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Sinister Seven: Mary Lambert on 30 Years of “PET SEMATARY”

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 | Interviews


With the highly anticipated Pet Sematary remake hitting theatres next week (April 5th), it’s no surprise that Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of the classic horror novel is receiving renewed attention for its thirtieth anniversary. In the lineage of Stephen King adaptations, few films have received the same level of praise as Pet Sematary. While some might consider the special effects and performances out-of-date by today’s standards, the film’s overall themes of death and coping with the loss of a loved one are as unsettling as ever.

Despite the film’s status as a horror masterpiece, Lambert wasn’t King’s original choice for director. George Romero was initially set to direct Pet Sematary, but stepped down to complete Monkey Shrines (1988). Before making her feature film debut with Siesta (followed shortly thereafter by Pet Sematary), Lambert worked with some of the world’s leading pop stars, directing music videos for Madonna (“Borderline,” “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl,” “La Isla Bonita,” and “Like a Prayer”), The Go-Go’s (“Yes or No” and “Turn to You”), Rod Stewart (“Love Touch”), and Janet Jackson (“Control” and “Nasty”). Lambert brought her provocative style to Pet Sematary, creating a terrifying supernatural thriller that is equal parts visceral horror and heart-wrenching melodrama.

Now, thirty years later, Lambert reflects on her experience directing Pet Sematary as well as her thoughts on the latest adaptation.

How does it feel seeing one of your films remade for a new generation of horror fans?
I feel honoured that the first movie was so powerful that people felt it could succeed as a remake. I do know that it took about ten years to actually do it from when it was first announced that it was going to be remade. I know that it wasn’t easy, so that makes me feel good too. I’ve had the privilege of seeing it and directors Kevin [Kölsch] and Dennis [Widmyer] did a really good job. They kept a lot of the things that were successful and they did a great job with the script.

Is there an aspect of the story that you were particularly excited to see expanded upon?
They gave Ellie a lot more agency to move the plot. In the first film, she’s actually the cog in the wheel that starts everything happening. Her wondering whether her cat is and will be okay is why Louis needs to bring Church back to life. In the novel his relationship with Ellie is much more complicated. He has a certain antithesis towards her. She irritates him, but yet he loves her. It’s a really complex relationship and the remake goes more into that father-daughter relationship. I really liked that. When you adapt a novel for the screen, you can’t put every single thing into the movie. You have to choose what you’re going to use, especially if you want to be completely faithful to the book, which I did. You have to choose what’s going to drive your plot. What are the consequences of each scene? You can’t just throw scenes in there that don’t have consequences because it makes the script flabby and deflates the tension. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but there’s a couple really big changes that make it into a new movie. One thing that they did, which I was kind of jealous of, is the children’s parade. The children of the village do a funeral and they march up the path with masks on. It’s really creepy. It’s kind of otherworldly and you don’t know how much of it is real and how much is in her (Ellie’s) head. I might have made it a little bit more in her head because wondering whether these are the ghosts of the children from before doesn’t pay off as well as it might. But it’s still so powerful in a way that it almost doesn’t need to pay off. It’s one of my favourite scenes, so I’m not criticizing it.

Prior to Pet Sematary, you developed a career directing music videos. Did you have an interest in getting into genre filmmaking?
Well not really. I directed one feature before called Siesta and it was kind of a supernatural thriller. The main character is a stunt woman played by Ellen Barken and she’s about to die in a big stunt. She’s a sort of Evel Knievel type who’s getting ready for this big stunt event and she knows that she’s going towards her death. The whole movie takes place in the last two seconds before or possibly as she’s dying… or struggling not to die. It’s all about her obsession with her lover who’s married to another woman, so she can never have him. She can’t go peacefully into death because she’s still obsessed with this man. When I read the script for Pet Sematary I didn’t think of myself as a horror director, nor was I particularly looking to become one. That said, it wasn’t surprising to have gone down that path. I love the supernatural, science fiction, and horror movies, but it’s not like that was the door I was knocking on.

What attracted you to the project?
I realized that it was so similar thematically to what I had been exploring already, which is a character who’s so obsessed with another character that even after their death, they can’t let go. He (Louis) just can’t give up his attachment. This is a really important part of grieving. It’s also a really important part of life. You do have to give up your attachment to people you love. When they die you have to let them go. It doesn’t mean you stop loving them or that they’re not always going to be a part of who you are, but your relationship changes with somebody when they die. It has to change. It’s an important part of returning to normalcy, that is, if you want to return to it. That’s what Pet Sematary is about. It’s about a lot of things, but that’s one of the things it’s about.

I’ve read that you and Stephen King had a strong working relationship on set. What was it like working with someone that close to the source material?
It was really great. I loved his book and I respected it, so I didn’t want to change it. I think that’s where we bonded. He was looking for a director that had a similar vision to his in terms of what the movie could be. He wanted someone who could bring it to life and condense it in a way that stayed true to the original story. Ultimately, to scare people and to do some things that were a little taboo. Showing the death of Gabe as graphic as we did where you have him looking up at the truck… that was pretty sensational. People were wondering whether we shouldn’t do it, but I knew we had to because that’s what this movie is about. This is a story about losing a child. It’s about the unthinkable experience of losing a child. We had to show it because it’s the thing that people turn away from in their mind. They close their eyes from imaging it, but we had to show it.

The last few years have been dubbed ‘the Stephen King renaissance.’ Why do you think his work is so popular in this current moment?
I’ll just say that I think Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of our age. He tells stories that connect with society and that help people interpret what’s going on around them. He deals with taboo subjects, with emotions, and very often, he provides an inner monologue for the characters or protagonists in his stories that ring a bell with the millions of inner monologues that are going in our society right now.  

Thank you so much for your time. It’s always so excited to see women doing such amazing things in horror.
Well it’s always great to have the girls supporting me!

Looking to re-watch Lambert’s classic adaptation? The 30th Anniversary edition of Pet Sematary is now available on Digital, Blu-ray and 4K. 

Maddi McGillvray
Maddi is the Editorial Assistant at Rue Morgue Magazine. She is also a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, where she writes extensively on the horror genre. Maddi is completing her doctoral dissertation on women working in horror. She is also currently writing book chapters titled "Fleshy Female Corporealities: The Cannibal Films of the New French Extremity" as well as "To Grandmother’s House We Go: Documenting the Aging Female Body in Found Footage Horror Films."