|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 19 September 2000|
For a while, Paramount was turning out approximately one Stephen King adaptation a year; one or two were very good ("The Dead Zone," for example); most were bad. "Pet Sematary" is in the latter group; it's bottomed out only by its own sequel; even "Graveyard Shift" is more fun.
And that is exactly what "Pet Sematary" is missing: any sense of fun whatsoever, even scary horror movie-type fun. It wasn't one of King's best novels in the first place, as the story is grim, oppressive and depressing, focussing entirely too much on death and dying. The characters in the movie are ciphers; in the novel, at least, King tried hard to make the behavior of the central character -- which is hard to explain or justify -- have some kind of psychological justification. The movie's script, by King himself, jettisons this almost entirely, while retaining unnecessary elements, such as the ghastly-looking but benign ghost of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), who tries to warn Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), the central character. The movie would have been much better served by dropping this character altogether and adding more material about just why Creed behaves in such an insane irresponsible manner.
Mary Lambert directed (and did the sequel as well) in a cold, cynical, soulless manner. There's a kind of hermetically-sealed feeling to the movie -- no air gets in, and hardly any humanity, either. Fortunately, Fred Gwynne plays elderly neighbor Jud Crandall, and his warm performance helps alleviate some of the chill of the rest of the movie. Not enough, though. If a director is incapable of making us feel any affection for a little girl and her pet cat, maybe another line of work is in order. And this is true whether the director was incapable of generating such warmth, or simply decided not to try for it.
Louis Creed, his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), and their two children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), about six, and Gage (Miko Hughes), about two, move to a new home somewhere in New England, judging from Gwynne's accent. (And King's tendency to set everything in Maine.) It's a grand old house, but it's immediately next to a country highway down which tanker trucks roar at frequent intervals.
Noticing that Ellie has a handsome gray cat, Church, Jud takes the family into the nearby woods where locals have for years maintained an unofficial "Pet Sematary" (or so reads the sign). Lately, a lot of dogs and cats have been killed by those trucks; Jud realizes it might well happen to Church, too.
And while Rachel and the children are in Chicago visiting her family for Thanksgiving, Church is indeed killed by a passing truck. So Jud takes Louis on a long, long hike into the woods behind the pet cemetery, to an old Indian burial ground, and instructs him to bury Church there.
A few days later, Louis is stunned to find Church, battered and dirty, alive again, even if his personality has changed very much for the worse. It's way beyond mean into sadistic: the cat throws a dead rat into Louis' bathwater. Jud explains that he was told about this burial ground when he himself was a boy, and he used it to resurrect his beloved dog, even though the dog was erratically vicious when he came back from the dead.
So why did he tell Louis about the resurrection ground? Jud is presented as a very kind man, glad to have neighbors again; he knows from personal experience that what comes back from the real pet cemetery isn't the same as what was buried there. Did he want the revived cat to harm the Creeds? Jud's behavior makes very little sense, especially when he already knows "sometimes, death is better."
And then a truck kills Gage. In the novel, this nearly devastates both Louis and Rachel; in the movie, they more or less take it in stride. So why then does Louis bury Gage in the revival ground? The result is a little boy zombie-vampire, who's sneering snarl is about as terrifying as a teddy bear. A photo of little Miko Hughes in full snarl is included on the back of the DVD container, perhaps as a warning.
Another element King included from his novel that just does not pay off in the film is that as a child, Rachel had to tend to her sister, slowly dying of a degenerative disease. About the time that Louis is bringing Gage back from the dead, Rachel begins experiencing visions of her sister screaming curses at her. As with Victor Pascow -- a student who, like Gage, was killed by a truck -- this should have been dropped; in fact, neither should have been there in the first place.
There's something particularly arbitrary about the horrors of "Pet Sematary." Why do these terrible things happen to these particular people? Not every horror tale is or should be a morality play, but there needed to be some kind of explanation, even if metaphoric, as to why Louis Creed and his family are put through these ghastly events. Particularly in view of the fact that Louis makes not one, not two, but three pilgramages to that resurrection graveyard.
The movie has an unpleasantly cramped feeling; it all seems to be taking place in a very narrow, confined area, and Peter Stein's cinematography does little to alleviate this. Here's the Creed house, there's Jud's house, here's the highway, over there's the Pet Sematary, behind it a long ways off, is the resurrection place. And Louis works over there at the university hospital. That's about it.
It's hard to evade the feeling that Mary Lambert and possibly Stephen King have little use for cats; Church is treated as nothing more than a plot device. But then again, that's true of almost every character in the film, except for Jud -- and he stands out because Fred Gwynne played the role. The script and performances do not make the Creeds into a close-knit family; even the children are boring.
And yet "Pet Sematary" was a modest success. Granted, the basic idea is truly horrible, but it's horrible in the wrong way. Boris Karloff always referred to the movies he was associated with as "terror" movies rather than "horror," since horror implies revulsion. While "Pet Sematary" does have a few revolting scenes, like Pascow's crushed head, and poor Church, frozen to the grass, it does indeed rouse more horror than terror. It's not very frightening -- it's not easy to make a two-year-old boy into a figure of terror -- but it does generate a feeling of genuine dread. One of the most frightening concepts is our loved ones turning against us, and there's the ghost of that remaining here. But the script doesn't exploit this; Gage doesn't return to be gradually revealed as a monster -- he's a killer the second he gets back from the resurrection grounds. The movie would have been far more disturbing and frightening if the resurrectees had only slowly showed their true colors.
The DVD seems as perfunctory as the movie; the extras don't even include a trailer. It's well put together, but that's the minimum expected from DVDs from major companies. The sound is crisp and clean -- those trucks really roar by -- but the music is routine "scary movie stuff." And this is a routine scary movie.
If you liked this movie you might also enjoy, Pet Sematary II