel as the source material, but the film does a decent job of getting across the main parts of the story. Pro number two is the Maine setting. The majority of this film was shot on-location. Bangor, Ellsworth, Hancock, and Acadia National Park all really shine through to give the movie that subtle, but uniquely Maine feel. On the con side, my biggest issue is the acting.
Nobody is bad all the time, but everybody in the film has got at least a few really poor moments. The consistency is just not there. Not with the emotions, not with the delivery, and not with the tone. Surprisingly, the two kids give probably the evenest performances in the film. Con number two has gotta be the special effects. There’s something to be said about good practical effects and even something endearing about crappy, schlocky ones sometimes. But these ones aren’t fun enough or gruesome enough to make that jump to endearing.
I’m gonna give Pet Sematary 3 out of 5 paws. It has an excellent premise (not to mention some nostalgia and personal connections for me), but the execution of that premise is ultimately subpar. I would recommend Pet Sematary to fans of schlocky horror. It’s not over-the-top in the gore department, but the aesthetic is there for that cheap late 80s, early 90s horror flick feel. If you like other similar Stephen King films, you might also enjoy this, but if you’re primarily a fan of the novel and have no nostalgic connection to the movie, you’ll likely be left dissatisfied. If you liked Pet Sematary, I would recommend Cujo for another animal-centric Stephen King story with similar made-for-tv quality.
The source material isn’t quite as dark, but it does have some very high-tension scenes. If you want another film. That encapsulates Maine well, check out Dolores Claiborne for a nice mystery and some decent Maine accents. If you just want a really good Stephen King novel adaptation, make sure you watch Misery. Alright, a few questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen Pet Sematary? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite movie set in Maine? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.