Monday, 3 March 2014

(Stephen King's) Pet Sematary - review

1989 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Picture yourself: the pragmatic rational doctor, trained in science to deal with fact and quantifiable truth. There's a chance your darling daughter's little fuzzball won't wake up from being anaesthetised? She needs to know. Now, picture you've brought your young family from Chicago to live next to the world's most dangerous un-family friendly road, complete with nearby cemetery chock full of all of the loyal waggy-tailed, whisp-whiskered and bushy-eyed companions that'd even dared to recognise its existence.

Stay with me. A short while later, your young daughters most favourite little fur ball is smashed and crushed by the side of the road. Not a stretch I'll grant you, as what with the road, the cemetery; little Church's (short for Winston Churchill) road-kill ticket was assured from the start, but what would you do as said pragmatic father if you were feeling sad and guilty? I'd probably say agreeing to follow your crazy old neighbour (Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall) to an ancient native Indian (Micmac - though King made this up) burial ground in the hope it'll be resurrected isn't the first thing that would come to mind, but that's exactly what Dr Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) decides to do.

I want to get one thing clear, I did like Pet Sematary; it's just that for the great yarn Stephen King has undoubtedly weaved, there's just too many decisions like this that stand out as bafflingly naive and implausible, and too many events, mostly unfortunate, that stand out as excruciatingly easy to avoid. I mean, we all want the best for our children and would do anything to not see tear soaked little faces gazing back up at us, but it's one thing to make a bit of a fuss at the passing of the family moggy with an impromptu ceremony at the bottom ofthe garden followed by lemonade, and another to take a long trek in to the back of beyond with the hope ancient magic and superstition can perform a miracle.

On the one hand director Mary Lambert's adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 fantasy / horror novel played out pretty much as I expected. With the look and feel of a direct to TV dark drama that almost, other than for a long gratuitous shot of the head wound of a young student who gets hit by truck, felt tame and moderate enough to be pitched at the family audience. There's a dark secret path, mystical lights, the pet cemetery replete with bad spelling, a crazy old man with crazy tales and a family cat returned but not entirely 'right' with the hint of darkness and evil. It could easily have meandered a bit like this then ended with the cat asleep and at peace and the family taking on board the moral lesson that the natural cycle of life and death should be respected. I was, I'll admit, slightly bemused by the R rating at this point, but I really needn't have been.

Pet Sematary becomes a very dark and disturbing film very quickly. Despite the emphasis on the pets in the cemetery, Church's return is really just the warm up act for the turn of events that transpires when, despite the myriad of warning that the road IS REALLY FUCKING DANGEROUS, their young son manages for a second time to wander right into the path of a 60mph death truck that never for one second considers slowing despite the houses and people present.

As I've said, that Dr Creed yet again decides to ignore all the warnings is really a bit of an insult to the intelligence of the viewer but doesn't half make for a tense finale full of murder, bloodshed and genuine jumps. Gage, the returning spirit is a revenant with a capital V for vengeance. Despite being so young his return is accompanied by new found strength, knowledge, magic (for want of a better word), and a strong desire to sadistically murder and play with those he knew. The sweet little boy is gone, instead in full Evil Dead / Exorcist style we have a seeming insatiable demonic force, though it's never explicitly said, interested in using Gage's body to perform all manner of evil and the effect is stark and genuinely uncomfortable. They're resurrected and not reanimated as we get to see both cat and boy re-killed but they're definitely not back to full health either as they come back with the full appearance and odour they were buried with.

I'll mention a flashback to the previous person resurrected at the burial ground, where a young Timmy Baterman (Peter Stader) a returning veteran gets to stagger around extremely zombie like, striking, eating and groaning at neighbour and family alike; there's an insinuation this relative coherence could be down to how long they were dead before reburial but it's not explicit. I'll also mention Brad Greenquist as Victor Pascow the friendly ghost. Because Dr Creed tried to save him early in the film Pascow has taken himself to visiting the family to try and save them from their fate. It doesn't detract from proceedings and it's all acted well allowing for some memorable scenes and sequences; it's just I'm not really sure it adds much either. For all his screen time his actions are ultimately redundant and one can't help feeling slightly bemused by his whole inclusion as the credits roll.

Taken with a huge spoon of unquestioning acceptance Stephen King's Pet Sematary is a good horror tale in the best traditions of Tales from the Crypt or even Goosebumps. It's incongruous and divergent narrative is distracting but does play with some deeply disturbing ideas and some genuinely gruesome and gratuitous slashing and killing that while not quite up there with the surreal exploitative zombie nonsense coming out of Italy the decade before, still stands out. With a touch of The Exorcist, a touch of Evil Dead, and a touch of kids Saturday night horror it's a bit of a mixed bag but one with solid acting, solid production and one I actually rather enjoyed, probably more than I feel I should have done.

While it is quite hard to take something that seriously when you feel it could all have been easily avoided by merely putting up a fence, watching your kids when they're playing next to a road and choosing not to resurrected loved ones in ground deemed cursed and evil. Still, I'm well used to watching films firmly tongue in cheek these days, and definitely more lenient when there's undead death munchers involved. So let off the hook somewhat I'll recommended it, 7/10



  1. Love the movie, although, my one beef with it has always been the fact that the kid would EXPLODE if hit by that truck... he wouldn't just softly land on the grass dead and intact.

    1. Ha, I thought exactly the same and figured it was all the glue and putty used to stick him together that gave him such a plastic, almost fake doll like appearance when he came back.