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Cinema history is filled with some wonderful big screen felines, and Church from Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary is a challenging inclusion to that list. After all, while the cat is certainly cute and a pretty animal, what it goes through in the story – being killed and then brought back to life through sinister magic – is decidedly not that loveable or “wonderful.” Still, few will ever forget his presence in the fantastic Stephen King adaptation, and part of that extends from his noteworthy look – which I recently learned was specifically chosen for a pair of reasons by the director in the making of the movie.
In the 1989 film, Church is portrayed as a British Blue cat, and while speaking with Mary Lambert this week in celebration of Pet Sematary’s 30th anniversary I learned exactly why that breed was chosen. I had asked the filmmaker about her memories working with the cats on the set of the movie, and while she couldn’t name on the spot the type of cat, she did explain the key reasons why she wanted Church to have his specific look. Said Lambert,
We had a lot of cats and I chose that gray - it's a special breed, I've forgotten the name of it. It has that really thick, thick, thick fur, and they all look alike. A) They all look alike, and B) I just thought that they were kind of creepy. It looks a little bit like a plush toy. I was thinking that sort of subliminally when the cat comes back to life, it's kind of like a toy that comes to life. And I think he looks a little bit like a stuffed toy to me, that cat.
Even someone who loves cats has a really hard time falling in love with Church, and according to Mary Lambert it seems like part of that may be due to a special take on the uncanny valley. With its mono-colored and dense fur, they don’t always look entirely real, and when you’re dealing with an undead cat, that works to your advantage.
Church is, of course, a key part of Stephen King’s original novel, as the entire book was inspired by the death of the cat that belonged to the author’s daughter. This made him absolutely vital to include in the big screen adaptation, but as you can probably guess, it wasn’t exactly easy. Though Pet Sematary needed the feline presence, cats are not the easiest animals to control, and so it was actually a group effort that was needed in order to bring the character to life. Mary Lambert explained,
We had a whole army of cats. If you love cats and you own cats you know that every cat is a little different and that no cat is really completely trainable. You can have a cat that will reliably do something, but the next cat might not reliably do that. So he had a cat that was a snarler; we had a cat that was a jumper; we had a cat that was a scratcher; we had cats for everything the cat does. We had about eight or nine cats. Whatever Church needed to do, we would bring in the cat that would do it.
And now you have a much better understanding of the whole “they all look alike bit,” as well.
It clearly took a bit of extra work, but the filmmaking team was eventually able to collect all of the footage that they need to make Church’s “performance” in Pet Sematary legitimate. What was a surprise added bonus from this, however, was the fact that the material shot apparently helped the director occasionally in getting higher-ups to clear out of the editing process. As Mary Lambert noted while laughing during our interview, nothing would get executives out of her hair faster than a call to bring up the dailies for Church:
The dailies from that would be pretty funny, but not for long. That was back in the day when you actually screened dailies, and everybody that wanted to see the dailies came to the dailies screening. The execs would come, and the producers would come, and they were screened in the evening. Whenever I wanted to clear the room, I would just say, 'Put up the cat reel!'
Continuing, Mary Lambert explained what it was that was featured in the “cat reel,” and while one can imagine it being cute for a second (it’s footage of cats, after all), it would get old pretty damn quick. Apparently not only would each animal only do one specific trick, but it was still a challenge to get them to actually do it, and the cameras would have to keep rolling in order to try and get the needed material. Said Lambert,
It'd be like an hour of a spoon with a clicker and a piece of liver on it comes into the frame, and the hand holding the spoon clicks it, trying to indicate to the cat to look. And after about 30 seconds of clicking, the cat like comes in and eats it, and doesn't do what it's supposed to do. 'Okay, then take two.'
There is a good reason why that classic W.C. Fields line about not working with children and animals has stuck around the industry for about a century – and I’m not talking about the way that they steal the spotlight.
Getting all of that cat footage together was clearly a challenge, but at the end of the day it was entirely worth it - and Church remains an iconic part of the fantastic film in all his snarling and hissing glory. And now you can enjoy all the extreme horror of it all in a brand new way, as the incredibly beautiful restoration of 1989’s Pet Sematary was released on 4K and Blu-ray this past week. Copies are now available in stores everywhere, so go pick yourself up a copy, and celebrate the 30th anniversary right!