Pet Sematary (1989)

*. One of the more depressing parts about running this blog is going back to movies that I first (and perhaps last) saw some twenty-five or thirty years ago and realizing they’re not as good as I remember them being. In some cases it’s just that the times have changed, in others I have. But still.
*. Pet Sematary is a bit different. I actually didn’t like it much at the time, mainly because I was really upset at the way they presented the victim of spinal meningitis as a monster. Today I have a more relaxed view on this. Stephen King has never shied away from grounding his horror in the things that scared us as kids and then making them real. So people with disabilities, or even the elderly, are presented as monsters in his work. Beloved family pets turn against you and there really is something hiding under the bed. Fair enough. I don’t think horror, any more than comedy, should hold anything sacred.
*. There are good things in Pet Sematary. The script (also by King) translates the novel well and serves up what should have been several wonderful sequences. I remember laughing with friends for years over some of the lines. “The ground is sour.” “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” “Sometimes dead is better.” We laughed, but we remembered them because they’re great lines. Fred Gwynne is a delight as the old-timer Jud and Miko Hughes is outstanding as Gage, looking a bit like a real-life Chucky doll when he comes back from the dead (a resemblance noted by director Mary Lambert on her DVD commentary).

*. But while I still love the novel (a reimagining of the W. W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw” that was all the better for being one of King’s bleakest efforts), the movie now seems like a let down. It looks like most of the King movies from the 1980s, which is to say like a cheap movie-of-the-week put together by a director who didn’t really understand suspense or horror. That blue light that comes beaming out from the beyond. That soft focus used for the flashbacks. Ugh.
*. Apparently George Romero was originally slated to direct but he had to pull out. Lambert does keep things moving along with a story that is a really slow burn but I’m not sure she was the right choice to fill in. King’s core anxiety over the breakdown of the family isn’t developed much, jump scares courtesy of Church the cat are a lame and overused cliché, and the “good angel” character of Pascow (who seems modeled on Jack in An American Werewolf in London) lightens the mood too much. This should be a darker story.

*. The other big problem is Dale Midkiff, who just doesn’t seem to have the chops to pull off such a demanding role: the man falling to pieces before our eyes and becoming progressively insane. We really need to feel for Louis in this movie, to buy into his despair, and Midkiff plays him too much as a blank. His howls of anguish over the death of Gage — another cliché that is repeated — aren’t enough. In fact, given how silly they seem now, like Kirk screaming out for Khan, they are counterproductive.

*. So like I say, Pet Sematary is a mixed memory for me. The fact is, I do remember it. It’s a great story and filled with passages that play better in my memory than they did seeing them again. For example, in the final act, which the movie is all a build-up to, we have the appearance of Gage in his sinister old-tyme get-up, or grinning down at us from the attic. But such moments are all immediately undercut. The next thing we know Gage has turned into a doll that’s been thrown at Louis, leading to another laughable moment.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake. With the success of the remake of It — another of King’s better books that was a respectable TV movie around the same time as Pet Sematary came out — it may happen. [Note: The remake was released in 2019.] King may become one of those authors whose work endures by being constantly updated and reinterpreted for the tastes and concerns of following generations. That’s better than a long chain of sequels anyway.

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