Pet Sematary (1989) Movie Review - Classic Stephen King Monkey's Paw Horror

Horror, Supernatural | 103 Min
Pet Sematary (1989) Cover
  • Director: Mary Lambert
  • Actors: Fred Gwynne, Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Miko Hughes
  • Writers: Stephen King
  • Producers: Richard P. Rubinstein
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • Parental: Violence, Gore, Injury Detail, Violence Towards Children, Violence Towards Animals, Language.
  • Horror, Supernatural | 103 Min

After tragedy strikes a grieving father discovers an ancient burial ground behind his home with the power to raise the dead.

Welcome to Knockout Horror. It’s the first day of October 2022 and the first day of our 31 Days of KO-Ween review series. I know, it’s a shit name for a Halloween feature but I am not good with names. Hence the site being called Knockout Horror. What was I thinking? Anyways, we are going to be reviewing a horror movie every day for the entirety of October leading up to Halloween 2022.

I absolutely love Halloween! Every year my partner and I play a horror themed video game, watch a few horror movies, eat a lot of crap and then watch The Nightmare Before Christmas to tie nicely into the upcoming holiday season. Sure it’s a bit sad but life is pretty bland if you don’t make the most of the things you enjoy.

Another tradition we have, as do many others I am sure, is watching a horror movie for every day of October. With that in mind, I invite you to join us with this marathon month of reviews. I normally write large reviews but these will be a bit shorter and a bit more to the point. Some of you will likely prefer this. With that out of the way, let’s start KO-Ween with something a little cheesy, a little bit camp, but a lot of fun – Pet Sematary from 1989.

Pet Sematary (1989)

Before I get started I will point out that we have already reviewed the recent(ish) 2019 reimagining of Pet Sematary so check out that article if you like. Today we will be looking at the original version of Pet Sematary from 1989.

Coming as something of a revival of the Stephen King Novel adaptation craze from the early 80s, Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary is well loved by horror fans. The 2019 remake was regarded with some disdain by many viewers.

It is clear fans of horror don’t particularly like change but I, personally, thought the movie was okay. How does the original version hold up in comparison? Perhaps even more pertinent, how does the original hold up in the face of time? A bevy of 80s horror movies are starting to look almost pantomime like when viewed through 2022’s eyes. Does Pet Sematary share this fate?

Careful what you wish for!

Pet Sematary is a “Monkey’s Paw” tale with a central theme of be careful what you wish for. Louis Creed, played by Dale Midkiff, and his wife Rachel, played by Denise Crosby, move out to the country for a new job. They take with them their kids and the family cat Church.

Only a short time after moving in, Church is hit and killed on the nearby highway. Louis informs the neighbour Jud, played fantastically by Fred Gwynne, of what happened and how his kids will be devastated. Jud takes Louis to a local pet cemetery and instructs Louis to bury the cat there. Jud did the same thing with his dog when he was a kid. Though the dog came back different, he didn’t have to deal with the grief of losing him.

The next day Church returns to the house alive, dirty, and seemingly changed. He is aggressive to the family and seems almost feral. A little later, the family experience another unspeakable tragedy, again, caused by the nearby highway. Louis believes he can fix the problem but he is not prepared for what comes back from the Pet Sematary.

Aging Problems

Watching movies from the 80s and early 90s, as a child, you remember the impact they had on you. Whether it was A Nightmare on Elm Street, The It miniseries, Poltergeist, or The Evil Dead, they seemed so scary. My fragile mind was legitimately tormented by Pennywise.

I vividly recall catching the first part of It, as a child, and being blown away by how malicious and cruel Pennywise seemed. Nowadays, against a backdrop of modern, realistic horror, grounded in believable situations, many of these films don’t hold up. I still love the first part of the It miniseries for the believable performances of the child actors. The second part, however, is a tough watch due to the adult actors strange line delivery. It had a well known cast but everything was played in such a theatrical manner. 

Louis, Rachel, and Jud from Pet Sematary (1989)

The cast, especially Fred Gwynne as Jud, are generally great.

Pet Sematary shares some of these issues but I believe it has held up better than most. It features a truly terrifying concept and the actions of Louis are totally relatable, even given the consequences. These are massively important traits when it comes to a movie surviving the test of time.

Held Up Well

Acting is still decent, for the most part. Louis is believable and his relationship with Rachel seems natural. You never feel as though it is two strangers talking. The kids do a really good job. Jud, despite being a fantastic character, may divide a few people. He is the closest this movie comes to a caricature. Fred Gwynne was simply fantastic, however, and it’s hard not to be charmed by his performance.

Set design is really good. The pet cemetery is suitably creepy and everything feels like part of a shared Stephen King universe. This is a credit to the director, of course, as most Stephen King movies were developed by separate groups. You could easily believe that Derry is a few miles up the road.

A scene from Pet Sematary (1989)

Some of the practical effects and gore are fantastic.

Practical special effects are generally great. There are a few exceptions to this but this was a golden era of makeup and prosthetics. It’s hard not to admire it with all the dog shit CG around at the moment. There are actually some very graphic injury scenes that might turn your stomach a little bit.

Some Not So Good Bits

There is some of that trademark 80s campiness in here. It was almost as if you couldn’t make a horror movie without it back then. I grew up on this so didn’t notice at the time as it was everywhere. Compared to today’s stuff, however, it stands out a lot. 

Close up, lingering, shots on the faces of characters with wildly exaggerated facial expressions. Cameras slowly panning out as a character reacts to an event. Awkward scenes featuring a bed ridden, heavily made up, sister. Wise cracks from characters. It is all very 80s. In all fairness, however, the movie as a whole is nowhere near as guilty of this as a lot of 80’s films.

A scene from Pet Sematary (1989)

Some of the locations are fittingly eerie.

There are some things in Pet Sematary that don’t make an awful lot of sense. Why Jud introduces Louis to the Pet Sematary in the first place is a big one. There are a few other head scratching decisions here and there as well. Many of these decisions are as a consequence of a grief riddled mind so somewhat understandable. But much of it is trademark Stephen King character quirkiness.

Just Lots of Fun

All in all Pet Sematary is just a ton of fun. It’s good old fashioned 80’s horror with a well structured story and characters with, generally, understandable motivation.

It’s not particularly scary by today’s standards but it’s hard not to be charmed by its approach to spooking the viewer. The concept itself is pretty terrifying because many of us would do exactly what Louis would do and have to deal with the same consequences.

Despite not being particularly scary, there are some scenes which are pretty hard hitting. I can’t really allude to them due to spoilers but a few scenes are fairly full on and will likely make a few viewers feel uncomfortable. Pet Sematary, after all, is dealing with some heavy tragedy and puts that across in a fairly visceral way. There is some fantastic gore if you are a fan of that and some very nice practical effects.

A Word Of Warning

There is one scene in the movie involving a cat and an injection. Apparently this scene was performed under vet supervision and no animals were harmed. I wanted to point it out as I know a lot of animal lovers, me included, prefer to avoid scenes like this. I think this scene could have been avoided and the risk was far too great but it is in there. At least no animals were harmed.

Should You Watch Pet Sematary?

You should definitely watch Pet Sematary. Particularly if you are a fan of Stephen King or just 80’s horror. Pet Sematary is a straight up classic 80’s horror movie. A well developed story by popular horror author Stephen King. Mary Lambert does a fantastic job bringing this Monkey’s Paw tale to life.

Perhaps not as scary as it was 30 plus years ago. Pet Sematary is still a frightening concept with enough hard hitting scenes and gore to keep most horror movie fans thrilled. Decent acting, some great set design, and the fantastic Fred Gwynne only add to the enjoyment.

Sure, this is 80’s horror so expect some campiness. It’s a bit cheesy in parts and there are plenty of plot holes to trap your feet in. It is still, however, a really fun horror that has aged fairly well.

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