in Shocktober

Pet Sematary (1989)

I’m sure there is a pretty large portion of film fans that are, like myself, only familiar with Stephen King through his movie adaptations. This is not due to a lack of curiosity, since I probably should get around to reading one of his books eventually. But since the horror genre is one I’m more than happy to spend time with for an hour or two in the form of a film, I guess I’m just a little less inclined to embrace the time commitment that comes with reading a novel in the same vein.

Also, it’s very easy to get acquainted with the world of Stephen King through his movie adaptations, since it’s hard to think of an author who has been adapted more, especially during the 80s, 90s, and briefly in the 2010s. I realize that it’s a little belittling to start this review off talking about a movie’s male originator, since the aim of this Shocktober was to highlight women directors. And though director Mary Lambert certainly is responsible for the movie’s effectiveness, it’s hard not for this to feel like one of King’s adaptations that he had the most sway over.

Pet Sematary focuses on the Creed family, who have just moved to a small town in rural Maine which seems idyllic enough. Well, except for all of the terrifying semi-trucks zooming on the main road that goes by their house. Shortly after settling in, they become friends with one of their neighbors, Jud (played by Fred Gwynne), who not only has a wonderfully folksy New England accent, but also seems to be fascinated with this pet cemetery (misspelled “pet sematary”) near their homes. Louis (Dale Midkiff), the dad of the family, has another encounter with the cemetery when a patient is taken to the hospital that Louis is a doctor at. The man was horribly injured by a truck hitting him while jogging and after Louis is unable to save him, he haunts Louis in a dream where he leads Louis to the pet sematary while warning him of the “sour” ground that the cemetery lies on.

While Louis’s wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and the kids are away during Thanksgiving, Louis is looking over the family’s beloved cat Church, who gets out and is struck by one of those damn truckers. Louis is horrified to think of how distraught his daughter Ellie will be, so he turns to Jud and whatever mysterious power the pet semetary holds. Jud then takes him to a Native burial ground, where he instructs Louis to bury the cat and not tell anyone what they’ve done. The next day, Church appears to be very much alive, though he’s much dirtier, smellier, and has a real bad attitude. Jud explains that whenever a pet buried comes back, its not the same as it was when it was buried, but it’s worth the grief it would cause.

A little bit later, Louis’s youngest child, Gage, is killed by another one of those trucks (seems like they should shut this road down or something) and of course, the family is devasted. Wrought with grief, Louis goes to Jud again, clearly interested in burying his son at the burial ground, while Jud says he’d better not do that, as someone tried to do that with a deceased love one years ago and they came back as a deranged zombie. Louis, of course, is undeterred by this. So he buries Gage, and the boy comes back as a demonic little stinker brandishing a scalpel and a look of unremitting evil in his eyes.

As I mentioned earlier, Pet Sematary feels like an adaptation where Stephen King had a very authorial influence on the movie. First, because King helped adapt the book itself by writing the screenplay, but also because he seemed integral in the hiring of Mary Lambert as well as the insistence that the movie retain the book’s Maine setting. This  probably also explains why the movie doesn’t feel watered down in the way that some of King’s adaptations are. There is something inherently sick about the subject matter of dead pets and children, and the fact that the movie kills off and then resurrects a beloved family cat and son without blinking an eye is immediately striking. It’s just an incredibly upsetting idea that makes it unsurprising that King thinks the book is his scariest.

It seems that critics were not that taken by the twisted nature of its premise when it was released, and I can certainly empathize with that, especially for people with kids. However, I appreciate how the movie interweaves the very heavy subject of grief with some very well-constructed, chilling scenes. The most effective of these involves an achilles tendon, which I knew was coming, but is still an especially revolting use of violence in a movie where most of the other violence happens offscreen. I suppose I just wish the movie had a little more of a budget and pedigree behind it, as even though Dale Midkiff is perfectly fine as the lead, I think the dramatic weight of the material could have used someone with a little more gravitas. While it seems like the 2019 remake of Pet Sematary wasn’t really able to improve on this version (which is certainly improvable) despite casting Jason Clarke in the same role, at least it laid the groundwork for Hereditary and any other film that dares to blend movie horror with the all-too-real horror of grief.

Also, didn’t realize until writing this that Pet Semetary has already been reviewed on this blog. Guess we just love a good resurrection!

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