‘Pet Sematary’ Director Mary Lambert on Using Old-Fashioned Effects for Scares in Pre-CGI Stephen King Adaptation

Pet Sematary Director Mary Lambert
Pet Sematary: Paramount Pictures; Lambert: Beatrice De Gea

Mary Lambert had directed mainly music videos (Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” among others) when she took the job helming “Pet Sematary” in 1989. It was her second feature film, after 1987’s Ellen Barkin starrer “Siesta.” But Lambert had read the Stephen King book, about the Creed family — Louis and Rachel and their two children, Ellie and Gage — who move to Maine, to a home that lies near sacred Native American burial grounds where interred bodies won’t stay dead. The family cat, killed by a speeding truck, is among the first to be resurrected.

In 1989, VFX was not an option for Lambert. Instead, she leaned on a crew that included art director Dins Danielsen, a physical effects team led by Peter Chesney and, for the “resurrected” feline, animal wranglers Brian McMillan and Scott Hart. Below, the director breaks down some memorable visuals from the film, including a scene in which the painting of a child on the wall at Rachel’s parents’ house foretells the fate of one of the Creed children. 

The Creepy Painting 

“Paintings like that are a big part of early American portraiture because there was such high mortality among infants. They didn’t have photography back then, so a lot of people had portraits painted of their children after they died so they could remember them, since so many died before the age of 2 or 3. Those paintings are so frightening to me.

That was painted especially for the movie. Marlene Stewart, my costume designer, designed the costume we were going to put Gage in at the end of the movie. We had the artist paint the child in that costume. Earlier, in flashback, you’ll notice that Zelda [Rachel’s late sister, who died as a toddler] is in that costume too. It’s creepy because it’s the painting of a dead child dressed up as an adult in fancy clothing that reflects reality. I was trying to plant [the connection between Gage and Zelda] subliminally in the movie.”

Dead Cats and Bloody Kids 

“There wasn’t CGI at that time. The cat’s eyes were done in-camera. Cats, as it turns out, have a retina that reflects light. Not a lot of animals have this [attribute], but cats do. [We] put a light directly above the camera lens, so when we were shooting with the cats, it would reflect into the camera.

Cats are difficult to train, so we ended up using nine cats. We had a jumper, a snarler and a cuddler. We had a cat for everything we needed. You can’t train them — no cats were harmed during the making of this film.

[For the reanimated children], we used a combination of puppets and special [physical] effects. The actor who played Gage, Miko Hughes, was 2½ years old. We used puppets in some places for him: Anytime there was blood, that was a puppet, because we didn’t want to traumatize Miko.” 

The 5-Movie Collection from the written works of Stephen King is available on Blu-ray