How Original 'Pet Sematary' Director Won Over Stephen King

From playing on-set games with 2-year-old Miko Hughes to filming Church the cat’s drug-addled death scene, Mary Lambert digs up the dirt on the film in time for its 30th anniversary.
Paramount/Photofest
'Pet Sematary' (1989)

“Sometimes dead is better.” 

It’s Fred Gwynne’s classic line from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary that everyone loves to quote in their best Mainer accent. Now, 30 years after the Paramount film’s release, director Mary Lambert is stirring the soil with memories of making her first major horror hit, and she explains why she jumped at the chance to digitally sweeten elements of the pic for a remastered edition just in time for the 2019 remake, which opens next Friday.

Teased by his publisher as “the most frightening book Stephen King has ever written” in 1983, the prolific novelist’s best-seller is dark. Really dark. The themes of loss he tackled with veracity were arguably his most personal to date. Let’s just say that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief get a real workout in this tale of a family that moves to rural Maine for a fresh start, only to lose their beloved toddler in a tragic accident. Not able to accept his death, the grieving father chooses to bring his boy back from the dead, courtesy of a mysterious Micmac burial ground.

It’s an evergreen story of familial love, unimaginable loss and delusional hope that not only frightens you with its supernatural moments, but manages to deliver an even more profound emotional wallop if you’re a parent.

“I directed that about three years before I had my son,” Lambert tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don't know if, as a young mother, I could have gone there.”

King, who wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, based elements of his story on several incidents in his own life, including the death of his daughter’s cat, Smuckey, and facing the hard truth of telling her; stumbling across an actual makeshift pet cemetery with the now-iconic signpost misspelling; and a harrowing moment when his own son ran towards the road and he had to rescue him just as a truck whizzed by.

“The death of a small child can destroy a family,” says Lambert. “It's one of the hardest things for a marriage to survive. So there’s a truth there. A really solid truth. And Stephen just expanded it into a metaphor for that truth. To me, that’s what great horror movies always do, is they take a subject that's a little taboo, and that people don’t want to think about."

With a glut of King big-screen adaptations suffering from spotty box office by the late 1980s, studio demand for his projects began to falter. 

The author’s Creepshow pal George A. Romero was originally attached to direct Pet Sematary, but was sidelined by reshoot requirements for Monkey Shines. When the lengthy WGA strike of 1988 put Paramount on high alert to get camera-ready scripts into the production pipeline, the polished King screenplay was back in favor and landed in Lambert’s lap.

Known for her visually stylish, high-profile music videos for Madonna, The Go-Gos, Eurythmics, Chris Isaak and Janet Jackson, Lambert jumped at the chance to direct Pet Sematary first and foremost because she was a big fan of King’s books. But she had to win his approval first.

“I think it's because I was very good friends with Dee Dee Ramone, and that sealed the deal,” Lambert says of her sit-down with King at a local Denny’s that won her the job. “And he knew I loved the book. I’ve read all of his books. It’s pretty hard to fake being a really authentic fan, and I was a huge authentic fan. … I loved the material and I think he knew that I respected it and didn't want to change it or make it my own movie. You know, reimagine it as something that it wasn’t. In addition to all that, it wasn't actually that dissimilar to my first movie, Siesta, about being so obsessed with somebody that you can't die, that you hold off death.”

Lambert recalls the process of working with King on adapting his story to a big-screen canvas to be a dream.

“I had a lot of ideas about how to tell the story visually, because that's kind of what I do, and some of those things involved little changes within scenes,” she says. “Like the way the pet cemetery was laid out, and the portrait of the little boy with the top hat, and that’s how Gage (Miko Hughes) comes back. I was never afraid or had any problems calling Stephen up and saying, ‘I have an idea,’ or, ‘What if we do it like this,’ because clearly I couldn't make any changes to the script without his approval.”

A stipulation of granting permission to make the picture from King was that they had to shoot in his home state of Maine. The production filmed in and around Ellsworth, not far from his home, and he came by the set often. So in the autumn of 1988, Hollywood came to Maine and there seemed to be magic in the air. The set saw the likes of Charlie Sheen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dropping by to visit friends. King made his signature cameo. David Anderson, who worked on the Pet Sematary special makeup effects team with his father Lance Anderson, was dating Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp and proposed to her during the shoot.

Lambert admits that she became so enamored with the various locales of the state that her first cut was rather overstuffed with atmosphere.  

“Maine was such a character in the story, the feeling of the woods around the house, and I really love that, and I overshot that stuff. Those are the things that got taken out of my director's cut,” she admits. “It’s like, ‘Mary, I'm sorry, it’s not The Sound of Music. We’re not dancing over the Alps. The scene has to go.’”

The director, who was 37 years old at the time, was also undaunted by the clichéd show-business adage to never work with children or animals — or special effects, for that matter — on a production.

“It was all so much fun I didn’t think about them as a hardship, or something that I was worried about, because I was just looking forward to it so much,” she says with a hearty laugh. “Working with Miko Hughes and Blaze Berdahl was so much fun because children just have a different attitude than adults. Child actors aren’t in it for the same reasons. The stakes are different.”

Unlike working with Blaze and Beau Berdahl, the twins who played older sister Ellie Creed, Lambert insisted on casting 2-year-old, non-twin Hughes to portray Gage Creed, the little boy who comes back from the dead — despite pressure from the studio to cast twins in his role to compensate for on-set child labor laws.

“He wanted to do it, and that's why I cast him,” explains Lambert. “He was almost pre-verbal. He was talking a little bit and he could understand me, but he wasn't talking in complete sentences. It was like working with an alien. I taught him, ‘Go to your mark, wait for action.’ It was really fun. And that's my advice for anyone working with children: You want to work with a child that really wants to do it and isn't being pushed into it by their parents and doesn't have ambivalent feelings. If you do that, you get this incredible motivation to please you, and to be part of the group, and take part in the game, and it's very thrilling.”

Given the fact that she was making what would turn out to be a terrifying horror film, Lambert insists, “I felt a tremendous moral obligation not to traumatize him. He was never in the room with blood. Anytime there's blood and you see a head or a hand, it’s a puppet. The one exception was that scene where Louis (Dale Midkiff) put him down with the needle. But we had been working up to it for quite a while together and he was really up for doing that scene.”

The cast and crew played a crucial role in making Hughes feel special. “It was always a game for him and he was part of the group,” she recalls. “Fred Gwynne was wonderful working with him: ‘Come on, we’re going to play a game and I'm going to lie down on the floor and you’re going to jump on me! Okay, I want you to climb out from under the bed and scare me! Boo!’ Miko always had one specific thing to do — jump out from under the bed and be scary, or walk across the room and growl like a dog. He would do it, and then we’d all clap and tell him what a great job he had done. He was the star of the moment.”

Lambert says that she has since seen Hughes several times over the years and confirms, “He promised me that he didn’t feel traumatized at all, that he barely remembers it.”

Moments with mangy pets risen from the grave are a staple of Pet Sematary, and the end credits of the film declare that no animals were harmed in the making of the picture. Lambert — who grew up on a farm — was determined to make sure no animals were traumatized on her set, either, and goes into detail on just how they achieved some of the more disconcerting moments with Church the cat, specifically the scene in which Louis injects him with a needle to put him down.

“I really felt like the cat needed to be dopey in that shot, and you can’t train a cat to do that. So after much discussion and negotiation, we gave the cat a sedative. Originally, Valium was suggested and they said no to Valium, but everyone on the crew said, ‘We'll take the valium! Give us the Valium, we’re tired of this!’” she jokes. “It was supervised by the Association for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and I'm glad.”

“We had eight or nine cats, because cats really cannot be trained to do multiple things,” Lambert continues. “You find a snarly cat and you can get it to snarl. You find a cat that likes to jump up on the kitchen cabinet and you can probably reliably get it to do that. You find a cat that doesn't mind that you pick them up by the scruff of the neck and carry them around — some cats just scratch the heck out of you if you do that, so you’ve got to know your cat. So we had eight or nine cats and you choose the cat to do the thing that we needed to do. And the particular cat that went down did not mind being picked up like that, and had a kitty Valium before that scene. And that wasn’t a real needle. It was one of those retractable needles. It didn’t go into him at all.”

She adds with a chuckle, “I give my cat a sedative when he travels with me. Sometimes I split it with him because he likes Xanax the best. The vet says only half a Xanax, so Ulysses gets half and I take the other half.”

The creepiest elements of Pet Sematary arguably are the flashbacks of Zelda, the deformed sister of Denise Crosby’s Rachel Creed, who is sequestered in a back room, going mad while suffering from spinal meningitis.

“I really wanted Zelda to scare the pants off of everybody,” says Lambert. “When I was a young girl I shared a bedroom with my younger sister, and I used to hone my craft by telling her scary stories as soon as my mother would turn out the light. In fact, I was really a little asshole. I used to do everything I could to scare her at night. … I started off by sort of channeling my sister: What would I do to scare my sister about Zelda?”

When it came to casting the character, Lambert struggled to find the ideal actor to portray her: “I wanted her to look kind of skinny and bony and have kind of a weird edge to her, and all of the little girls that we brought in for casting were all sweet and pretty and soft and, you know, little girls. And finally, in desperation, I said, ‘Let’s try casting a little boy,’ and it just worked [with Andrew Hubatsek]. Then I just went back to channeling my sister.”

Released April 21, 1989, Pet Sematary was a hit at the box office, raking in $57 million worldwide on an $11.5 million budget. It paved the way for a profitable but less successful 1992 sequel that Lambert would also direct.

Looking back, Lambert says she was never completely happy with the special effects in her final cut of Pet Sematary, and she was pleased to get a pass at digitally fine-tuning the film for the brand-new, 30th-anniversary 4K Blu-ray edition of the pic.

“Obviously, I couldn't redo them in the remastering edit bay, but there was a lot I could do to make them look better,” she says. “We sweetened the effects a little bit. I really liked the way the Indian burial ground looks now. We tweaked that and made it, I think, a lot more mysterious-looking. It was a little bit bright in the original version.”

It should not go unnoticed that Lambert was essentially part of an elite group of top-level women directors in Hollywood in the 1980s, and she singles out Penelope Spheeris, Kathryn Bigelow and Martha Coolidge as notable contemporaries: “We were a little club of people that felt like nobody was going to hold us back.”

Still, Lambert received her share of flak simply for being female in the predominantly male enclave of horror directors. “I don't really understand why anyone would say that women shouldn't direct horror movies because they don't aren't tough enough, or they don't understand it,” she says. “Most horror movies involve the spiritual world, which I think women are much better at understanding and interpreting than men are, honestly. So it seems like a stupid observation to me.”

Lambert says that she feels gender does not have to be an issue in film directing (“I think that women don't need to have special considerations”), but observes that women have different social experiences than men do, “and that those experiences are an important voice in our society. Women are great storytellers, and so we need to hear their story. That doesn't just mean chick flicks. Unfortunately, the reality of it is that women are not given the same opportunities in the film industry that men are, even after you have a success, and that's just the way it is. I think it's getting better. And I think the best thing that I can be is a role model to younger women, because when I was in my twenties, there were very few role models.”

King’s work has delivered a steady supply of big- and small-screen adaptations throughout the decades. With the financial success of Stephen King’s It, the promise of its upcoming sequel and next week's release of the Pet Sematary remake (co-directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer), it would appear that King horror is once again back in favor.

“The quickest way to get something made is if it's branded in some way, if it has a history, if people have liked it once, if it's a book, if it’s a play, a song, a phrase, a character that people know — Peter Pan, Frankenstein, whatever,” notes Lambert. “It’s much more difficult to get an original screenplay greenlighted than an adaptation of something branded. I think that a lot of Stephen’s work [resonates] because he explores these timeless things, so they're easy to update, upgrade.”

She adds with a grin, “I personally would like to do a remake of The Dead Zone. I'm not sorry that they didn't ask me to do the remake of Pet Sematary because I thought it would have been a bad choice. But maybe I can talk somebody into The Dead Zone, now that we’re remaking stuff.”