Pet Sematary (1989)

Directed by Mary Lambert

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“Sometimes dead is bedduh.”

Pet Sematary is both horrifying and awful.  As a story it is so melodramatic, relentless and populates its thin premise with absurd characters who struggle to convey the depths of their purported emotions.  The film, as a result, uses cheap horror to make up for its disturbingly nonsensical characters, and aside from individual inspired moments the whole suffers as a result.

The story is this: A young attractive married couple, Louis and Rachel (Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby) with two young children moves from the big city to the pleasant countryside.  Within minutes of arriving their daughter, Ellie, will fall out of a tire swing, and their toddler son, Gage, will nearly get run over by a passing Semi.  He is pulled to safety by the elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), a serene but sinister sounding old man who will act as their spirit guide, warning them about two things: the speeding semis which pass by their road daily and the nearby pet cemetery.

Based on the low moving fog, which hugs the ground like carpet, and the movie’s title, we know some sh*t’s going to go down with the pet cemetery.  When Ellie’s cat, Church, is hit by a passing truck, Jud brings Louis up the mountain to a special burial ground to lay the cat to rest.  He won’t explain why, but he knows there’s a power to this place, and the next morning Louis is shocked to find the cat alive and (mostly) well.

Despite Church’s renewed vigor, there is something off about the cat.  He’s not quite a zombie cat, but he’s more aggressive and filmed with lights illuminating his eyes, which tells you “hey look, this cat’s evil now.”

Everything seems to be going alright until the day young Gage Creed wanders into the street and is pummeled by yet another truck.  It’s a truly horrendous scene because of how predictable and yet disturbing it is.  Pet Sematary has a knack for going to places other movies might not but doing it in a very clumsy manner, so that you know what’s going to happen from a mile away.

Now, I say that this movie sucks because I think it does, however there are a few particularly horrifying moments that are hard to scrub from your brain.  One is at the boy’s funeral when a fight between Louis and his father-in-law knocks the tiny coffin to the ground and pops open for just a split second, revealing a pale green hand.  It’s so f*ckin’ creepy, and it’s almost as creepy as the most stomach churning part of the movie.

That scene comes in a very, very unmotivated flashback.  Louis explains death to Ellie while Rachel listens.  Then she reminds Louis that she hates death in a real exposition dump of a scene.  Why does she hate death, I mean more than the average person?  Well when she was eight years old she had a sister suffering from spinal meningitis, and holy f*ckin’ sh*t the flashback with her thirteen-year old sister (played by a grown man in extensive prosthetics) might be the most disturbing thing I have seen in a long time.

And that’s a shame!  Because while it is so creepy, it comes during a ridiculous detour from the plot which is motivated by nothing.  If you’re looking at the screenplay you would say to cut that scene out because it halts any forward momentum.

Here’s the moment in dialogue that leads to the horrifying flashback:

Rachel: “I heard you and Ellie tonight.”

Louis: “I thought you might have.  I know you don’t approve of the subject.”

R: “I just get scared, and you know me, when I get scared I get defensive.”

L: “Scared of what?  Dying?”

R: “My sister Zelda–“

L: “–I know she died, spinal meningitis.” 

R: “She was in the back bedroom like a dirty secret…”

And then Rachel explains her tortured relationship with her sister before she died, but that dialogue!  It’s so bad, how can we take these characters seriously?  First of all, Rachel mentions getting “defensive,” but she says so in such a calm voice.  Who the f*ck have we been watching this whole time?  She was in no way defensive.

Second, what she’s about to tell us is horrifying and would scar any child for life, let alone give her a serious complex with her parents, but none of that is hinted yet.  Everything is normal, other than that we’re told her parents and Louis don’t get along, and then we get this horror show dumped on us.  It’s completely out of the blue.

Third, and this is a small point, why do we need Louis telling us what she died of?  He’s just conveying the information they both already know so that the audience can here it, but c’mon, get that sh*t out of here.

Anyways, this movie is so, so bad, and yet in that way it’s kind of good!  It would be a great movie to watch with friends because parts of it are hilariously bad, and other parts are incredibly creepy.  It’s the perfect Halloween movie.

Now to focus on more of the good, this movie does a nice job of conveying the horror not just in the supernatural but so too in the protagonist’s actions.  Stephen King’s story quickly sets up the tools we have to play with so that when Louis’ son dies, we know he’s going to want to try and revive him, like he did with the cat.

If we didn’t already know it would be a bad idea, Jud Crandall makes it clear, telling us about when someone tried to bring his dead son back only to watch the man become a zombie intent on killing him.

So the horror is not just in the grotesque but in watching Louis struggle to deal with his son’s death and then make a decision that we know will end terribly.  Not only that but after things have gotten irreversibly bad, he makes a similar decision which only compounds the problem, but he’s so far gone at this point that rational thought is a pipe dream.

So the story is effective in its own way, but it’s just so poorly constructed to get us there.  My unasked for way of fixing this might be to have the son die of something less sudden than getting hit by a truck.  Yes the danger the trucks pose is established early, but it’s a very silly way to take the character out, mostly because it seems so avoidable (Louis just wasn’t paying attention).  Now, maybe Louis contracts a disease or has been suffering for a long time, and at a certain point his death feels inevitable.  It’s Rachel who advocates for them to move somewhere with the best doctors in the world who specialize in Gage’s disease, but Louis, himself a doctor, knows there’s no hope, and so he argues that they should stay in their small town.  Why?  Well he knows that the moment Gage dies he will just try to bring him to the pet cemetery to be revived.

Pet Sematary is just so strange.  Gage comes back to life as a child hellbent on murder, and when Louis has to re-kill him, itself a horrifying notion, the child wanders away saying, “no fair, no fair.”  God, I really can’t get a handle on this movie, it’s so strange.

Up Next: Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), RoboCop (1987), Memphis Belle (1990)

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