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Overall Rating

Awesome: 26.03%
Worth A Look31.51%
Average: 12.33%
Pretty Bad: 8.22%
Total Crap: 21.92%

2 reviews, 61 user ratings

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Pet Sematary (1989)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Dreary King Adaptation Better Left Buried"
1 stars

It certainly scored at the box office, but it's so piss-poor it makes you look back at King's terrible directorial debut "Maximum Overdive" as some kind of neglected masterpiece.

To give an idea how extraordinarily frightening Stephen King's masterpiece of a novel Pet Sematary was, I read it not in a dark room late at night, but during an eight-hour flight to Hawaii when I was fourteen years old. The fact that there were people all around me on the way to the sunniest of destinations couldn't sublimate the gut-wrenching terror King expertly elicited -- I was afraid even of going to the lavatory to take a pee. So it's a shame this woeful adaptation seen in a darkened theatre produced not a so much as a one-hundredth of the intended effect, for more often than not I was rolling my eyes at the countless inconsistencies and inanities, which is really a shame because King himself is credited with the mishmash of a screenplay, with the untalented director Mary Lambert's unctuous, uncouth work succeeding only in accentuating its awfulness. Pet Sematary fails not because it tries too little, but way too hard -- it's so obsessed with working you over scene after scene after scene that it eventually shuts you out from having even the most basic emotional responses because it's so divorced from any semblances of reality. Like all good supernatural tales, it at least needs to ground the goings-on in some kind of realistic context early on so we have some frame of reference to take off from. (As an astute writer/director once commented, the more out-there your story premise is, the more rock-solid the grounding of it needs to be.) But with a blowhard like Lambert at the helm, hell-bent on making every single scene register on the Richter scale, she blows everything so out of proportion that the end result is a bombastic plethora of chewed-up bits that never coalesce into anything remotely organic -- it's like being stuck inside a pinball machine for one-hundred-and-two minutes that's forever going Tilt! Lambert's only previous full-length feature was the godawful metaphysical thriller Siesta from two years prior, whose only real asset was a full-frontal shot of Ellen Barkin's vaginal slit -- amid the zenith-level hokum, it was the only part that registered. So why she was entrusted by Paramount Pictures to take on an ambitious project like Pet Sematary is probably one for the ages (or at least a good fifteen minutes of semi-serious discussion during a session among the committed at the Betty Ford Clinic). From the thudding incompetence apparent from start to finish, the production helmed by an Edward D. Wood instead could not have resulted in less.

As is commonly the case in a Stephen King work, the setting is a small Maine town that would seem to be the ultimate in the idyllic but eventually gives way to the horrific. Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) has just moved his family, consisting of wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), ten-year-old daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and infant son Gage (Mike Hughes), there from big-city life in Chicago to take a job as physician at the local college. Their picture-perfect house in a rural area has all the charm of a Norman Rockwell painting, with charming codger Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) right across the road warmly welcoming them upon their arrival. But the ruckus of speeding petroleum-carrying semis constantly going by punctures the tranquility and punctuates the inevitable tragedy soon to be leveled upon the Creeds; and just in case the signifying of this isn't already made blatantly apparent, Ellie is slightly injured when the tire swing she�s on collapses right when she's afforded a glimpse of a path leading off into the woods -- which, compounded with the fact that it winds up leading to a pet cemetery, makes this something of a double foreshadowing. The next day Jud gives the Creeds a tour of the ancient place, where Jud himself buried the family pet some sixty years prior: with the dilapidated makeshift tombstones and oodles of spider webs everywhere, it's like a tacky stage set right out of the Grand Guignol; it's also where Jud imparts onto an afterlife-obsessed Ellie that it's "a place of rest where the dead come to speak," though not literally, he insists. This, however, hasn't been the audience's first foray into the cemetery, for the movie's opening-credits sequence, with ultra-arty camera angles and Elliot Goldenthal's ramped-up music score, makes it clear, in case we haven't already managed to derive from the title, that this is the story's centerpiece. Only it's really not. After the Creed family cat is found dead at the side of the road by Louis while the wife and kids are away for Thanksgiving holiday in Chicago, Jud, sympathizing with Louis's having to break the news to Ellie, has Louis take the cat along with them to a place well past the cemetery through a mountain pass to an ancient Indian burial ground a la The Shining, where Jud (pardon the expression) lets the cat out of the bag that this long-kept-secretive location is where what gets buried comes back alive. The cat, ironically, though not subtly, named Church, does make its way back to the Creed homestead a short time later rank-smelling and vicious-tempered a la Cujo. And with Gage having once already wandered into that dangerous road of menacing semis a la Maximum Overdrive, it's not long before Louis buries another corpse in that land of rancid resurrection.

Because King's novel took the time to root the story in initial domestic docility with three-dimensional characters, the fantastical aspects of the horror never ventured into outlandishness -- the author's greatest gift has always been his uncanny ability at making the unthinkable/unspeakable of palpable organic clarity because he ties the various elements together both dramatically and thematically. Unfortunately, director Lambert is the polar opposite of a storyteller. She's not above resorting to third-rate "Boo!" tactics like having the cat spring out at Louis from out of nowhere on numerous occasions, and in the steadfast effort to keep us in the most frazzled apprehensive state throughout, she absolutely smothers the proceedings with enough visual diarrhea so as to make a Ken Russell or Nicolas Roeg avant-garde endeavor seem positively restrained. In two scenes, one at Gage's medical building where a student with a bashed-in skull from an automobile accident has been brought in, and the other at a church where Gage's memorial service is being held, Lambert, with her spastic overactive camerawork, uses a spherical lens with soft-focus lighting that make us certain we're watching dream sequences only to brought up short that they're not, and we can't begin figuring just what effect she's after. She never wants to touch ground, to build and shape the scenes for a valid artistic purpose; so her stunted film sense becomes a serious liability when we're asked to take the story seriously. How can we when unintentional laughter arises every time a Greek-chorus of a character named Pascow, the ghost of the fatally-injured student Louis tried to save, pops in now and again to warn the good doctor that bad things are on the horizon? And when Gage returns as something of a mini-Jason Voorhees hacking away with daddy's scalpel, he's more laughable than menacing. But King doesn't escape blame, either. He wrote the script, after all, and due the jettisoning of some crucial passages, the holes in the plot are gaping. Knowing the burial ground is a manifestation of evil, Jed still introduces Louis to it and encourages him to bury the cat there. And even after Jed relates a decades-old story of his childhood best friend having been buried there and returning home a mad-as-a-hatter, blood-lusting zombie that eventually had to be put down with fire, Louis still proceeds to bury Gage there. (He tells Jed beforehand he'll put Gage down if he comes back wrong, but taking into account Church the cat and Jed's best friend, why on earth would the result would be otherwise?)

Pet Sematary is an endless string of absurdities so obvious and dumbfounding it makes King's previous complaints of unsatisfying movie adaptations of his words, well, spurious. This is his first screenplay of one of his novels, and according to the credits he was the sole credited writer, so why is it such a bastardized, butchered version? It wasn't like King was never on the set during production -- he has a cameo role as the reverend at Gage's graveside service. And to go with an utter incompetent like Lambert whose background, in addition to the abominable Siesta, consisted of three Madonna music videos and a television documentary of the rock band The Go-Go�s? From a De Palma to a Kubrick to a Cronenberg to a Carpenter to a Teague to a...Lambert? The damn camera never seems to be in the right place; the boxy 1.85:1-aspect-ratio compositions look like blown up from TV-ratio 1.33:1; and the imagery, especially with the hokey use of color gels, amateurish. And most of the cast are of little help, though it would've been taken something by the likes of divine intervention to have gotten something substantial from them given their shoddy characters. But two manage to come through: Gwynne, with a credible though not always decipherable Maine accent, has some endearing gruffness; and Berdahl gives one of the freshest, most intuitive child performances of recent years -- she occasionally makes us feel we're at a real movie. As the hero, Midkiff starts out in fine control (I liked how he understatedly got through a scene where his atheistic Louis is cautious in assuring his daughter that Church has a one-hundred-percent chance of surviving a minor operation at the veterinary clinic), but later on down the line when deep-seated mental anguish is called for, he just isn't up to it. (Badly needed was the kind of volatile intensity James Woods provided as the nerve-racked, nicotine-deprived daddy in the Quitters, Inc. episode of the excellent 1985 King anthology Cat's Eye.) Pet Sematary the novel certainly fulfilled the requirements of its genre in scaring the living daylights out of you, but it also pummeled us with moral and spiritual quandaries that held no easy answers, leading up to a denouement of devastating power. About the only aspect of the movie that comes close to genuinely unnerving is a flashback from Rachel's childhood of her horrendously deformed, spinal-meningitis-inflicted bed-ridden sister whose ultra-religious parents deprived her of hospital care. With its unapologetic grotesqueness, Mary Lambert finally finds her level.

If you haven't seen the best of the King adaptations, the David Cronenberg-directed "The Dead Zone," please do.

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originally posted: 08/26/12 07:07:34
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User Comments

7/25/17 Chaz Walter One of the scariest horror films ever made. Zelda scared the HELL out of me as a kid. 5 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell the book is alot better the movie is ok 2 stars
2/05/13 Bryan Intermittently effective, but over-the-top; ripe for remaking. 3 stars
9/20/12 Mike Miller I agree not one of his better movies. 3 stars
9/01/12 Sean Harrison I totally agree, a completely forgettable horror flick. 1 stars
8/29/12 Antonia Valenzuela Up to this date it is still one of my husband and my favorites!!! 5 stars
8/27/12 David Pollastrini The book was better! 3 stars
1/04/11 Gerard One of the worst King films. 1 stars
10/30/10 Jeronimus Bosch Garbage! 1 stars
7/22/10 brian Are you serious? Someone thinks this worthwhile? Wow. 1 stars
2/22/10 Rita Dale Midkiff - where is he? 4 stars
7/08/09 *Holy_J@lapeno* Kinda corny to watch now but for the most part the movie has a cool meaning and cool story. 4 stars
10/01/08 Shaun Wallner Scary Story!! 5 stars
1/05/08 Pamela White thrilling but when kids kill it is ucky 4 stars
3/03/07 David Pollastrini The book was better 2 stars
12/18/06 Ellen Lopes Disappointing. I read the book first, and that is a mistake, because the book is the bomb ! 3 stars
12/15/06 Richard Paquette lame! 2 stars
12/03/06 Nix Not as scary as the book 3 stars
6/08/06 Peggy Doty too scary 4 stars
2/12/06 Maz Never screamed so loud during a film! Class! 5 stars
11/06/05 David Fowler Decent, though beautifully directed King adap. Fred Gwynne IS BRILLIANT!!!! 3 stars
9/13/05 Total Crap Squeemish at times and disturbing makes this movie worth watching. 4 stars
7/19/05 Ex-Fan Terrible just Terrible 1 stars
10/11/04 Angel awsome 5 stars
7/17/04 J Kings most creepiest movie of all time!!!! 5 stars
6/18/04 Andre Bellucco very good, however the book is always better 4 stars
5/11/04 John another failed King adaptaion 2 stars
5/08/04 Calvre Tumidaya no for more,It's SCARY!!! 1 stars
4/13/04 Hal Galikakick Fred Gwynn is the actor from the Munsters, Fred Ward is Remo Williams. 4 stars
3/28/04 Tracy My favorite horror movie! i couldn't wait to own it. :) 5 stars
1/12/04 Caiphn Probably the best of the King movies. 4 stars
11/05/03 American Slasher Goddess Not extremely involving, wooden acting. 2 stars
10/14/03 Two-G Freaky 5 stars
9/29/03 jimmy d wow it was good but i shit myself in the theater:( 5 stars
9/29/03 Kandice Lewis This movie is tight and the book is even better!!! 5 stars
9/19/03 Samuel Justus VERY SCARY! 5 stars
7/27/03 J Its really good. 4 stars
7/22/03 Double G Great Movie 5 stars
7/12/03 Alice very good 5 stars
7/04/03 Dave Hopman Great creepy movie! Avoid the sequel because it's awfully bad! 5 stars
4/23/03 me me i got scared when i was 7, got scare again when when i was 12, now im 20 and im stillscared 4 stars
4/01/03 Luke Skywalker the book is <much> better 2 stars
12/31/02 Jack Sommersby A low-grade, amatuerish adaptation of a brilliant novel. 1 stars
12/28/02 Sarah Loved this movie, but the sequal is better. 5 stars
12/16/02 B R 5 stars
12/08/02 Michael Flynn ***1/2: Stephen King's scary book becomes a chilling scarefest. Very faithful to the book. 4 stars
10/28/02 Anne C. Little Miko Hughes is too cute to be scary, and I can't see D. Crosby as anyone but Tasha 4 stars
10/20/02 Charles Tatum Creepy as hell, avoid sequel 5 stars
9/02/02 y2mckay So-So King book made into So-So movie. Has it's creepy moments. 3 stars
8/23/02 Dark Barn The movie is a joke. The book is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 times better. 1 stars
6/27/02 Kyle Terrifying, but the book is WAY better. 4 stars
4/04/02 cat some seriously good acting from a 4yr old Miko Hughes, he's still a very good actor at 15 5 stars
10/26/01 Sophia Ellis It gave me goosebumps 4 stars
6/13/01 King Jackass Great adaption. Stephen King himself is the priest at the funeral! 5 stars
6/10/01 Turtle Scariest movie ever.... But terrible and gory. 1 stars
4/12/01 Andrew Carden Kind of silly, but watchable movie. 3 stars
2/09/01 Dark Sol Music and suspence made the movie terrifying, otherwise it would be funny. 4 stars
9/16/00 Robin I thought the scariest part of this movie was the Mother's flashbacks to her sister's death 4 stars
2/06/00 Kyle Broflovski READ THE FUCKING BOOK, MOTHERFUCKERS!!! It's TRULY terrifying!!! 4 stars
1/15/00 hum im pretty sure fred gwynne was in the munsters. first part of film is interesting 3 stars
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  02-Jun-1989 (R)
  DVD: 26-Sep-2006



Directed by
  Mary Lambert

Written by
  Stephen King

  Dale Midkiff
  Denise Crosby
  Fred Gwynne
  Brad Greenquist
  Michael Lombard
  Miko Hughes

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