Like many horror stories, Pet Sematary, which is based on the 1983 novel by Stephen King, is a parental nightmare, one that lays bare the limits of a father's ability to protect his family and the horrors that can be unleashed when he reaches too far. When I first saw the film as a teenager (after having already read the novel), it struck me as a deeply unnerving horror experience, and my response was primarily to the film's visceral nature and its relentless trajectory from the idyllic to the disastrous. Returning to it several decades later, I better recognize some of the film's limitations and flaws that I missed as a teenager, but as a new father I actually find it even more unsettling, particularly a scene near the end in which the film's protagonist must kill his own child who has returned from the grave in a perverse state due to the father's failure to protect him. It is a harrowing, heartbreaking scene that will resonate profoundly with any father, and in this regard it achieves what the best horror stories often set out to do: Confront us with the worst in order to help us better appreciate what is good in our lives.
The story begins with the idealized Creed family-young father Louis (Dale Midkiff), who is a doctor; stay-at-home mom Rachel (Denise Crosby); precocious 9-year-old daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl); and tow-headed toddler Gage (Miko Hughes)-arriving at their new home in the picturesque Maine countryside near a small town where Louis has taken a job as the chief doctor at a local university. Their across-the-street neighbor is a friendly old coot named Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) who wears overalls, speaks in homilies, and immediately becomes a gracious family friend. Unfortunately, the street that divides them is a well-traveled country highway along which rumbles enormous 18-wheelers trekking back and forth to a nearby chemical plant. The presence of the highway long ago necessitated the creation of the titular pet cemetery, which has been maintained for decades by local children in a spot in the woods behind the Creeds' house. Jud takes them there one afternoon, and it sparks in Ellie a simultaneous fascination with and fear of death, particularly that her cat Church will someday have to take up residence there. Rachel is bothered by her daughter's interest in and open discussion of death, primarily because she is still haunted by the memories of her older sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), who suffered horribly from spinal meningitis and died in Rachel's presence when she was an adolescent.
As it turns out, the pet cemetery is not the only burial site nearby. Beyond a deadfall at the back of the cemetery is another path that leads to an ancient Micmac burial ground where, according to Jud, the ground has "gone sour" and causes anything to be buried there to come back to life, albeit not in its original state. When Ellie's cat is hit by a truck, Jud leads Louis to the burial ground and has him bury the cat there to stave off the necessity of Ellie dealing directly with death at such a young age. Jud knows that bringing the cat back is not necessarily the right thing to do, and he later confides in Louis his own personal experiences with a pet dog during his adolescence and, more disturbingly, a man who buried his son there after World War II.
The story takes a decidedly tragic turn about midway through when Gage is killed in the road (all the foreshadowing of those thundering 18-wheelers finally coming to horrific fruition) and Louis is immediately tempted to take him in the Micmac burial ground, despite the protestations of both Jud and Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), the ghost of a student who was killed on Louis's first day of work and has returned as a kind of guardian angel (albeit a rather gruesome one whose cracked skull and exposed brain are both horrific and darkly comical). Grief-stricken and desperate, Louis decides to do it anyway, convincing himself that he will simply "put Gage down" if he returns different.
Louis's anguish-driven self-delusion takes on disastrous proportions when Gage returns in violent, monstrous form; the father's desperate gamble in playing God leads to his ultimate punishment, as not only does he fail to return his loving son to life, but his actions cause everything else he cherishes to be torn away from him, as well (the accusations by some that the film's turning a smiling toddler into a pint-sized serial killer is "distasteful" misses this point entirely). The final confrontation between Louis and Gage is admittedly marred by some unconvincing special effects and ragged editing clearly designed to make a two-year-old seem more menacing than he could possibly be, but the scene is ultimately unforgettable for the way it combines the horrific and the poignant as Louis encourages Gage to come close before jabbing a hypodermic needle in his neck, the result being an instant transformation from growling monster to wailing baby, thus ensuring that Louis feels the pain and guilt of his son's death all over again.
Pet Sematary was directed by Mary Lambert, who at the time had directed only one feature film (the little-seen 1987 art-thriller Siesta) and was best known as a director of music videos, particularly Madonna's controversial "Like a Prayer." Although she had never directed a horror film before, she displays an innate understanding of the material, recognizing both the pleasures of the genre's goosey thrills and the existential dread that comes with knowing that things can only get worse. At times you can sense her ladling it on a bit too thick-Jump scares! Supernatural mist! Portentous music punctuated with a creepy children's choir!-as if she has reached into the Great Big Bag of Horror Devices and decided to use everything. However, her sense of style and timing are good enough to justify most of it, as is her ability to translate King's macabre sense of humor without turning everything into a joke. The film is hampered to some extent by the casting, as Dale Midkiff is handsome and bland as Louis (although he does convey his character's grief with some force) and Denise Crosby seems too severe and distant at times to engage much sympathy. Fred Gwynne, on the other hand, is just about perfect as Jud, conveying the old man's humor, wisdom, sorrow, and flaws.
By the time Pet Sematary was released in the summer of 1989, cinematic adaptations of Stephen King novels and short stories had already developed into a Hollywood cottage industry. King's prolific and popular literary output was simply too good to resist, and by the end of the 1980s, filmmakers both great and obscure had taken a stab at more than 15 of his works, beginning on a high note with Brian De Palma's gloriously gothic teenage-revenge melodrama Carrie (1976). Unfortunately, with the exception of Stanley Kubrick's highbrow version of The Shining (1980) and Rob Reiner's sensitive Stand by Me (1986), an adaptation of King's novella "The Body," most of these films were duds, ranging from the mediocre (John Carpenter's 1983 film of Christine), to the simply awful (King's lone directorial effort, 1986's Maximum Overdrive), to the downright bizarre (the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man, which borrows the title from one of King's pseudonymous Richard Bachman novels and nothing else).
Thus, there was quite a bit riding on Pet Sematary, primarily because King himself exerted a great deal of creative control by insisting that his own screenplay be followed scrupulously and that the film be shot in his home state of Maine (where virtually all of his stories are set). The source material also upped the film's expectations, as Pet Sematary is not only regarded by many as one of King's finest and most complex novels, but it had achieved infamy before its publication when King mentioned it in response to an interviewer's question about whether he had ever written something so scary that he didn't want to publish it (this was only partially true, as King had shelved the manuscript largely due to the negative reaction it got from family and friends, including his Talisman co-writer Peter Straub).
And, while opinion remains divided on the film's various merits-it has both cultish admirers and rabid detractors-I find it to be a flawed, but still bracingly horrific film of ideas, one that maintains with substantial impact the novel's tragic themes about death and the limitations of human control. It has been compared to everything from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex to W.W. Jacobs's 1902 short story "The Monkey's Paw" (both of which suggest that interfering with fate can only lead to sorrow and suffering), and while the film necessarily dilutes the novel's complexity and streamlines its themes, it still works as more than just a gross-out horrorshow by diving into some painful emotional territory and reminding us that true horror isn't always "tasteful."
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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