Yup, its twenty years old aready, yet another addition in the ever expanding 'films that make me feel old' timeline...
The story goes that the novel the film is based on sat finished in a drawer in Stephen Kings desk for three years as he was sure his publisher would refuse to publish it based on the dark content and subject matter. Eventually, the only reason it was ever published was due to the fact the King owed Doubleday one more novel as part of his contract, and so to free him of his commitment quickly, he submitted Pet Sematary. Eleven years after the novel was published, after several false starts, and after saying that he felt the story was ‘unfilmable’ King agreed to adapt his own novel for the screen. At the time, George Romero was attached to direct, but depending on which source you choose to believe, he either left due to disagreements with the producers, or couldn’t get out of his obligations to Monkey Shines, and so Mary Lambert, best known for directing Madonna’s music videos, was signed on to replace him.
Pet Sematary (for the uninitiated, its spelt like that to reflect the way a child would spell the word, and isn’t a typo) was made at a time when Stephen King films had all but reached their profit-drawing peak, and the days of having the movies under production before the book was even published (as was the case in the mid 80s with Christine, Firestarter and a few other titles) were over. As the novel was one of Kings earlier works, it was also one of his better ones, and there was plenty of material there to work with and potentially make a decent film. At the beginning, Lambert and King introduce us to a typical all American family unit who are identifiable, happy and reasonably likeable, and then take the next 100 minutes to viciously rip their world apart. Starting small with the death of a family pet, and ending with complete annihilation. Below the surface, the source text of Pet Sematary is an adult and thought-provoking look at the mysterious nature of death, the secrets it carries, and the complexity of the grieving process. But, in the end, did it translate well enough to the screen?
The Creed family arrive at their new home in rural Maine with the same sort of high hopes for a new beginning that the Lutz family had when they first pulled up to their dream house in Amityville. Louis (Dale Midkiff) is a doctor, and has taken a position at the local university and so moved the whole family across the country. As they start to unpack, Louis and wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) notice that the road beside their property is a route the long distance truckers thunder along frequently... When young daughter Ellie (actually played by twin sisters, but only credited to one - Blaze Berdahl) points out a path into the woods behind their house, elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) offers to show them where it leads one day. The one day eventually arrives, and the family and Jud head off to the Pet Sematary, a place a few miles through the woodland, where heartbroken children and families have buried their beloved animals over the years. Not long after this, the Creeds' luck begins to run out. On his first day on the job, Louis is unable to save the life of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a university student wounded in a road accident. Though obviously dead, Pascow warns Louis about things to come from his hospital bed, and then shows up in what might either be Louis' dream or something else, warning him of the Indian burial ground located beyond the Pet Sematary. Pascow warns him that the border wasn't meant to be crossed, and that the ground beyond is sour. At this point, it’s not exactly clear what this warning means.
The family cat, Church, is hit and killed by a truck while the rest of Louis' family is visiting Rachel's parents for Thanksgiving, Jud, who is established as a years long resident of the area, dating back to before wartime, suggest that Ellie isn't ready to lose her favorite pet. Jud leads a bewildered Louis over the deadfall beyond the Pet Sematary up to the Micmac burial ground and lay Church to rest there. Hours later, Church shows back up at the house, smellier and more irritable than usual, but undeniably the same cat. Louis first believes that the cat must’ve dug his way out, and wasn't really dead, just stunned, but a chat with Jud reveals the truth about the burial ground – it’s a place where the dead come back to life. Over time, death will continue to find its way into the Creeds' lives again and again. When their housekeeper, Missy, suffering from a long-standing illness, hangs herself in her basement, it kicks up old traumatic memories Rachel has had since childhood of the passing of her own sister, Zelda. When tragedy eventually strikes closer to home, again in the road outside the house, Louis and Rachel find themselves mourning their two year-old son Gage, Louis can't help but wonder what might happen if he buries his baby in the same ground which saw Church brought back, and sets about making plans to re-bury his son….
Many adaptations of King's work have failed miserably. They never manage to capture the feel and essence of their source material, and many of the books are 500 pages or more, and so it’s very difficult to condense that length of story into 90-120 minutes of screen time. Mary Lambert's interpretation of Pet Sematary doesn’t fail. Of all the King adaptations which have seen the screen over the years, its one of the better ones. I was – and still am - a huge fan of the book, which is only just edged out as Kings premier work by ‘Salems Lot. This film is a very good companion piece. Lambert understood the story. She knew what it would take to remain faithful to the source material. There had to be a degree of gore. There had to be atmosphere and disturbing imagery. In short, there was no need for and wholesale changes. Pet Sematary is not a joyous, happy tale. There is no room for a happy Hollywood style ending. Mary Lambert directed in a cold, cynical, soulless manner which reflects the feel of the novel very well. There's very little warmth or humanity in the film aside from Fred Gwynne, the kindly old man who helps alleviate some of the chill of the rest of the movie.
Before the film moves into more obviously dark overtones, it plays almost like a drama film, but there are hints of subtle darkness lurking underneath. Missy's unexpected suicide, not adding up to anything more than it is in the story, allows the Creeds to put their own lives into perspective and acknowledge the inevitability of death with their children The untimely loss of toddler son Gage will quickly lead to the ruin of the Creed family. There is a chance for them to move on, but Louis' denial over what has happened and his knowledge of the burial grounds' power proves too tempting a possibility to resist. Of course, as we suspect, what returns is not his son as he was, but a sinister and soul-less toddler, and it is Louis' fatal misjudgment in messing with the laws of nature that spells doom for him and almost everyone he has ever cared about. I dont have kids, and dont ever want them, but I can understand the motivation behind doing such a thing. Filled with anguish, heartbreak, frights, and an escalating sense of approaching calamity, the third act of Pet Sematary works as both horror and tragedy. When Louis decides to go back to the burial ground with a third body, in spite of knowing what has happened before, it is possible that anyone watching may shout at the screen in annoyance at the stupidity of it all,, but at this point, Louis has already unwittingly committed such atrocities that he is at the point of no return. When he buries the third body, he is effectively burying himself, and he knows it.
The major strength of the film is its story – it’s a fascinating one, and even the hokey old ‘ancient Indian burial ground’ lore, which is an easy explanation for bad things happening in so many films, is interesting, mainly because its not dwelled on as an explanation – there's very little in the way of WHY people come back, they just do, and so the story concentrates on what happens when they do. It works all the better for that. The opening scene which plays behind the credits is a favourite of mine too, the camera slowly tracks along the wood path to the entrance to the pet sematary and into the graveyard as a mix of children’s voices reading the inscriptions on the grave markings and Eliot Goldsmiths’ Amityville Horror Suite plays in the background.
The sets for both the Pet Sematary and the Micmac burial ground look exactly how they should – sadly, in the modern era real world, places like the Pet Sematary would be desecrated by vandals, but it’s the sort of place you can imagine might have existed in the 70s and early 80s. Reflecting the description given to it in the book, it’s an innocent, safe place. By contrast, the Micmac burial ground is a simple, symmetrical and cold mass of land atop a cliff and lacking any kind of warmth. The deadfall – the mass of twigs and earth which Louis has to cross to get beyond the Pet Sematary, is also constructed in such a way so we can believe that climbing it really is akin to opening a door into another world.
I’m always in two minds about the casting - Dale Midkiff, a consistently working actor who has never hit it big, is actually very good as Louis Creed. The journey Midkiff takes in his character's shoes would be demanding for any actor, and he manages to pull off every emotion. Denise Crosby (best-known for TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation") does a reasonable job as Rachel, but there's something about her which I’ve never been able to put my finger on which annoys me. Fred Gwynne is a standout as neighbor Jud Crandall, down-to-earth, wise and conversational in his reading of the sort of guy you'd like to sit on the porch with and share a beer. This would be the start of an upturn in profile for Gwynne, who had never really been able to shake off being ‘that guy from The Munsters’ The Jud Crandall character has been parodied several times in South Park episodes through the years, always appearing to warn of impending doom, most notably in the episode ‘Marjorine’ which borrowed many elements from Pet Sematary. Gwynne modeled the accent on Stephen Kings own, thick, Maine accent. As kids Ellie and Gage, Blaze Berdahl (and uncredited twin sister Beau) leans towards trying too hard at times, but handles difficult scenes well, and Miko Hughes, who, believe it or not was two years old at the time of filming, is downright amazing. Even if his performance is the product of an expert editor, it can’t discount Hughes' naturalism in front of the camera. He popped up on screen again as Heather Langenkamps ‘son’ in Wes Cravens New Nightmare a few years later. Even Stephen King turns up in a largely pointless cameo which exists just for the fanboys to acknowledge to the people who dont know who he is.
On the negative side, the climax is hurried and a character that should be hideous, revolting and unnerving ends as an unconvincing puppet first and then a kid with a tiny scar on his forehead. Endings are always tricky, made more so by factors such as a young child being called upon to do some terrible things, and said child unable to submit to the makeup process that might have had him looking a bit more, well… hit by a truck. Having seen my share of mangled bodies, there's no mortician in the world who can piece together someone who has been hit head on by a speeding truck quite this well. While the final moment of confrontation between father and son hits the mark poignantly as Louis sends his boy back into the darkness and there is a quiet, simple pause where Gage, poisoned and dying, trips over his awkward toddler’s feet, spins around and comes to abrupt rest against a wall, muttering “no fair” and looking hurt and reproachful at his father. The build up to this doesn’t quite work the way it should, but it's a haunting scene, though we don't get to see the real Gage’s personality surface as it did in the book for one moment as the cannibal spirit within departs Gage’s corporal body. The film also opts for the typical horror ending, punctuated with a hand reaching for a knife and a scream to let us know it’s over. The ending is fractionally similar to the books ending (which simply reunites Louis and his wife and the last line of the book gives us all manner of implications and disturbing imagery). This needlessly spelled-out horror send off in the final seconds left a bad taste in my mouth in contrast to the pace and quiet fright that compromises the majority of the film.
The use of The Ramones (who also featured in the book and happily wrote the track as Joey Ramone was a big fan of the novel) for the track which plays over the end credits is interesting, but doesn’t work – there's no doubting that it’s a lively sing-along song, but its certainly not one which is in keeping with the tone of the film, and playing out the always creepy Amityville Horror Suite over the credits would’ve been a better choice. Any misery you might’ve felt lingering after watching the film quickly disappears as The Ramones crank up the volume as soon as the final scene ends.
If you’ve read the book, then the film is a decent companion piece. If not, then it stands alone as a watchable and enjoyable slice of nonsense. At its deepest level, Pet Sematary is a film about loss and regret and can be haunting, sorrowful and eerie in places, while not quite working all the time. Pet Sematary is 80% a good film, building up a slow burn before eventually falling to slasher clichés and a weak parting shot that undermines the disturbing themes and unsettling conclusions of the story. Around five years have passed since the previous time I saw this and watching it again recently, and I’d guess it might be another five years until I come back to it.
Pet Sematary has seen a few DVD releases - Paramount originally released this movie as the epitome of bare bones. In fact, except for a French audio track, there wasn't a thing on it other than the film itself. This is still the only option on R2, but a region one collector’s edition saw the light of day a few years ago which fleshes things out a little. There are three featurettes on the disc which run for forty-five minutes altogether. Each featured explores different aspects of bringing this story to life. In the first, entitled Stephen King Territory, we hear from the author, and he talks about the genesis of the story and how it was inspired by real life events, right down to some of the dialogue. Fascinating stuff. The second and third cover the characters and how everyone did their part through various behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. The DVD is then rounded out by a commentary by director Lambert, which I haven’t listened to, and a couple of trailers.
There's a Pet Sematary 2 – to be honest, I remember very little about it as I’ve only seen it once, and that was way back in the mid 90s, but as I remember it’s a continuation in name only. There's also a BBC radio 4 dramatization of the story, which is one o the few things I have left on cassette, and is very well done. Talk of a remake has been doing the rounds for the last few years, although there's nothing concrete out there at the moment, eventually I imagine we’ll see something on screen. The rumour doing the rounds most over the last 18 months or so links George Clooney to the project, either as producer or star.
Well worth a look, but as with Salem’s Lot, the book is a better option for those with time to invest, and is far more disturbing.