KING'S CORNER: Pet Sematary (1989)

Updated: Sep 12

Pet Sematary - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


Stephen King doesn't really strike you as someone who scares very easily. After all, his imagination brought us the haunted Overlook Hotel and the cosmic clown Pennywise who terrorised the town of Derry amongst so many other frightening stories. One of the main questions King gets asked time and time again through various interviews and Q&As is what scares him and although over time his answer has changed, according to the book 'Stephen King at the Movies' his reply to this question for the most part is emphatic in that he is frightened, "that one of my children will die."


Director: Mary Lambert

Starring: Dale Midriff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Miko Hughes


Written by: Stephen King

Produced by: Richard P. Rubinstein

Cinematography by: Peter Stein

Original Score by: Elliot Goldenthal


Synopsis:

After tragedy strikes, a grieving father discovers an ancient burial ground behind his home with the power to raise the dead.



Thoughts:

As noted in King's official website the origins of 'Pet Sematary' stretch back as far as 1979 when King was invited to serve as a writer-in-residence at the University of Maine. He and his family moved to a rented house nearby in Orrington which had a busy truck route next to it. It was a road that had claimed the lives of so many beloved family pets that a cemetery (or sematary as spelt on its sign) was created in the woods next to the house. Unfortunately his daughter's cat Smucky lost their life on the road so King was faced with the task of explaining their death to his daughter but his mind went elsewhere. He thought about what would happen if he buried the cat in the nearby graveyard and it came back the next day only different. After a near miss with a truck almost running over his son Owen on the same road he thought of what would happen if he did for a child what he had thought about doing for Smucky. As noted in the introduction to the novel he refers to this idea as the "...terrible what if” as the book would draw a lot of inspiration from the W. W. Jacobs short story, ‘The Monkey's Paw’ where desire is granted at a price.



Upon completing the novel King didn't know what to do with it. He had felt that he had gone too far as he notes in the introduction of the novel, "I found the result so startling and so gruesome that I put the book in a drawer, thinking it would never be published". It was a sentiment shared by his wife Tabitha who according to the book ‘Stephen King at the Movies’ found the book to be "too damn dark, too pessimistic". When King ended his relationship with his publisher Doubleday he still owed them a novel and the only story he had to hand was ‘Pet Sematary’. Despite her feelings on the book Tabitha insisted he submit it because although she wasn't a fan of the material she felt it was too good to never be read.



Less than a year after it was published the film rights to the book were snapped up by horror legend George A. Romero (who at this point had already collaborated with King on Creepshow) but he passed on it as he was busy with the production of ‘Monkey Shines’. This left the script in the hands of development executive Lindsay Doran who had great faith in it. Despite several push backs from the head of the studio the writer's strike of 1988 proved to be a blessing in disguise as a shortage in productions for their 1989 slate forced their hand in reconsidering their position on the film.


King had a lot of control over the project with three major stipulations being that he wrote the script, it had to be shot in Maine and he had first choice over who the director should be. Mary Lambert was the studio's first choice due to her rising popularity which she gained through directing music videos for Madonna. When King met her to discuss the project, Lambert's enthusiasm for the novel and commitment to being faithful to the source material won him over making her the first woman to direct an adaptation of any of his works.



From the get go Lambert puts her visual stamp on the film with some stylised but haunting shots of tombstones in the graveyard, whilst the voices of children can be heard giving eulogies to their departed animal companions. Playing over this is a score from Elliot Goldenthal which uses an unsettling choral choir offering the film a gothic flavour. These elements immediately set the tone and instill a creepy atmosphere that hangs over the entire film.



From here we are introduced to the Creed family (composed of Louis, Rachel and their children Gage and Ellie) who are moving into their new home next to the eponymous graveyard from Chicago as Louis (played by Dale Midkiff) starts a new job as a physician at the University of Maine. He is very much a character driven by doing what he feels is best for him and his family irrespective of consequence. For example he has a practical discussion with his daughter Ellie (played by Blaze Berdahl) about the potential of Church (the family cat) dying whilst being under anaesthetic during a neutering procedure. His approach doesn't pull any punches despite Ellie's age and puts him in conflict with his wife Rachel (played by Denise Crosby) but despite wanting to be direct in his lesson about death for their child they share a happy and loving marriage.


In these two central roles both Midkiff and Crosby are quite bland in their respective roles. Although his character goes through an emotional rollercoaster, Midkiff fails to register anything more than a handful of emotions in the role. He experiences great loss and bears witness to things beyond explanation but always exhibited the same range of emotion in his facial expressions. It is a great shame when you consider that Keith Carradine was a front runner for the role (and even Bruce Campbell auditioned for it) and you consider what someone with that kind of talent could bring to the role. The documentary ‘Unearthed and Untold’ insinuates that his good looks played a major part in him securing the part. Opposite him, Crosby fails to shake her soap opera history sharing little chemistry with Midkiff making their relationship feel quite stiff.



Their introduction in the film also marks the introduction of their neighbour from across the road, Judd Crandall (played by Fred Gwynne). In the documentary ‘Unearthed and Untold’ Mary Lambert says that she "never thought of anyone but Fred" for the role. Her instincts were spot on as he is terrific in the film. With a thick Maine accent booming from his voice he perfectly conveys the salt of the earth nature of the character. His soulful eyes too work wonders at selling the dark history of the area through the sorrow imbued in them.



The book ‘Stephen King at the Movies’ sums up the nature of his character wonderfully as he is described as being a "dark angel". He is a harbinger of doom who naively sews the seeds of what is to come planting the resurrecting abilities of the ancient Indian burial ground (which despite being quite popular in the genre at the time is tired and offensive) beyond the pet sematary.. His thinking process lacks consequence but it is ultimately his undoing as he tells Louis how he used the burial ground to bring his dog Spot back from the dead. It only heightens Louis' curiosity more than frightening him. It even leads him to wonder if anyone buried a person there for a similar intention. Instead of killing the conversation dead, Judd indulges Louis with the story of Timmy Baterman who died in World War 2 leading to the iconic line, "Sometimes dead is better". Yes you can bring back a loved one but they aren't the same. As Judd puts it, they are an abomination. His warning seems to have little effect as Louis doesn't seem to be too phased by it.


Up until the middle point there is an air of dread hanging over the entire film. From the death of Victor Pascow to the story of Rachel's terrifying sister Zelda there is a clear feeling that something bad is going to happen to the Creed family. Even the death and resurrection Church fails to allay any of these fears for the audience. Whilst this works in the film's favour you get the impression that it could have been handled better. This is in part due to King's script. His reluctance to write a more focussed version of his story means that a lot of moments of brilliance from the book feel rushed and lose their impact. It feels like no time passes from the Creed family moving into their new home and the tragic death of Gage. This dedication to remaining faithful to the source material does more damage than good.



The shocking scene involving Gage's death by a truck accident followed by his tumultuous funeral destroys the family leaving everyone and in particular Louis in a dark place. At his lowest he contemplates bringing Gage back from the dead. The warnings of Judd and even visions of the zombified version of Victor Pascow (played by Brad Greenquist who feels like a drier version of Jack from An American Werewolf in London) don't hold him back. He is told earlier on in the story by both of them that, "the soil of a man's heart is stonier". This is a summation of Louis' inability to cope with his grief due to his inability to express himself emotionally. In a wider context this appears to be King's commentary of emotional repression in males as a whole and the dangers that surround it.



Louis talks himself into burying Gage's body to bring him back, setting in motion the film's dramatic conclusion. His plan works but Gage (just as Judd warned him) isn't the same as he was. He embarks in one of the most adorable killing sprees ever captured on film starting with the death of Judd whose neck is torn out by the homicidal infant. This follows with the off screen murder of his mother Rachel by the zombified infant. Louis comes across the murder scene and confronts Gage whose maniacal laughter through his cherub smile is chilling. Whilst the cuts to the puppet version of Gage don't work so well, Miko Hughes really sells the heartbreak that comes from the madness. His innocent appearance as he cutely declares, "no fair" drives home the sadness behind Louis' selfish actions.

He doesn't seem to learn his lesson as he convinces himself that if he buries his wife in the sour ground of the cemetery then she won't come back like the others as she has just died. This isn't the case as the two share a kiss as puss emanates from the socket where her eye used to be. She reaches for a knife before the screen cuts to black with Louis screaming. This is sharply followed by The Ramones playing the title song of the film bringing this tale of woe to an end.



Whilst ‘Pet Sematary’ is a solid entry in the pantheon of Stephen King adaptations it does feel like it is lacking given the strength of the source material. An imbalance in the performances and the rushed nature of the script make for an underwhelming film despite Mary Lambert's spot on visual sense. Whilst there has been a sequel and more recently a remake which have failed to live up to the novel's reputation you can't help but feel that maybe it is a case that the book is better left alone. More recently murmurings of a prequel have been floating around but they seem to have quietened down. Perhaps they should take Judd's advice in realising that sometimes dead is better.


Verdict:


- Joseph McElroy

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