Pet Sematary, loathed by spellcheckers everywhere, fits squarely into the classification of movies that are effective for completely different reasons to a child and an adult. I was eight years old when I first watched it, right around the time I was scared shitless by Stephen King’s masterful novel, and was taken aback by the death of Herman Munster, gory ghosts, and an Indian burial ground legend that was actually scary. Now I’m almost thirty, with a wife, child, and an erratic fear that something terrible will happen to the both of them. And that’s just one of the reasons why I won’t follow the advice of the hulking, sinister old man that lives across the street from me.
Even though the film is largely timeless within its setting, one has to view Pet Sematary through 1980s-tinged eyes (even though your eyes are seeing the Blu-ray upgrade, where the quality equals out to Made-for-TNT movies circa 2000). Nothing about the film--beyond Fred Gwynne--is perfect, and I do cringe during the sappy family moments that play opposite the dark future that awaits. It’s precisely that darkness, and the universally relatable one-sentence summary, that give this flick the lasting power that is maintained by a relatively small section of the horror genre, much less King adaptations.
Would you bring your child back from the dead if you were given the chance? At eight, I would have said, “No way, dude. Wylde Stallions!” before cutting someone’s soul out with wicked air guitar. At present, I’m pretty sure I would still say no, and I hold this movie up as proof positive. Grief is natural. Scalpel-wielding toddlers who don’t retain the slaughtered vision of their deaths are not natural.
If you’re someone who’s never seen or read Pet Sematary, and I say that with rigid distaste, you won’t be confused by its plot. In the film, an idyllic family of four moves from the city to the country, to a place where the knowledge of a stately neighbor changes the outcome of their lives. Dale Midkiff is Dr. Lewis Creed, loving husband to Rachel (Denise Crosby), and father to Ellie (Blaze & Beau Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes). As mangled-head patient Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is dying on Louis’ operating table, he groans out a few cryptic and prophetic words of warning, which Louis ignores at every possible moment. Who here hasn’t second-guessed the wisdom of a ghoul?
Jud Crandall (Gwynne) soon takes Louis to the actual pet cemetery, and then beyond, through rugged terrain, coming upon a large stone formation whose center unlocks the key to mortal reanimation. One tainted cat resurrection later, Louis is presented with the most horrifying of opportunities, and the meat of the film. Another reason why I think this film remains relevant is its uncluttered story, where the trope-filled predictability inspires dread, rather than mocking scorn. Unlike the winding metaphorical path Louis and Jud use, the plot follows a bullet’s trajectory straight to discomfort and mild nausea.
While Midkiff and Crosby aren’t why people remember this movie, their textbook performances anchor the emotional subtext, which rarely reaches melodramatic territory. Midkiff’s maniacal smiles are unsettling. While acclaimed actors may have added more flair to the absolutely horrifying climax, I had no problem believing Midkiff might actually be dealing with undead family members in real life. Hughes, at twenty-seven months old, is equally as disturbing. Just hearing “No fair, Daddy,” turns chunks of my hair gray. Crosby’s heavier moments come from a novel plotline, involving her ill sister Zelda, that should have probably been omitted in the film, because they add anything other than to give Rachel something to do for the rest of the movie. Admittedly, these images are some of the most haunting ones, so I’m glad they’re there.
In the film’s commentary, Director Mary Lambert shares many details about Zelda’s scenes (for higher creep factor, a male actor played the role), and those with Pascow (he’s Louis’ comical guardian angel-corpse), but I’m not convinced that either tangent is organic to the film as it stands now, since it lacks the depth or length of the novel. But that’s just me. Lambert’s one-note commentary does share good info on King’s involvement and the process of making the film on location in Maine, but it too often lapses into scene descriptions and lengthy pauses.
The three remaining features, like the commentary, were all present on the special edition DVD that came out some years ago, and all last around ten minutes. “Stephen King Territory” features the Maine locations King required the film to shoot in, using footage of King from what looks to be made around the film’s release. King also relates all of the real world elements that inspired the novel. “The Characters” is about how cats, undead or not, are terrible pets. Just kidding. It’s about the characters! “Filming the Horror” adheres to the “making of” format, and holds interest throughout. I liked watching Gage’s bigger scenes broken down, and I admire Lambert for using Hughes, rather than a stand-in dummy, as much as possible. I also love the design of the “sematary” built for the film. I’d like it as my backyard. Until the nightmares take over.
The thing King was told about pet cemeteries-- much like Jud tells it in the film--is that a pet cemetery is a tangible way for a child to learn about death. It eases them into an understanding of the bigger picture. Because this film and novel both spurned my uneasiness with the subject of death with both pets and humans, I feel like I never had a shot. My dad buried our dead dogs along the fence line, far outside Micmac lands. Besides, there’s only one of those dogs that I loved enough to have resurrected like that. I wonder what kind of trouble he’s causing right now. Anyway, buy Pet Sematary.