Pet Sematary: a 26 year review
Imagine my delight after coming home from a hard day at work to find Pet Sematary staring at me from the Netflix feature screen, letting me know, “Howdy, we just added this here movie and thought you’d enjoy watching it.” Well Netflix, you bastards, you were right. I did enjoy watching it. And I so enjoyed the paranoid feeling that my daughter was going to come strolling into my bedroom with a razor sharp scalpel. That was fun too. But I suppose hearing the muffled patter of feet from our neighbors upstairs probably didn’t help matters much. Good times. Where were we? Oh yes, Pet Sematary. Lets talk about that, for a moment. Shall we?
Pet Sematary is my most favorite book of Stephen King. And I was delighted that he also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of my beloved novel. But before we dive into a full blown movie review, for purposes here, I feel as if I need to discuss what aspects of the book I have adored so much over the years and discuss if any of that mystique actually crossed over the threshold into horror cinema. The charisma of the book, for me, is in the banality of the story. The mundane picture into the lives of the Creed’s and Crandall’s. Everything is so exquisitely normal. So much so, that when the macabre is slowly injected into the plot, we hardly take notice, until the macabre is all there is. And that’s pretty much it. The things that are unexplained, are perfectly unexplained. Nothing should be fully laid out. Pet Sematary allows the reader to play a part in the story. And the book is chock full of wonderful little quotes, such as: “Sometimes…dead is bettah,” or “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier; a man grows what he can and tends it,” or how about, “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret,” or maybe, “What’s been tried once had been tried once before…and before…and before…” or perhaps the most philosophical one of the bunch, “That lesson suggests that in the end, we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe.” All together though, I think it really just boils down to the slow masterfully woven story that makes Pet Sematary so damn good.
Now…how about the movie?
The Creed family – Louis, Rachel, and their children Ellie and Gage – move from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine, where they end up befriending the elderly neighbor Jud Crandall, who takes them to an isolated pet cemetery hidden behind the Creeds’ new home. While working at the University of Maine, Louis “meets” Victor Pascow, who is brought in with severe injuries from a car accident. He manages to warn Louis about the pet cemetery near his home before he dies, calling Louis by name, despite the fact they hadn’t met before. After he dies, Victor comes to Louis in a dream to tell him about the dangers inherent at the cemetery. Louis awakens and assumes it was a dream, but notices his feet are covered in dirt, indicating he had gone to the cemetery. During Thanksgiving while the family is gone, Ellie’s cat Church is run down on the highway by the house, Jud takes Louis beyond the cemetery, to the Micmac burial ground, and buries Church where he says the real burial ground is. Church comes back to life, though a shell of what he was before, he now appears more vicious. Sometime later, Gage is killed by a truck along the same highway. When Louis questions Jud on whether humans had been buried in the cemetery before he recounts a story of a friend named Bill who had buried his son who had died in World War II at the site but he had come back changed. Realizing the horror that he brought to the townsfolk, Jud, Bill and some friends tried to destroy Timothy by burning him to death in the house, but Bill was attacked by Timothy in the process and both were killed.
Rachel and Ellie go on a trip and Louis remains home alone. Despite Jud’s warnings and Victor’s attempts to stop him, Louis exhumes his son’s body from the cemetery he was at and buries him instead at the Micmac ritual site. Victor appears to Rachel and warns her that Louis has done something terrible. She tries to reach out to Louis, then to Jud, informing him that she is returning home. She hangs up before Jud can warn her not to return. That night, Gage returns home and steals a scalpel from his father’s bag. He taunts Jud before slashing his Achilles tendon and kills him. Later, Rachel returns home and begins having visions of her disfigured sister Zelda before she had died, only to discover that it’s Gage, holding a scalpel. In shock and disbelief, Rachel reaches down to hug her son and he kills her as well.
Waking up from his sleep, Louis notices Gage’s footprints in the house and realizes his scalpel is missing. Getting a message from Gage that he has “played” with Jud and “Mommy” and wants to play with him now, he fills two syringes with morphine and heads to Jud’s house. Encountering Church, who attacks him, he kills the cat with an injection. Gage taunts him further within Jud’s house and Louis discovers Rachel’s corpse, falling hanged from the attic before he is attacked by his son. After a brief battle, Louis kills Gage with the morphine injection. He then lights the house on fire, leaving it to burn as he carries Rachel from the fire. Despite Victor’s continued insistence not to, Louis determines Rachel wasn’t dead as long as Gage was, and that burying her would bring her back to him. Victor cries out in frustration and vanishes as Louis passes through him.
That night, playing solitaire alone, Rachel returns to the house and she and Louis kiss. Unknown to him, she takes a knife from the counter and as the screen goes dark, Rachel stabs Louis -Wiki.
Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am! There you have it. Notice any subtle changes? I hope so, if you’ve read the novel, at least. For starters, let me say that the soundtrack is totally on point. Elliot Goldenthal certainly out-did himself on this one. And with the addition of the Ramones, pure classic tunes, man. However, despite the chilling score at the opening of the film, Pet Sematary is revealed in what feels like bright light. There was no darkness or creep factor. The only cemetery that is creepy during the day light is the one from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and this picture ain’t it. Okay…not a good start. Next, we find ourselves in a sprint to get the characters introduced and on screen and in the race I feel that the relationships are less genuine. Not to mention the slap in your face foreshadowing at the very beginning with little Gage walking toward the road and here comes big Jud to save him from a barreling tractor truck. Pace is typically something only books can afford…or if movie producers are willing to add an additional hour or so to the movie. Unfortunately, people have little patience with movies. They want action-action-action, explosions, gore, and sex. While those things are good to have in a movie, but come on! Sit back, enjoy the damn story for crying out loud! Stop and listen. Open your ears, you might learn something. Okay…I’ll step down from my old man soapbox. But still, that’s part of the reason why this movie feel so…discombobulated. Popular scenes from the book flash at you and unless you’ve actually read the damn thing, I doubt they had as much of an impact. This especially goes for the funeral scene with Gage and his grandfather confronting the father and the fight and the very end of the movie when Louis takes his dead wife to the Micmac burial ground. Where the hell is Steve Masterton? He had one of the best damn scenes in the book, watching mad-Louis walking in the woods. And lets not mention the ending with Rachel coming in through the door. In the book, the ending gave me chills. In the movie…ugh, whatever…
Some scenes that had been changed that were still effective includes perhaps when Louis unearths his son and rocks him back and forth in his arms in the graveyard. As a father myself, I found that scene very profound and one of the rare occurrences where Dale Midkiff’s acting was passable. In fact, I found most of the acting in the movie fairly awful, including the beloved Next Generation actress Denise Crosby, who played Rachel Creed like some ditsy blonde. In the book, Rachel was a strong character. Flawed, sure, but strong, especially at the end, working by her own intuition that something wrong was happening and not the prodding of some damn ghost. Speaking of which…come on! Victor Pascow was very creepy in the book and adding him in additional scenes in the movie came off as kinda corny. The only real talent in the movie comes from the late great Fred Gwynne, who played lovable “Down Easter” Jud Crandall, better known for his historic role as Herman in The Munsters (1964-66). Second best acting has to go to Church…the damn cat! Freaking creepy eyes, man!
So much more awful things could be said of the 1989 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary. Yet…somehow it was still a good movie! Despite all the flaws, it is still an enjoyable watch. Partly because, I think, King wrote the screenplay, and who knows what the editors did to his original script. Most of the really important scenes are there, mostly. And while “reboot” is kinda a no-no word, I think Pet Sematary would benefit from a really authentic re-make. Many may disagree. My strongest hangup on the idea is replacing Fred Gwynne as Jud…the dude had some serious acting chops and is one of the most iconic roles. I for one am not totally against remakes; I’m against terrible cheap remakes. If you’re going to do it, do it right.
My Rating: 3/5