What is it about horror movie sequels? They either hit the mark or miss them completely, and it’s never in between. But there are no absolutes. It’s all subjective. Take Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh for example. Some find it superior to the original film, citing that it’s more engaging, atmospheric, and bone-chilling. Since I can hardly ever get past the first 20 minutes of it, I can’t say that I agree with them. On the other side of the coin, we have Urban Legend: Final Cut. I can’t really defend this one, but I can say this: I would watch the hell out of it before I would ever revisit the first again. Why? Personal reasons, I guess. (That it used a film school as its setting had a lot to do with it.)
But Pet Sematary Two is not just a sequel to a horror movie. It’s a follow-up to a Stephen King classic that wasn’t born out of his mind. Naturally, there was going to be some backlash. It’s simply not the kind of story he’d tell. Richard Outten‘s script reaches for It level intrigue with Stand by Me realism and Cujo-esque scares, yet fails to capture the appeal of any of those. Despite doing what it thinks a King story should do, it lacks a certain thematic texture that is such a necessary ingredient to any King tale. Its horror isn’t as deeply rooted in the underworlds of its characters as King’s would be.
Pet Sematary Two goes for horror in its most visceral form while navigating a quirky, gritty, Twin Peaks-y small town. Like hundreds of other horror movies, it prioritizes style over substance and becomes a time capsule instead.
But that’s why I love it so much.
As someone who is naturally equipped to feel nostalgia for the early ’90s, the year 1992 is a mythical sweet spot. A great number of classic films came out during that year, blockbuster titans whose shadows still fall across the movie industry to this day. (Batman Returns, Reservoir Dogs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Basic Instinct, Aladdin, Unforgiven) And somehow Pet Sematary Two seems to get all of that nostalgia and pack it into a glorious hour and a half of sarcastic alternative rock songs and cold-hearted sight gags that kick you in the stomach and grin about it, much like school bully antagonist Clyde played by Roseanne‘s Jared Rushton would.
And that kind of attitude is exactly what makes Pet Sematary Two a more satisfying watch than the slow-moving broodfest that the original Pet Sematary was. Before you start beating me with your figurative yet appropriate shovels, the first is a cult classic for a reason, I know. But whenever I think of anything related to it, vivid memories from this film are conjured up instead. Take the ending sequence for example. Never before have I been so moved by a final credits montage in a freaking splatter flick in all my life. It pays tribute to all of the characters that bit the dust during its running time. That’s emotionally sensitive for a movie like this, is it not? And something that King wouldn’t do, nor would his go-to film collaborator Mick Garrison.
I think what turns people off about the film is that it’s unclear what the horror is based in. It’s unfocused and murky, pinned to a prevailing sense of evil that’s just “in the air” (much like the mood of Argento’s Inferno). And yet, horror films demand that this evil wear a face at the end no matter what. So who would the “final villain” in Pet Sematary 2 be?
Some would say Gus, the abusive stepfather of Drew Gilbert, played by Clancy Brown. Rather the zombified version of Gus brought back from the eerie powers of the pet cemetary itself. He certainly left the biggest impact on the audience and was the vehicle. The emotional havoc he wreaks on his wife Amanda (Lisa Waltz) and his poor stepson echoes childhood traumas for anyone who grew up in an abusive home. This is where the movie’s gut punches hit the hardest. In fact, the film’s most chilling moment is a nasty car chase in which Gus runs them into a potato truck on a highway. It’s not gory at all, but it’s still downright heartless and terrifying.
But Gus was just another victim of the evil that permeated through the town of Ludlow. Much like Clyde the bully, he was simply another one of its chauvinistic tentacles that threatened to strangle anyone who displayed vulnerability. Even main protagonist Jeff Matthews (Eddie Furlong) falls under the town’s dark spell, which seemed to encourage his feelings of grief over his mother’s death and ridicule him for having them at the same time. Toward the end (and precisely where the movie starts falling apart), Jeff works with Zombie Gus to dig up his mom’s body and bury her in the pet cemetery. But… why? To manifest the Freudian final face of evil. Still, even if Zombie Mrs. Matthews was supposed to be the “big bad,” the film’s plot ultimately felt unresolved after her very alive husband and son vanquish her.
Warts and all, Pet Sematary Two still doesn’t deserve the hate that most people give it, nor the apathy. There are a great many things to love about the film that range from its production details to its psychedelic atmosphere, to the edgy visual montages that reward you for watching it in the first place. The biggest selling point is probably the cast which is perfectly led by Mr. Furlong himself, fresh off starring in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, arguably the most seminal blockbuster of the 1990s. To be honest, if anyone else had starred as Jeff, I probably wouldn’t enjoy this movie as much as I do. The entire film revolves around Furlong’s performance, whose tortured demeanor truly carries the weight of the film. His screen presence is so intense that when his character has an abrupt descent into madness, he sells it. I think that’s because Furlong has an uncanny ability to add layers of subtext by just gazing at something offscreen.
Anthony Edwards was another great casting choice, as his presence also has a potency to it that felt tailormade for the role of Jeff’s father Chase. That his character was a veterinarian might have been overly convenient, but so what? This only lead to more animal-based horror scenes that the first one sorely lacked. I admit, Chase’s sexy werewolf dream sequences were ridiculous (and a bit too Howling IV for my taste), but I dig the way Mary Lambert shot them and I admire her style. Wet dreams aside, Edwards had just the right amount of angst to portray the emotionally conflicted Dr. Matthews and compliment Furlong’s smoldering attitude. (Too bad this wasn’t a TV series back in the day instead of a movie…)
Directly after the cast, the soundtrack is the strongest ingredient of Pet Sematary Two–even if it was never officially released. L7’s “Shitlist” is primarily known for being played during the infamous diner scene at the beginning of Natural Born Killers, but I’ll always remember it as the song that Zombie Gus skinned a cage of rabbits to while Jeff and Drew sat by watching in disgust. Then there’s “Reverence” by Jesus and Mary Chain, played ironically during the sequence I mentioned above where Zombie Gus chases Drew (Jason McGuire) and his mother Amanda down in his patrol car. And thinking of Jan King’s “Fading Away” gives me all the sad dead dog related feels. Ever. Sigh.
Oh, but I can’t forget to mention the centerpiece of the entire OST: “Poison Heart” by The Ramones. It’s not as fitting or as iconic as their song “Pet Sematary” was for the ending credits of the first film, but it is thematically appropriate for this one. It did seem as though the town of Ludlow, Maine was too cruel and unusual for the Matthews father and son – so they take off. (“I just wanna walk right out of this world / cause everybody has a poison heart.”) Coupled with the emotional tribute montage that ran just before it, this song was the perfect note for the film to leave off on. I think it’s a good one for me to leave off on too.