Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is a horror film that supplants the blood-thirsty killer with a household pet – one which becomes increasingly unfamiliar as the film progresses. Aided by a combination of practical and special effects, the Creeds’ ghostly cat Church transitions into an object of the uncanny, and thus challenges conventional audience expectation of the positive presence of animals in film. It is precisely this reworking of on-screen animal representation – the action of turning our pets against us – that works to alienate the spectator and render the film so uncomfortable.
Lambert’s monstrous animal is most explicitly showcased at the climax of the film, when Louis kills the resurrected family pet. The scene opens with a mid-shot of the deteriorating protagonist as he seeks out the creature, cutting to an over the shoulder shot, framed behind Church, in which the cat dominates the frame, a grotesque and intimidating presence. The cat dons makeup – thick red blood coating its fur – and thus Lambert contaminates the guise of the familiar, domesticated animal by unveiling the abomination within. Louis baits the cat with raw meat and the shot cuts to a close up of Church as he devours the steak, coercing the spectator to focus solely on the cat’s seemingly monstrous hunger. While indeed cats are natural carnivores, this close-up further distances Church from audience expectation of household animals by exposing him behaving like a wild animal, rather than a tamed pet eating cat food. The ominous, pacing music that scored the preceding sequences (Jud and Rachel’s deaths), moreover, is abandoned, replaced only with the uncomfortable diegetic sound of bloodthirsty chewing, further enticing audience rejection of the animal. Lambert thus heightens Church’s representation as a monster as opposed to the stock on-screen animal companion.
The camera cuts to a low angle shot as Louis seizes church and injects him with a lethal dose of morphine. Cutting once more, the audience are subjected to a high angle shot which captures Church, motionless but for his steadily slowing breathing. This sequence is interwoven with close-ups of Louis who maniacally urges the animal to “play dead […] be dead!”, since this is a film in which the boundary between the two is blurred. While on-screen deaths of animals – especially family pets – should make viewers feel uncomfortable, upset and even outraged, audience alignment here lies with Louis Creed, not the monster masquerading as a cat. Lambert is able to subject the viewer to Church’s murder since, throughout her adaptation, the cat consistently undermines viewer expectations of animals on screen. Thus, by this point in the film, we struggle to recognise the familiar characteristics of our own pets within church that may have been present earlier in the film – only the beast remains.
The climax of Lambert’s Pet Sematary evidences the director’s subversion of traditional animality in films, and the metamorphosis of the familiar into the uncanny, and the cute into the monstrous, is completed. Pet Semetary is a film that seizes from our on-screen animals the sympathy and cuteness they usually receive, replacing these only with horror.
King, Stephen, Pet Sematary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983).
Lambert, Mary, Pet Sematary (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1989).