Mary Lambert

By Jackie Perez

Although she didn’t set out to brand herself as a horror director, Mary Lambert has become one of the most prolific female horror directors of the past 30 years. Her best known film is Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and with a background in painting and deep-rooted influences from fairytales, she has built a career of groundbreaking visual storytelling across mediums from music video, film, the web, and television.   

Lambert was born in Helena, Arkansas to Martha Kelly Lambert and farmer Jordan Bennett Lambert III on October 13, 1951. She was drawn to art and creativity from an early age and wanted to be a painter. She didn’t grow up around artists but was influenced by the culture of storytelling in the South, and the ideas of fractured narratives, non-linearity, and multiple interpretations are a familiar presence in her work. While studying for her BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, she wasn’t acutely aware of the opportunities for a film director but by the time she graduated she knew she wanted to be part of the filmmaking world. “Two of my best friends, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, went [to RISD], and there was a real sense that being an artist was not limited to being a painter. It was a state of mind, a creative lifestyle that you chose. Anything you did could be art. It could influence other people and you could have a voice in that world, as an artist.” [1]

As it turned out, Lambert’s friendship with Tina and Chris was important for her both philosophically and practically. While living in Los Angeles and working on the fringes of the film industry in editing and animation, making special effects for washing machine commercials, she made a music video for their band The Tom Tom Club which they showed to Jeff Ayeroff of Warner Bros. Records. Lambert’s follow-up with Jeff earned her a ticket to New York to meet their hot new up-and-coming artist Madonna. They hit it off, Lambert shot her first music video for “Borderline”, and the rest is history. [2] It was the dawn of MTV and Lambert was creating the music video format as she went. By the time she made her first film she had worked with The Go-Go’s, Eurythmics, Rod Stewart, Janet Jackson, and went on to direct what is regularly voted as the #2 music video of the 1980s, Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” second only to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” [3]

 Poster reproduced under Fair Use. Official property of  Lorimar Motion Pictures.

Poster reproduced under Fair Use. Official property of Lorimar Motion Pictures.

Lambert literally picked up the script of her first feature, Siesta, on a table in Annie Lennox’ dressing room. Siesta is a psychological drama/fantasy about a woman who wakes up bloodied, bruised, and with the impression she has murdered someone, but unable to remember her actions. She pieces together the past in a non-linear storyline that critics described as “experimental” [4] with “one too many gimmicks.” [5] To her credit (and with her own recognition) the non-linear storytelling devices she used were ahead of their time and the lack of support from the studio releasing the film, Lorimar Motion Pictures, did not help. The film, which stars Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, Martin Sheen, and Jodie Foster, ended up screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival and was nominated for the Best First Feature Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. [6]

Luckily, Lambert’s filmmaking career survived Siesta and her next film Pet Sematary (1989) firmly planted her name in the horror canon. Although Siesta had supernatural elements, Lambert never considered herself a horror director, nor did she set out to make a horror film as her sophomore feature. She was still en vogue due to the success of her music videos and when her agent called her about directing Pet Sematary, its theme of obsession struck her. She was enthralled by the prospect of obsessive love driving someone to disregard fate and bring their loved one back from the dead. Pet Sematary felt like a natural progression for her, and she met with Stephen King who had final approval on the director for the film. On King’s approval: “He could tell I really understood the story, in a way, that I was going to tell the story and not just make it into a horror movie.” [7] She got the thumbs up and started work on what was not only her first big studio project, but as the only woman until that point to helm a studio horror film. Even before getting hired, she had been a huge King fan and had read most of his books.  Her favorites included The Shining, The Four Seasons, and Carrie. [8]

In prep, Lambert had to push back on the studio for several of her preferences, and luckily she succeeded. Firstly, the film is shot entirely in Maine—where the novel takes place and where King continues to be a prominent citizen—instead of a cheaper filming location like Washington State or Vancouver. While more expensive for Paramount, the Maine landscapes and scenery enhance the juxtaposition between an idyllic family life and the terror that descends into it. It also brought upwards of $1.6 million dollars of economic revenue to the state. Lambert also fought for the casting of Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall and Miko Hughes as Gage Creed. The studio was afraid people wouldn’t see past Gwynne’s comedic affability from The Munsters, and in the latter case, they wanted twins. Lambert saw in Hughes a young (2.5 year old) actor who truly wanted to learn and be in the film, instead of a child being pushed into something by his parents. She knew that working with a child, trust was key and she planned the film to shoot his scenes as much in sequence as possible, so that Hughes could become comfortable with Lambert and his on-screen mother (Denise Crosby). [9] Lambert stuck to her guns and the film is better for it.

 Official film poster reproduced under Fair Use. Rights owned by Paramount Pictures.

Official film poster reproduced under Fair Use. Rights owned by Paramount Pictures.

Everything in Pet Sematary is by design. The camera leers up at Jud Crandell, creating a looming low angle which shows there is something more ominous to his character than his nice-guy neighbor exterior lets on. In fact, it is Jud who sets Louis Creed down the path towards his family’s ultimate demise. Many fans ask about the portrait of Zelda, dressed in a Victorian style green gown that hangs in the background of a scene. Lambert always planned for Gage to wear the same green gown when he (spoiler alert) returns from the dead, with the portrait subliminally in the background, to be picked up on repeat viewings. Any deeper meaning into the scope of that coincidence is left entirely up to the audience. On the pressure of shooting her first big studio film, Lambert said, “I prepare as well as I can, and then I just turn out the lights and go to bed, and wake up the next morning and just hope… just take it one step at a time. … When you do a big feature like that, you have so much preproduction time… it’s not like you rush into it. You think about everything so much in advance, you go over it and over it. It’s like being pregnant, you’re just ready to shoot it by the time you get there kind of, I am anyway.” [10]

Pet Sematary Two (1992) arguably earned more of a cult following than the first film due to its gnarly rock and roll soundtrack, stylistic kills over character development, and “batshit genius.” [11] While the first film’s adapted screenplay was written by Stephen King himself, he had nothing to do with the sequel and the script was already chosen before Lambert joined the project. Lambert always wanted to explore Ellie Creed’s story, the sole survivor of the Creed family from the first film, but the studio was not interested in a film centered around a teenage girl’s experience. Reception to the film was lukewarm, but it still managed to make back twice its budget at the box office.

While Lambert was drawn to the absurdity of Pet Sematary Two’s script, her knack for horror/comedy is best portrayed in her season one finale contribution to the hit anthology series Tales From the Crypt, episode “Collection Completed,” about a man entering retirement and faced with his pet-loving wife who cares more for her furry friends than for him. Lambert went back to directing music videos with an occasional made for TV movie and returned to the larger budget thriller space with The In Crowd in 2000, a film about deadly friendships at a posh summer country club.

As the family archivist and inspired by her sister Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D-Arkansas), Lambert dove into documentary filmmaking with 14 Women, about the 14 women in the Senate during 2005-2006. Lambert “made the movie to encourage young women to go into politics, to consider a career in politics or public service by providing them with role models. Women have a different set of social experiences and they’re just as valid and they are just as valid as the social experiences that men have, and those social experiences need to be a part of the laws that are made in our country.” [12] Lambert also firmly believed those different social experiences gave women an edge to filmmaking, especially when it came to the horror genre. A woman who has carried a child will approach a film about the death of a child differently than a man would. If women are passed over for jobs, these experiences will never affect art or law, and influences and influencers become more and more one-sided, ignoring and erasing the experiences of an entire gender’s point of view.

Pet Sematary earned back its $11 million budget on opening weekend, spent three weekends at #1 in North America, grossed $57.5 million, became the highest grossing horror film of 1989, and is still the highest grossing horror film made by a female director to date. [13] Those accolades earned Lambert a chance to direct the sequel but didn’t catapult her career. “I think that I would’ve had more opportunities if I had been a man at that time. A lot of people disregarded it as a fluke, honestly.” [14] Unfortunately, not much has changed in the past (almost) 30 years. Female writers and directors are glaringly underrepresented in the horror genre even if it is the one genre where women have the biggest on-screen representation. [15] Not one woman is attached to a screenwriting or directorial role in the slate of resurgent remakes of Stephen King’s works, and of all 72 feature film adaptations only TWO have been directed by a woman. 

Mary Lambert is a trailblazer in numerous ways. She was the first break-through female horror director and the first woman to direct a SyFy Original Film (Mega Python Vs. Gatoroid). She helped to invent the music video form and created an original online series for Fearnet.com, The Dark Path Chronicles (when webseries were known as webisodes). There is plenty of room in the horror genre for women both in front of and behind the camera. She hopes to see more bad girls allowed in films, more memorable female villains. While other trailblazing female directors shy away from the effects their success has had on others, Lambert is not afraid to acknowledge or accept the responsibility bestowed upon her. “I’m a role model for younger women and I’m a groundbreaker for other women. That’s just who I am. And I’m not finished yet either.” [16]

Notes

1. Erik Luers. “Mary Lambert on Pet Sematary, Non-Linear Narratives and Child Actors,” Filmmaker Magazine, 15 June 2016.

2. Fangoria’s Screamography. “Mary Lambert Interview,” YouTube, 26 May, 2015.

3. Jessica Letkemann. “The 10 Best '80s Music Videos: Poll Results,” Billboard, 01 August 2011.

4. Janet Maslin. “Film: Exoticism in 'Siesta',” New York Times, 1987.

5. Roger Ebert. “Siesta,” RogerEbert.com, 05 February 1988.

6. Luers, Erik. “Mary Lambert on Pet Sematary, Non-Linear Narratives and Child Actors,” Filmmaker Magazine, 15 June 2016.

7. Moviesbywomen. “Video Podcast #11: Director Mary Lambert,” YouTube, 24 May 2008.

8. M. Kassel, M. Gerber, M. Roffman, J. Gerber. (Producers). 02 March 2018. Episode 56: Director Mary Lambert Talks Pet Sematary 1 and 2, Stephen King, and Dale Midkiff’s Sexy Body [Audio podcast].

9. J. White (Producer), & J. Campopiano, (Director). (2017). Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary [Motion Picture]. USA: Terror Films.

10. Fangoria’s Screamography. “Mary Lambert Interview,” YouTube, 26 May, 2015.

11. Billy Brewton. “That Thing About Hindsight: Mary Lambert’s PET SEMATARY 2,” Cinepunx.

12. Moviesbywomen. “Video Podcast #11: Director Mary Lambert,” YouTube, 24 May 2008.

13. April Taylor. “10 Most Important Horror Movies Directed by Women,” Bloody-Disgusting.com, 22 July 2017.

14. Erik Luers. “Mary Lambert on Pet Sematary, Non-Linear Narratives and Child Actors,” Filmmaker Magazine, 15 June 2016.

15. Google. “The women missing from the silver screen and the technology used to find them,” 24 February 2017.

16. Fangoria’s Screamography. “Mary Lambert Interview,” YouTube, 26 May, 2015.


Jackie Perez is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker currently living a military spouse life overseas in Bahrain. In her previous career, she was a Nuclear Engineering Officer for the US Navy but nowadays has much more fun writing and making horror films. She has championed female representation in Stephen King adaptations for The Mary Sue, given advice on working in the entertainment industry for Ms. In The Biz, and contributed an essay on Ida May Park for the book “When Women Wrote Hollywood: Essays on Female Screenwriters in the Early Film Industry.” She has a BS from MIT and an MFA in TV and Screenwriting from Stephens College. Her latest film Beachworld is adapted from a Stephen King Dollar Baby short story. You can follow her on Twitter at @jackierageperez and her website www.jackierageperez.com


Additional Resources on Mary Lambert

Bibliography of Further Reading

Bouts, Emily. “Women Love Horror, Too: Film Adaptation of Pet Sematary Suggests Why More Women Should Get a Chance to Scare Us,” M.A. Thesis, St. Cloud State University Department of English, July 2015.

Gallagher, Brian. “Deborah Gibson and Tiffany Talk Mega Python Vs. Gatoroid,” MovieWeb, 31 January 2011.

Lambert, Mary. "Miss South Pacific Director’s Statement."

Tekula, Sara. “Featured Filmmaker: Mary Lambert, Director of ‘Fishing Pono’,” Maui Film Festival – News, 07 June 2013.

TheLastMiles.com. “Interview: Mary Lambert.”

theStreamtv. “Mary Lambert (DARK PATH CHRONICLES) & Ciaran Foy (CITADEL) - Inside Horror (Part 3 of 3),” YouTube, 02 May 2012.

Filmography

Arrow (television series), "The Sin-Eater," season 5, episode 14, 2017, director.

The Blacklist (television series), "The Director," season 3, episode 9, 2016, director.

Fishing Pono: Living in Harmony With the Sea (documentary short), 2014, co-writer/director.

Presumed Dead in Paradise, 2014, director.

Pearl (short film), 2011, writer/director.

Miss South Pacific: Beauty and the Sea (documentary short), 2011, director.

Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, 2011, director.

Love, Murder, & Deceit, 2009, director.

On the Road in America, "Cowboys and Indians" (2010), season 2, episode 2; "Mississippi Delta" (2007), season 1, episode 4, director.

The Dark Path Chronicles (Webseries), 2008-2009, writer, host, director.

The Attic, 2007, director.

14 Women (documentary), 2007, director.

Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge, 2001, director.

Strange Frequency (television series), "More Than a Feeling," season 1, episode 10; "Disco Inferno," season 1, episode 8, 2001, director.

The In Crowd, 2000, director.

Clubland, 1999, director.

Wynonna Judd’s Freedom (Music Video), 1998, director.

Live’s Turn My Head (music video), 1997, director.

My Stepson, My Lover, 1997, director.

Face of Evil, 1996, director.

Double Switch, 1993, director.

Rosanne Cash’s The Wheel (music video), 1993, director.

Red Shoe Diaries (television series), "Accidents Happen," season 1, episode 9, 1992, director.

Lionel Richie’s My Destiny (music video), 1992, director.

Queensrÿche: Building Empires (video short), 1992, director.

Pet Sematary Two, 1992, director.

Robbie Robertson’s What About Now (music video), 1991, director.

Queensrÿche’s Another Rainy Night, Without You (music video), 1991, director.

Grand Isle, 1991, director.

Mötley Crüe’s Don’t Go Away Mad, Just Go Away (music video), 1989, director.

The Pretenders’ Sense of Purpose (music video), 1989, director.

Debbie Harry’s I Want That Man (music video), 1989, director.

Tales from the Crypt (television series), "Collection Completed," season 1, episode 6, 1989, director.

Pet Sematary, 1989, director.

Sting’s We'll Be Together (music video), 1989, director.

Madonna’s Like A Prayer (music video), 1989, director.

Mick Jagger’s Throwaway (music video), 1988, director.

Siesta, 1987, director.

Madonna’s La Isla Bonita (music video), 1987, director.

Janet Jackson’s Nasty (music video), 1986, director.

Rod Stewart’s Love Touch (music video), 1985, director.

Eurythmics’ Would I Lie to You? (music video), 1985, director.

Madonna’s Material Girl (music video), 1985, director.

Madonna’s Like A Virgin (music video), 1984, director.

The Go-Go’s Yes or No (music video), 1984, director.

Madonna’s Borderline (Music Video), 1984, director.

Rapid Eye Movements (short film), 1977, director.


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