Jul 9, 2019

LET’S RAISE SOME HELL: ‘PET SEMATARY TWO’ IS A MASTERPIECE


[Spoilers follow for the entire Pet Sematary series.]

Oh, sequels. On paper, you’re so weird. You’re a continuation that was never meant to be. You’re glorified fan fiction sanctioned into existence by a producer or studio eager to continue a profitable story that was only ever meant to be just that story (unless, of course, your characters wear capes, because then we need thirty-seven of those, I guess). By now, it’s become common knowledge that most sequels are inferior retellings of their originators. Subsequent writers and directors who hop onto an existing franchise try to make their sequel as different as they can, but ultimately, they are still going to exist within the structure that’s already been established. No matter what else the sequel might try, we know that Terminators are going to travel back in time to protect or destroy, Michael Myers is going to kill, and Jigsaw is going to impossibly exist and rattle off dime-store philosophies while ripping money from your pockets and laughing maniacally.

Director Mary Lambert knows this better than anyone. With her 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, she nailed the holy trifecta of horror filmmaking: scaring the shit out of audiences, striking gold at the box office, and scoring a positive critical notice or two. Even today, it’s still considered newsworthy when a woman is put in charge of a major tentpole release, and though Pet Sematary wasn’t considered tentpole, it was still highly anticipated. It was, after all, the next in a long line of extremely successful King adaptations, this time inspired by what was deemed the scariest book he’d ever written. Could a—gasp—female director make a film every bit as dark, graphic, and taboo as the book written by a lovable man with a few loose screws? That answer was a resounding yes, and no one knew that more than Paramount Pictures, so when it came time for them to greenlight the sequel, they made sure Lambert was along for the ride.


I’ve had a strange relationship with Pet Sematary Two ever since seeing it at a young age. As weird and kid-inappropriate as it may sound, the first Pet Sematary was a childhood institution. USA Network used to run it back to back with another King title, Silver Bullet, and I would watch them every single time they aired. I was unrealistically scared of Pet Sematary, and never more than when Rachel’s bony sister, Zelda, was on screen. I eventually saw Pet Sematary Two a few years after it hit VHS, and even as a child, I could tell it was stupid. Beyond stupid. It had sacrificed anything legitimately creepy about the first film in favor of slasher-flick antics and sensational violence…but I can’t pretend I wasn’t scared of it at times, because I was. 

After recently shrugging my way through the pallid, lifeless Pet Sematary remake, I felt compelled to revisit this 1991 sequel I’d long ago dismissed in hopes of finding some new merit and satisfying the itch that the remake failed to scratch.

I’m so glad I did.

Pet Sematary Two is one of the strangest, darkest, and uncomfortably funniest horror flicks ever produced by a major studio—one directed by a woman, headlined by a 13-year-old kid with more star power than the guy playing his father, and which had absolutely no problem killing multiple children… and mothers… and kittens. (Though I didn’t find any of it remotely scary watching it with adult eyes, the parts that used to frighten me as a child still filled me with slight apprehension.) Originally, Lambert had intended on directly continuing the Creed story with a teenage version of Ellie (played by Blaze Berdahl in the first film), but in a stunning act of boundless misguidance, Paramount was leery about making a teenage girl the lead character in a horror film...even though the studio had just completed a successful eight-film run of the Friday the 13th series, in which the lead in nearly every single entry was…a teenage girl. In response, Lambert and screenwriter Richard Outten (Van Damme’s Lionheart) created an entirely new crop of characters, though obviously the action remained in the town of Ludlow—the site of the pet cemetery and the Micmac burial ground beyond it.

Meet the Matthews family: there’s Chase (Anthony Edwards, Miracle Mile), patriarch and veterinarian; his wife, Renee (Darlanne Fluegel, Once Upon A Time In America, which makes a cameo), actress of cheap looking gothic monster movies; and their son, Jeff (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), looking as exhausted and barely into anything as the actor normally is (or isn’t). A freak on-set accident sees Renee being fried to death by some “oops!” electricity, so Chase takes his son back to Ludlow to bury her in their hometown’s cemetery, and hopefully start anew. It’s there that Chase encounters a cold Gus Gilbert (an all-in Clancy Brown), Ludlow’s sheriff and a former flame of his deceased wife, where he's quick to remind the bereaved widower—at her funeral, no less—that he and Renee used to bang something fierce. Jeff eventually befriends Gus’s stepson, Drew (Jason McGuire), and after his dog, Zowie, meets the wrong end of Gus’s rifle, the boys bury him in Ludlow’s whispered about burial ground. 

Things…escalate quickly. 


Tobe Hooper struck his own gold with 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so when Cannon Films came knocking at his door to direct the sequel, Hooper agreed, but decided he was going to make as different a film as possible while remaining true to the basic components that the prior film had established. If the first Chain Saw were an exercise in pure terror, the second would be an exercise in black comedy quirkiness featuring ironically used Oingo Boingo and a duel-chainsaw wielding Dennis Hopper. Lambert seems to have taken the same approach, because while Pet Sematary Two is a direct sequel in terms of concept and character dynamic, it’s not at all a spiritual follow-up with respect to tone, sincerity, or any attempt at mature horror (of which there is zero). Pet Sematary was trying to be a good film, whereas Pet Sematary Two is trying to be a fun film, and boy, is it ever. Nah, scratch that: Pet Sematary Two isn’t just fun—it’s fucking looney tunes, a gonzo masterpiece of weird characters, ace gore effects, befuddling dialogue, and the purest, vicariously palpable sense of, “Can you believe Paramount is giving us money to make this?” 

The screen story never strays too far from established structure, involving a family looking for a fresh start, a person burying a cherished pet in the cursed burial ground, and the ante being upped as dead human beings begin to replace dead animals as burial ground fodder. Pet Sematary Two even slightly tweaks the patriarch, turning him from a medical doctor to a veterinarian, maintaining the prior’s institutional and sanitized philosophy of death as normal and necessary (read: better) while doing it in a more on-the-nose way. (One of Chase’s first scenes has him gently putting a dog to sleep, telling its crying owners, “It’s better this way.”) (Read: dead.) If Pet Sematary wants to break taboos by killing a four-year-old on screen, albeit in a total freak Orinco truck accident, then Pet Sematary Two is going to murder two children, but age them up a little so the act of doing so feels less soul-crushing and more deranged. Basically, when Gage bites the big one in the first film, Lambert wants her audience emotionally pulverized to more easily buy into his father’s descent into madness, but in the sequel, when Drew and the local scarf-wearing bully, Clyde (Big’s Jared Rushton), both meet their untimely ends at the hands of a resurrected Gus, the audience isn’t that upset. Sure, it’s unfortunate to see Drew and his mother (Lisa Waltz, The X-Files) lose their lives, but as sad as that makes us, we’re even more glad about Clyde’s face being chewed off by his rear moped tire because he was such a dick. This, seemingly, is part of Lambert’s design: she wants her audience to embrace the gory death of that 13-year-old bully, and her design is correct, because we do. Clyde sucked! 


Wes Craven once mused about the difference between directors who scare their audiences legitimately, and those who make the audience believe that said director is “dangerous,” and willing to show them anything to elicit that desired scare. How far is this director willing to go? That’s the beauty of Mary Lambert and her approach to Pet Sematary Two: its goal is to break rules and encourage pure insanity; it goes freely with the flow and adopts every half-cocked idea someone on-set can muster. If there were any suggestions proffered during production that Lambert decided would be going too far, dear lord, I would love to hear them, considering the things we did get:

Monster/humanoid wolf-head nightmare sex? Check.

Zombie rape? Check.

Flesh-melting, pun-hurling, undead mothers? Check.

A leading role for Clancy Brown? Hard check.

Speaking of, no one has ever had more fun playing a psychotic undead murderer than Clancy Brown. He is Freddy Krueger, swapping out the Christmas sweater for a pair of sheriff beiges, but certainly keeping his knack for dark-humored kill-lines and his vile sense of humor. (“Why did you dig up my dead wife?” “Because I wanted to fuckherrr.”) Brown seldom gets the chance to enjoy a lead role, so while that could be part of the exuberance behind his performance, it’s really because—as many actors will tell you—it’s so much more fun to play the villain, to be let off the proverbial leash and to go as big as you want. (Brown would go on to star as the villain in another King-inspired project soon after this one—The Shawshank Redemption—and I like to believe that director Frank Darabont saw his nutso performance in Pet Sematary Two and said, “Oh, definitely that guy.”) As the resurrected Gus Gilbert, Brown chews on every piece of scenery not nailed down, and it’s his legitimate testament as an actor that he doesn’t always go big to imbue his undead Gus with the strangest of personalities. One of his best scenes is a total skewering of the generic dinner table set piece, during which his undead muscles barely function and he ends up dropping a bowl of veggies off the table. When his annoyed wife mutters and stoops to clean up his mess (and who, I might add, he’d necro-raped in a previous scene), he very subtly glares at her with narrowed eyes as if asking, “What are you so sour about?” Still, when Brown goes big, aw hell—what a blast to watch. The Cheshire grin he flashes while chasing down his family to kill them, sliding on his sheriff’s hat before he delivers their deathblow, is the stuff of cinemagic. 


Pet Sematary Two is filled with this kind of craziness—a collection of scenes so inspiring that they force you to stop and reconcile that, yep, you’re really seeing all this in a film made by Hollywood. Take the scene where Chase kills the undead Zowie and then finds Gus inside the modest Gilbert home, asking him, “What are you doing, Gus?” The resurrected sheriff looks down at the shot-dead Zowie, and then says, with detectable wryness, “Well, I was building a doggy door.” Sure, it’s a stupid line, throwaway in nature, but what makes this such a magical moment is that this hulking, demonic, undead corpse actually was building a doggy door for his hulking, demonic, undead dog. Forget all the warm-blooded people that demon Gus definitely wants to kill—that all momentarily stops to build a tiny door for his demon dog

You guys, this is a movie where a young boy is being murderously pursued by his undead stepfather, and with the zombie-maniac hot on his heels, the boy races into his house, shuts and locks the door, and then CALMLY HANGS HIS HOUSE KEYS ON THE KEYHOOK BEFORE LOCATING A GUN TO SHOOT THE GHOUL MAN TRYING TO KILL HIM.

WHO WROTE THIS?

And that ending, holy shit. What morbid mastery. What unabashed fuck-it filmmaking. The fiery finale that concludes in the attic of the Matthews’ house, which features not one but two resurrected bodies trying to kill father and son and turn them into the walking dead, is a carnival sideshow of horror chaos. Undead Bully Clyde doesn’t just show up, but he shows up with a voice five pitches deeper, very little face, and grasping an ax, which he swings with the brute force of an able-bodied stuntman (you know, the one obviously playing him). The real showstopper of this scene, however, is the return of Jeff’s mother, which actually starts on a sad and creepy note: she beckons her son to join her in the afterlife, a moment that threatens to touch hands with honest-to-gosh pathos…but that’s before things descend into utter madness, which happens pretty quickly. The fire spreading around the attic soon begins licking at the ends of her burial dress as all the work her mortician had done begins to melt off her face, and she begins repeatedly screaming “DEAD IS BETTER!” in absolute, chill-inducing, operatic, Argento levels of unhingement until she turns into a fucking STANDING, BURNING, SHRIEKING SKELETON. 

Frankly, it’s the ending we needed and deserved.


No matter how much King’s output has declined in quality over the years, he’s never written anything as farcical as Pet Sematary Two, but that doesn’t mean the sequel doesn’t manage a handful of Kingisms. (King actually requested that Paramount remove his name from any marketing having to do with the sequel, so he was obviously not a fan.) First, there are the two shaky relationships between fathers and sons, which he’s explored in more than one of his novels (The Shining comes to mind), and then there’s the unrealistically evil bully who could give IT’s Henry Bowers a run for his milk money any day of the week. The first film was about a parent losing a child; meanwhile, the sequel is about a child losing a parent and navigating the grieving process, which King later explored in his excellent short story, Riding the Bullet. There’s also a nod to The Shining when Gus busts a hole in Drew’s bedroom door with a hammer, but instead of sticking his face through the hole and bellowing  “Heeere’s Johnny!,” he verbally ponders if Drew understands the Miranda rights he’s been rattling off, or if he’s “too fucking stupid.”

Ever since its release, critics and fans have derided Pet Sematary Two, and it’s a sure-fire inclusion on many “worst sequel” lists. (Amusingly, Variety “praised” the sequel, calling it “about 50% better than its predecessor, which is to say it's not very good at all.") Pet Sematary Two isn’t a patch on the original, and it’s so tonally different that the two don’t appear to be part of the same family beyond their titles, but I’ll be damned if Lambert and co. aren’t going for it, and that’s what makes it so special. Whatever Pet Sematary Two may be, it’s all part of Mary Lambert’s gloriously gonzo plan, and that’s all that matters. One thing is certain: 2019’s useless Pet Sematary redux proved it’s better to be a goofy, red-headed stepchild but still have your own identity than to be completely without one.  

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