Worth A Look: 31.51%
Pretty Bad: 8.22%
Total Crap: 21.92%
2 reviews, 61 user ratings
|Pet Sematary (1989)
by Marc Kandel
“Pet Sematary” is the movie that broke my nerve. Sure, I still have nightmares where I’m being stalked by Regan MacNeil from “The Exorcist,” (but I’ve started to pummel the vicious little bitch real good over the past years since I bulked up- damn, beating up kids is fun), and I have to watch “Candyman” between my fingers due to a slightly incapacitating bee phobia (one that once had me jump out of a moving car that I was driving).But Pet Sematary was the one where I actually attempted to flee the theater, unable to tolerate the palpable dread and nerve slicing terror, leading to me being physically detained by my brothers after I put two and two together plot-wise and decided I didn’t want to see the inevitable conclusion…
"If Zelda fails to fright, you must be a Jason X kinda guy. Loser."
And then the whole shebang skidded to a limp halt, a relief for a freshman in high school still young enough to hesitate before walking into the shadows in the back of the house while taking out the trash after dark (I’m still not crazy about an out of place creak in the house after the sundown), a painful disappointment for a growing cinema fan who was astounded to behold a horror film so nearly perfect in its gift of fear, fumbled in its climax and childishly obvious in its dénouement. The ending is fractionally similar to what Stephen King wrote, as is a healthy portion of the script, nonetheless it left a bad taste in my mouth in contrast to the chilling pace and breathless fright the movie suspended for virtually all of its running time.
The Creed family, Husband and doctor Louis, wife Rachel, daughter Ellie, toddler son Gage and pet cat Church, move into a cozy Maine town and discover through the loss of Church and the misguided intervention of their fatherly neighbor, Jud Crandall, an ancient horror nestled in the nearby woods that feeds on human insecurity and the subconscious desire to cheat death and grief, bringing destruction, murder and worse, abomination, through false promises of immortality. The story is an extended version of “The Monkey’s Paw” where there is no third wish to banish the revenant at the doorstep, instead throwing open the protective portal to allow egress for the thing standing there in the mist and dark.
The movie entire is a virtual grab-bag of horror concepts: the walking dead, fell beasts of the dark woods, cannibalism, possession, and monsterism. This is one of Stephen King’s most original works in how he uses every dark idea, and director Mary Lambert packs in visceral, chilling imagery that colors King’s imaginative exploration into those secretive speculations haunting mankind about death and the dead; it remains an effective morality tale that grief and loss may be a necessity, grave consequences visited on those defying nature, unable to let go of their loved ones when they pass.
The film comes within inches of the book’s greatness and stands as one of the most frightening, cruel-hearted pictures in the horror pantheon, providing every form of scare imaginable: pounces out of the quiet darkness, the chilling stare of unholy things, the dread of the unseen presence lurking at arm’s length, the squirming horror of painful, cruel death, the repulsiveness of the dead, and the white knuckled suspense of the lurking invader into those places considered safe and secure.
Many of the film’s most distressing moments are not even supernatural manifestations; a soul-wrenching, tragic accident on a busy road, a fight between two characters at a funeral where a coffin is jostled and we see the briefest glimpse of a pale hand as the lid jumps open- a nasty display of desecration and impropriety at an event we know to be solemn and sacred; This is not a safe film. But the conclusion of the tale is a garish neon bullet train roaring across a glaring chrome monorail whereas the picture up till this point was a soot black locomotive crawling inexorably through spiny rails silvered by icy moonlight. The lean towards shock and splatter over chilling catharsis, loses the traits that made the film nigh unbearable in its heartbreaking buildup and subsequent descent into tragedy, blasphemy, and madness.
Spoilers await those who continue onward. This is a film I’m prone to discuss as well as review as I find the concept endlessly fascinating and the cinematic execution simultaneously admirable and lamentable.
The Micmac Indian Burial Ground that lies past the crudely built, childishly misspelled “Pet Sematary” can revive the dead- a tantalizing prospect for the grief-stricken. The resurrected results are so abhorrent and wicked that the decision to repeatedly utilize the power of the burial ground stretches credulity. Every good con lets the mark win at least one game to suck him in for a bigger payoff, right?
Stephen King (undertaking the transition from book to screenplay) makes some questionable yet understandable choices about adapting the film versus the book in terms of the themes explored and plot points streamlined. An example: In the novel, Louis Creed’s neighbor and friend, Jud Crandall tells Louis of his pet dog he once raised from the grave as a boy. The dog returns sluggish, stinking of the earth, its fatal wounds still oozing, but the animal is not actively evil, simply diminished, positing that a similar resurrection might be equally benign. The film’s Spot, however, is a snarling, menacing animal indicating that what comes up from the ground is malignant to the extreme with no exceptions, and the same holds true for the resurrected Church, though to King’s credit, its actions indicate an intelligence capable of mimicking the original cat’s behavior at least with the more unsuspecting members of the family, reserving its evil attentions for its time alone with Louis, to great effect- even as a cat lover, I loathed the post-resurrection Church and longed for its destruction.
Louis’ later actions might have flowed better had the same scene opted not to take the “Cujo” factor (the fact that the dog, a Jack Russell if memory serves, is hardly a St. Bernard does help). But it's a tough argument: the scene is frightening in all the right ways; Tell me your spine doesn’t crawl when Jud’s terror-stricken mother sees Spot’s silhouette through her hanging laundry and screams “Jud! Come get your dog! He stinks of the earth you buried him in!” The sheets billow in the wind revealing a stained, emaciated beast, eyes filled with hatred, teeth bared. Going for the extra scare of a dangerous rather than a damaged animal, it’s a stretch that Louis, knowing Jud’s stories alongside Church’s obvious malevolence, even at his weakest would opt to take the next step of burying a human, but nonetheless we watch breathlessly as he commits this very action, with predictably awful results.
Another section of the novel has Louis justifying his use of the burial ground, by announcing his intent to examine the resurrected being and check for abnormalities- a thorough, scientific examination whereupon he convinces himself he will clinically, efficiently and humanely euthanize the being if he detects any aberration. The passage is horribly beautiful because the reader knows this plan to be positively ludicrous—Louis, already in a state of shock and mental deterioration, still plays at the role of Doctor, believing he can assert control over the uncontrollable, and the reader, along for the ride, is powerless to point out the grievous, deadly flaws in Creed’s logic.
Had the filmmakers opted some sort of monologue to this effect (Louis’ mental state at this point would have supported such a speech, even to himself), we might have a better understanding of his drives, to say nothing of a fascinating scene. Nonetheless, we completely understand the desperate love that drives him to undertake his path, despite the certainty that anything exhumed from the Micmac earth will be abhorrent, bestial, and menacing, no matter what its background or circumstances. We can hardly crucify the film on this stumble in logic can we? We’ve seen far more idiotic and counterintuitive behaviors from the average character in a slasher film.
I’ll bring up one more book-to-film omission that I found disappointing: the removal of the secrets of the dead. The revived beings of the novel are loquacious when they want to be— vomiting secrets to their friends and family about those truths meant to be taken in the grave, the lies, the deceptions, the tales left untold. From their moldering mouths, these secrets may defy accuracy or context, but they are also grounded in some twisted truth, and it makes for a far more discomfiting being that the simpler staggering zombie one of the film’s characters becomes upon revival. Gone is the burning, wicked intelligence that stares into the souls of those it encounters. A later resurrection does display cunning, taunting intellect, but we are cheated of a great confrontational scene in the book, replaced by a stalking kill from a monster striking from, appropriately, under the bed. It’s a mixed trade, still supplying the scares but minus the devastation of disquieting revelations and awful chitterings of the uncanny.
I recall a lot of vitriol leveled at Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby in reviews (not necessarily on this site), both whom I found perfectly acceptable in conveying the love, grief, and dwindling sanity the roles require. Just look at Midkiff’s face and listen to the tremor in his voice when his daughter inquires about her cat (whom he has just buried), asks her father to kiss it for her and he replies through tears and a wire thin attempt at a smile, “Yuck. Kiss your own cat.”. Or when said cat is dispatched for the final time, and Louis, now inches from the line between rational and unsane, howls at the beast’s now lifeless corpse, “Play dead Church. Be dead. BE DEAD!”, as the tears come. Midkiff sold the role for me, a rational, decent man confronted with the unthinkable and unfathomable. Of course, for you true fanboys out there, imagine if casting had stayed with the first choice for Louis Creed—none other than Bruce Campbell himself? That alone is enough to make me pine for a remake.
Mary Lambert took over the project when George Romero ostensibly was unable to extricate himself from Monkey Shines (though there are rumors of creative differences with a producer as well). Lambert starts off well, the atmosphere is remarkably heavy with dread, you can practically feel the Maine chill, even when the sun shines, and her shots in and of the Pet Sematary and the Micmac Burial ground are still and ethereal- in the first, the camera gently weaves through the high grass and still stones and in the latter, aerial tracking shots warp and whelm the perspective and we feel as if we truly do stand at the threshold of a thin gateway.
Lambert’s use of close ups and claustrophobic close-in shots as we follow Rachel Creed’s memory back to her excruciating childhood terrors, following her eye up the stairs to a door into a room where someone waits for her are nigh unwatchable, and we can smell the sickness- the camphor and piss and sour sweat and we feel Rachel’s heart pounding in fear through a lens that will not look away. Also I should make special mention of a scene where Louis enters Jud Crandall’s home, beholding a rotted, festering lair, foul and putrescent, the dizzying physical manifestation of the wrong that has been allowed to leak out into our world.
Unfortunately, the climax is hurried and a character that should be hideous, revolting and unnerving ends as a rather 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 very 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… run over by a truck.
The final moment of confrontation between father and resurrected son hits the mark poignantly as Louis sends his boy back into the void 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 moments prior don’t quite fire the way they should, but it's a haunting scene, though we do not see the real Gage’s personality surface as it did in the book for one devastating moment as the cannibal spirit within departs Gage’s corporal shell—its parallel to The Shining where the novel allows us to see the real Jack Torrance emerge from the wrathful being pursuing his family for but a moment, before being swallowed by the darkness of the Overlook, a choice excised by Kubrick, whose vision did not account for the decency within Jack emerging long enough to help his own son.
Had the movie sustained the disturbing atmosphere, and then ended with Eliot Goldsmith’s chilling re-use of the boys choir sung Amityville Horror Suite (originally intended for the Exorcist until replaced by Tubular Bells), I still might have died of fright. But the film opts for the atypical 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 what Stephen King wrote (the book’s ending simply reunites Louis and his wife and the last line of the book gives us all manner of implications and disturbing imagery). This spelled-out horror send off in the final seconds left a bad taste in my mouth in contrast to the chilling pace and quiet fright that compromises the lion's share of the film. If the film had not been so quick to spell out the ending for us, the walk back into the light of the lobby might not have been so quick, as I would probably have to keep looking over my shoulder to see if something was behind me.
At this time there is talk of a remake of Pet Sematary, to be released in 2008, but I foresee an adolescent-targeted PG-13 pussy fest neither scary nor thought provoking.
The damn shame is that all that's needed are some tweaks to the original. Replacing Fred Gwynne as the immensely likeable Jud seems nigh impossible (though I’m sure James Cromwell could do in a pinch- making us forget his awful Chaz Hestonesque turn as the obscenely rewritten Father Donald Callahan in the wretched, pc-heavy, oversimplified TNT Salem’s Lot mini). And how on earth could we get a Zelda Goldman any more heart stopping than the one given us by Andrew Hubatsek, a man who stepped into the role when casting was unable to produce a woman emaciated enough to convey the horrible deformity and sickness that twists not just her spine by her mind?Pet Sematary is 9/10ths of a superb film, dreadful haunts and night terrors failing in the end as painful tension and shambling evil fall to slasher clichés (the most boring, pedestrian horror), and a weak parting shot that undermines the disturbing themes and unsettling conclusions of the story.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2367&reviewer=358
originally posted: 12/15/06 00:49:11