With it’s dark, brooding tone, distinctive Maine setting, and memorable scares, Pet Sematary (1989) is a classic Stephen King adaptation. It stands out as a rare occasion in which the horror author was directly involved in a cinematic adaptation of his work. King wrote the screenplay and collaborated with the director, Mary Lambert, and cast of the film during its production. The author even makes a brief cameo in the film, as a minister at a funeral.
Now, as the runaway success of IT (2017) ushers in a new demand for Stephen King adaptations, Paramount has hired directors for a remake of the horror classic. Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch (Starry Eyes) have been pegged to direct the new adaptation.
I for one, love Mary Lambert’s take on the novel, and I know many horror fans agree. This Halloween, I got the opportunity to catch a screening of the 1989 film at The Coolidge Corner Theater. Denise Crosby, who played Rachel Creed in the film, was in attendance. The actress gave a talk and Q&A following the film, moderated by John Campopiano, director of the making-of documentary, Pet Sematary: Unearthed and Untold (2017).
During the lively and entertaining discussion, Crosby shared behind the scenes stories, hilarious anecdotes, what it was like working with Steven King, and her thoughts on the remake announcement.
Stepping into Sematary
Crosby began by recalling how she met Mary Lambert while acting in a music video that the artist was directing. Lambert was a painter who had moved into directing iconic music videos during the early years of MTV, including Madonna’s videos for Like a Prayer and Material Girl.
Crosby described how she and Lambert became fast friends and Lambert promised, “One day we’re gonna make a film together.”
When Mary got the job directing an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel, the opportunity arrived to keep her word.
“Before we started shooting, I needed, of course, to read the book,” recalled Crosby. The actress was shooting a film in Nashville while she dove into King’s novel, and she recalled having her own creepy experience at the time.
“We were staying at this old historic hotel, down in Nashville. I’ve got my little paperback of Pet Sematary. And one night, I get to some really interesting part, and I can’t turn the page. And suddenly my closet door just goes creakkkkk. And I leapt up and threw that book across the room!”
If reading the novel was enough to give Crosby the creeps, moving into production in Maine was going to push the eerie factor over the edge!
Arriving in Maine
Pet Sematary was the first Stephen King adaptation to be filmed on location in Maine. When the author penned the screenplay, he insisted the film be shot in his home state — rather than the Pacific Northwest masquerading as Maine — as had been the case in previous adaptations of his work.
Along with hoping his home state could reap the economic benefits of a film production, the author believed that the atmosphere of Maine played a crucial role in Pet Sematary. He insisted that no other location could possibly stand in and give the film the right feel.
Crosby agreed, noting that filming in the state leant an authentic, eerie air to the finished film.
“I can’t imagine not shooting that film in Maine. It’s such a character in that film, and gave us so much depth as actors. It just washed over us, being in that environment.”
In fact, the environment was so perfect that very little of it had to be altered for the actual film.
“The Creed house was literally across the street from the Crandall house, just like in the books. This wasn’t a set. Nothing had to be built. The set decoration was done, but the houses actually existed.”
Mary Lambert At the Helm
Of course, a location is only as good as the director bringing it to life. And Crosby recalled how you couldn’t have asked for better than Mary Lambert.
“Mary has a painterly eye. She’s also incredibly well read. She sees things in a much broader stroke. So her references are from all sorts of places, not just film. They’re probably least from film. They’re more from sculpture, painting, and literature.”
The painter’s eye that Lambert brought to Pet Sematary is apparent in the very unique visual mood of the film. Shots have a composition and color palette that is simultaneously naturalistic and extremely thought out. The whole atmosphere feels like a painting, and it perfectly suits King’s haunting parable of grief and death.
Crosby also discussed how unique Lambert was as a woman directing a major studio horror feature. This is something that is still unfortunately rare today, just as it was in the late 80’s.
“[Mary’s] just this darling little petite girl from Arkansas, who can just come up and stand on her own in this very patriarchal world. As you can imagine back then, and as you’re seeing all this crap that’s coming out lately, I can only imagine the stories she could share from sitting in the boys club at Paramount Pictures!”
The Legend of Zelda
One of the most memorable aspects of Pet Sematary can also be attributed to the influence of Lambert, said Crosby.
Over the years, the actress recalled, people come to her with the same thought over and over again. The scenes she shared with her deformed sister, Zelda, were the scariest thing they’d ever seen.
‘“That freaked them out beyond repair. They’re traumatized for life because Zelda existed.”
Crosby gave Lambert recognition for hitting on just the right level of uncanny to make those scenes shake the audience. After auditioning multiple actresses for the role, Lambert came up with the idea of casting a man for the part. She figured it would make Zelda appear just subtly uncanny in a way the audience couldn’t put their finger on. That uncanniness is what makes the horror stick.
Crosby asserted that she was just as unsettled as the audience while filming her scenes with Andrew Hubatsek, the actor who played her sister. “I didn’t have to act!” she recalled.
The Author’s Hand
Pet Sematary stands out among Stephen King adaptations in many ways, not least of which is that it had the direct involvement of the author himself! King wrote the screenplay for the film and worked with cast and crew for two weeks before shooting began, refining the script, answering their questions, and collaborating with them on their performances.
“We had two weeks of rehearsal before we started shooting,” recalled Crosby, “We could just sit there, page by page, ask any questions. Nothing was off limits. Stephen was generous and gracious, and basically said ‘This is yours now.’ He handed this to us.”
I got the opportunity to ask Crosby for further insight into what King added to the film through his involvement.
“The beauty of this particular film is that Stephen himself wrote the screenplay,” she answered. “The screenplay is almost verbatim to the book. It’s so close, you rarely see that! And we had that luxury of him being there two weeks with us in a rehearsal space. He so much wanted to be part of it! He had his jolt cola, his cigarettes, his big skull belt, and his heavy metal radio station blasting. He was all in!”
Pet Sematary Resurrected
Of course, we had to hear Crosby’s thoughts on the planned remake of the film. Paramount’s directing choice had just been announced the very day of the screening, and Crosby gave her immediate take on the plan.
“I’ll be playing Church,” she joked “I jumped ahead here, I’m auditioning for Church.”
Then, more seriously, she gave her honest thoughts on the remake.
“It’s not surprising. Hollywood does this all the time. They open their vaults and see what they have. It’s a little safer bet. It’s Stephen King. There’s a sort of honor and a complement to doing a remake, but they don’t often work. These movies live in the time they were made, so we don’t need to take them to another place. We’ll see. I love ours. I’m so happy and proud to be part of this amazing movie.”
After seeing the horror classic on the big screen, I know I can certainly agree that 1989’s Pet Sematary is an incredible film. And after an evening hearing from Denise Crosby, I can say that I am just as happy that she was a part of it. Whatever the future brings, the original Pet Sematary is a horror classic for the ages.