At Final Girl Fashion, every month is Women in Horror Month. This column was specifically created to highlight women’s work both in front of and behind the camera.
Despite my conscious bias towards women and femmes in this sphere, I have come to notice that it’s rare that the films I discuss here are actually made by them. In that way, often my analysis is more subjective than objective, with me applying my distinctly female gaze to a character who was technically brought to life through a man’s lens (which, admittedly, many women helped them focus).
That’s why this month I’m turning my attention to a horror film that is not only directed by a woman, but seems dead set on challenging our expectations of gender within genre filmmaking. I’m talking about Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary (1989).
“I wouldn’t actually be surprised if [Mary] Lambert asked Pet Sematary costume designer Marlene Stewart to have Rachel channel “Queen of Pop,” [Madonna]”
Like the beloved Stephen King book it is based on, the plot of the first Pet Sematary film is driven by men and their inability to let sleeping dogs — and cats and sons and spouses — lie. But it’s a woman who brings this devastating tale of death and our desperate attempts to defy it to horrifying new heights.
From the opening scene when the Creed family arrives at their county home in Ludlow, Maine, it’s hard to take your eyes off of its matriarch, Rachel (Denise Crosby, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Rocking cropped blonde hair, a slinky polka dot dress (with matching head scarf!) and sleek tortoiseshell sunglasses, Rachel seems like a Cool Mom who may or may not have a Madonna (the pop star, not the biblical figure) complex.
I wouldn’t actually be surprised if Lambert asked Pet Sematary costume designer Marlene Stewart to have Rachel channel “Queen of Pop,” given that the two previously worked together on the iconic music videos for “Material Girl,” “La Isla Bonita” and “Like a Prayer.” In any case, it’s clear that Rachel is meant to stick out like a well-tailored thumb in this small town, a sort of haute hitchhiker on a detour bigger and better things. After all, her signature style is in direct contrast to the only other woman we spend time with in Ludlow: mistrusting maid Missy Dandridge, seen strictly in dowdy midi skirts, sweaters and cardigans.
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Whether she’s doing something around the house, or joining her husband (Louis Creed, played by Dale Midkiff) and children on a trip to the nearby “pet sematary” (where our best friends go to die … and then live again!), Rachel always looks pretty and put-together. Her simple, yet chic wardrobe is a mix of femme favourites (figure-skimming sundresses, embroidered blouses) and ungendered neutrals (high-waisted trousers, oversized blazers, crisp t-shirts). Think Melanie Griffith in Working Girl meets modern day Michelle Williams (the incredible actress, not the equally iconic member of Destiny’s Child).
Rachel‘s fluidity in terms of fashion seems to also seems to have carried over to her children. Older sister Ellie (Blaze Berdahl, the original Ghostwriter series) alternates between tomboy staples (bucket hats, overalls) and playfully feminine pieces (plaid jumpers, cutesy sweatshirts). Meanwhile, toddler Gage (Miko Hughes, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) dons almost almost colour of the rainbow (and even a sailor costume!) before his tragic demise at the hands of a speeding truck.
As if Rachel wasn’t already a true trailblazer, she also manages to be incredibly sexy without having to show too much skin (we’re talking strictly calves and collarbones here). Actually, the only nudity in Pet Sematary comes from hunky, yet hollow Louis, who appears in a sensually shot bath scene that feels like a twist on the stereotypical Girl in Shower sequence from every slasher movie. It’s these moments remind you that this isn’t just a movie with women in mind, but one that came from the minds of women.
“Like the beloved Stephen King book it is based on, the plot of the first Pet Sematary film is driven by men and their inability to let sleeping dogs — and cats and sons and spouses — lie.”
The one time we don’t see Rachel shine — at least in a sartorial sense — is when visits her parents for Thanksgiving wearing an all-brown ensemble consisting of a shapeless button-down, muted blazer and ill-fitting trousers. It’s a small touch that takes on a bigger meaning as we learn more about her family history, particularly her relationship with her late sister, Zelda.
Much has been said about Zelda over the past three decades, with many people still deeming her one of the most frightening characters in horror movie history. As an able-bodied person, I am not fit to speak to why our fear of Zelda — a character that we know little about aside from the fact that she lived with spinal meningitis — is innately problematic (there have been plenty of articles from folks actually living with physical disabilities that are worth checking out). But in discussing the costuming in this film, I would remiss to leave out Zelda.
As in the book, Zelda is a source of ongoing pain for Rachel. She is still haunted by visions of the night Zelda died while in her care, the elder of the two siblings choking to death while her eight-year-old sibling watched on. While she says she initially felt relief Zelda passed on, it’s clear that Rachel still grieves this loss and, moreover, the way she reacted to it.
Rachel says that Zelda was her family’s “dirty secret” and we see that reflected in the way she is presented in the film. We never see Zelda wearing anything other than a shapeless, anachronistic nightgown, which not only hides her physical body, but also her personality. What’s more, Zelda was not actually played by a young woman, but by an adult actor named Andrew Hubatsek.
While Zelda will never get to grow up and expand her wardrobe, it’s clear that Rachel has come to find comfort, and even protection, in clothing in her adult life. It’s likely why she tones down and buttons up when she’s with her parents — she hopes that by playing it safe she’ll avoid further conflict in a space that’s already naturally triggering to her.
Unfortunately, Rachel isn’t able to fall back on full coverage favourites forever. She is wearing a sensibly sexy grey suit set in the film’s finale, which sees her return from her parents’ in Chicago after Ellie has a troubling dream about Louis. When Rachel arrives back in Ludlow, she is greeted by a newly revived and suddenly bloodthirsty Gage. And what is Gage wearing but a mini version of Zelda‘s signature sleepwear.
“Subversive in both style and action, Rachel Creed deserves the same shameless eulogizing we give the less-than-likeable men who populate most Stephen King stories.”
It’s unclear how long The Nightgown has been in Rachel‘s family, but we also see it appear in her childhood home by way of an eerie painting of another long gone loved one. As Lambert has explained, the piece of art was meant to mimic the “mourning portraits” that were used to commemorate lost family members before the advent of photography.
While Louis may not have a mourning portrait to remember Rachel after Gage fatally stabs her mid-hug, it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to forget the way she looks (or acts) in the film’s final scene. Caked in mud and blood after her own stint in the pet sematary, the resurrected Rachel limps into the kitchen with one shoe on and rips in her stockings. The last thing we hear (before the Ramones’ song kicks in to signal the credits) is Louis‘s screams of agony as she kisses him before, presumably murdering him.
Subversive in both style and action, Rachel Creed deserves the same shameless eulogizing we give the less-than-likeable men who populate most Stephen King stories. No, she isn’t the main character, or even the final girl of the film (that would be Ellie, who presumably goes on to live with her grandparents and that cursed painting!). But she — not Louis, nor Jud, nor even Zelda — is what truly keeps me coming back to Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary after all these years.