Pet Sematary (1989)
I have a contentious relationship with Stephen King. I enjoy his plots, and often the films based on his books, but his novels themselves tend to go just a little too far for me, shifting from pleasurable horror to uncomfortable sadism sometime in the final quarter. But there’s no doubt that King crafts some indelible narratives that get right to the core of fear, and this is thanks, in part, to the films based on his books. Pet Sematary was actually the first King book I read (and permanently fucked up my ability to spell “cemetery”) so I turned to Mary Lambert’s 1989 film version, scripted by King himself, to remind me of my childhood fears.
Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby are Louis and Rachel Creed, recently arrived in a little Maine town with their children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), to start anew. Their house is idyllic, even if it is on a road with a number of fast trucks, and even if it does have a creepy burial ground for pets in the woods beyond. When Ellie’s beloved cat Church is struck by a truck, their neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) kindly takes Louis beyond the Pet Sematary and onto an ancient burial site to bury the cat. Church comes back to life, but he’s not the same cat he once was, and Louis’s exposure to resurrecting the dead will eventually have dire repercussions for the family.
Pet Sematary is very much about the nature of grief and the lengths to which people will go to avoid the realities of death. Jud’s initial offer to Louis to help with Church is well-intentioned—he doesn’t think that Ellie should have to be exposed to death at such a young age. But of course, it’s a bad idea. Church isn’t Church anymore, and Ellie is troubled by the cat as a result of her father’s unwillingness to explain loss to her. This becomes more problematic as the film goes on – Jud tells about the things that happened when people are buried in the burial site, and speaks the (now classic) line that “sometimes, dead is better.” The narrative problem with the film is the same as the narrative problem of the book – how to render grief so convincing that it actually makes sense for someone to behave in such a fundamentally stupid manner and unleash all the horror that he does. The book mostly gets this right, but the film stumbles a little, due mostly to the performance of Dale Midkiff, in establishing a convincing tone.
Pet Sematary is a very 80s film, with a very 80s aesthetic. The music – including the Ramones! – pulses to the beat of the narrative, and there are moments of extreme hokeyness that all but undercut the dour, serious nature of the story. But those hokey moments, and even a few jokes, also help to lighten what could be a depressing slog. This is a story about grief and death and darkness, so there needs to be a few moments of levity, dark humor though it may be. Lambert deftly combines the story with grotesque imagery and hallucinatory violence that becomes an approximate visual rendering of King’s often fantastical creations. The story of Rachel’s sister Zelda, her first encounter with death as a young girl, is suitably terrifying, as is the creepy, mocking voice of Gage nearing the end of the film.
The standout star here is Fred Gwynne, whose turn as the possibly malevolent neighbor Jud keeps the film on an even keel, evading either dipping into campiness or into self-serious horror. There’s just something inherently creepy about Gwynne’s thick Maine accent, as though he’s doing a good impression of Kate Hepburn. He mostly plays it straight, but there’s a hint of sinister glee in his performance, especially as the film begins to draw to a close. He’s earnest and likable and just a bit frightening, and that makes all the difference.
Pet Sematary may not have aged well – it’s stuck in its time period, and the practical effects are occasionally unconvincing. But it’s still a nice piece of 80s nostalgia, ably directed and a more than adequate adaptation of King’s work.