Halloween Horror Diary: Pet Sematary (1989)

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“We all float down here.”

Stephen King has a knack for short, unsettling lines of dialogue that bother your memory like a pebble in your shoe.

“Opal! Diamond! Sapphire! Jade! I smell Gary’s lemonade!”

The first line is from It, and the second from “The Man in the Black Suit,” King’s O. Henry Award-winning short story. Watching Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation Pet Sematary, I was reminded of another.

“Sometimes dead is better.”

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This strange advice is given by Jud (Fred Gwynne), elderly neighbor to the newly-transplanted Creed family. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) is a new doctor at the University of Maine, and has just moved into a home across the street from Jud with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), two kids and a cat. Between the homes is a rural highway that sees an inordinate amount of big rig traffic due to a nearby oil refinery. Many pets have been killed on this road, says Jud, which explains the pet cemetery in the woods behind the Creeds’ home.

The family cat, Church, is soon run down on the highway. Knowing the Creed children will be devastated, Jud shows Louis an abandoned Micmac burial ground deep in the woods and helps bury Church there. Church miraculously comes back to life, but he’s...changed, and not for the better. Louis and his wife Rachel begin having disturbing dreams that seem to intersect with reality – whatever power lies in the burial ground has infected them somehow. When another tragedy strikes Louis takes an unthinkable step, against Jud’s earnest forewarning that “Sometimes dead is better.”

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Some argue that Pet Sematary is King’s most disturbing book, and they’ve got a solid case. King’s stories tend to manifest personal demons as the supernatural. The rage Carrie White feels from her abusive upbringing courses through her with such power, she can move objects with her mind. Jack Torrance’s alcoholic past conjures actual skeletons in the closet of the Overlook Hotel (more precisely, a corpse in the bathtub of room 237). Pet Sematary deals with the specter of grief, a particularly personal and poignant struggle to corrupt with horror. King can bring you inside a character’s disintegrating mind as well as anyone; in the novel, the Ramones lyric “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” becomes a macabre internal refrain as Louis commits escalating transgressions.

Unfortunately, Dale Midkiff’s bland performance as Louis Creed mostly sinks the movie. If we don’t buy his self-destructive grief the horror has little chance of getting under our skin, and Midkiff comes across as callow and unconvincing. The rudimentary special effects don’t help either – the final showdown, involving a little boy and a scalpel, is laughably feeble. This is somewhat understandable, given the limitations faced by the filmmakers; it’s obviously not possible or ethical for a toddler to act out a murder scene, but without a substitute like CGI (or at least something animatronic) we’re left with Dale Midkiff flailing around with a doll. One recurring segment is effectively ghoulish – Rachel has nightmares of her childhood, when she was left alone to watch her sister Zelda suffer from spinal meningitis. But the themes of guilt and grief that King so effectively weaves into the novel’s narrative never find solid footing in the movie.

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Mary Lambert is one of the only women of the era to direct a major horror film, and her direction of Pet Sematary is fairly solid, as is the production design; the Creeds’ home and the Pet Sematary are staged just as I pictured them, and Lambert effectively shows the unending parade of oil tankers as a menacing force unto itself. If only she had the lead actor and other tools needed to bring the rest of the film to life. Fred Gwynne has fun playing an archetype of horror stories – the old coot whose warning about a local legend goes unheeded – and King himself makes a brief cameo as a pastor.

There’s a remake of Pet Sematary on the way. Perhaps the new Jud (John Lithgow), and the movie itself, will more strongly convince that “Sometimes dead is better.”

The Quiet Earth (1985)

The Quiet Earth (1985)

Ahhh, to be the last person on Earth – in a certain light, doesn’t it sound kind of enticing? You could drive a Lamborghini through a fruit cart, just for the hell of it. See the Mona Lisa without waiting in line, touch it, even deface it. Sure, crushing loneliness and existential despair would eventually set in, but for a time (unless someone else showed up) you’d experience a perverse thrill of absolute freedom.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

If you want to see Spaceman David Oyelowo bark through gritted teeth, “This dimension is eating us alive!” then Julius Onah's The Cloverfield Paradox is a movie for you. If you ironically enjoy B movies that shamelessly leverage dead children for unearned pathos, then this is a movie for you. If you're eager to consume the latest acquisition absorbed by Netflix's slowly advancing Media Blob, ejected in front of an unexpecting Super Bowl audience like a tray of stale Grandma wafers, then this is a film for you.

Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)

Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)

Eleven-year-old me would have loved The Gate. But eleven-year-old me didn't watch horror movies.

The closest I got was the occasional illicit viewing of Tales from the Crypt on HBO, which certainly qualifies as horror and could be pretty great at times. But actual horror movies – the ones whose VHS boxes lined the shelves of the Horror section at Mr. Movies, the local video store – were not a part of my life.

Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #3: Verónica (2017)

Verónica had its Midwest premiere at the Cinepocalypse genre film festival, held at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The film's director, Paco Plaza, is mostly known for the solid [REC] series. Unlike those films, Verónica does not use the found-footage conceit, though it’s apparently (and dubiously) based on a real-world case documented by police in 1990s Madrid, Spain.

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Horrorvember Diary #2: Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse (2017)

Not even the remote forests of the Austrian Alps could escape the Black Death. 

A young goatherd, Albrun, attempts to care for her plague-stricken mother during a harsh mountain winter, as superstitious local clans accuse them of heathenry. Two female goat farmers, living alone in a cabin in the Alps? In the Middle Ages, maybe this alone was enough to arouse suspicion of witchcraft.

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

Horrorvember Diary #1: The Hitcher (1986)

I watched Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher by mistake. I saw something on TV when I was about 11 years old – a motorist spots a hitchhiker at the side of a rural highway at night. The hitchhiker, mostly hidden by shadow and rain, wears a trench coat and a hat, waving a briefcase over his head as if desperate for a ride. Not that you can really see his face, but as depicted, his features are sort of…absent.

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #5: Black Sunday (1960)

1960 is an important year for horror. Four particular movies – Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday – pushed boundaries into the modern age while also showing the legitimate artistic potential of horror. The other films tell contemporary stories, but Black Sunday enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest of all gothic vampire movies.

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

Halloween Horror Diary #3: Stephen King's Cat's Eye (1985)

As anthology horror films go, Cat’s Eye is one of the more decent entries I’ve seen. None of the segments are fantastic, but unlike most anthologies, all offer something memorable and none can be called a dud. The stories (all penned by Stephen King) are connected by a wandering cat, which seems to have a strange, unexplained connection to a young girl played by Drew Barrymore – he sees her image in a department store mannequin, then in a TV commercial, beckoning him to find and help her. Barrymore is a sort of connecting thread herself, playing different roles in the first and last acts.

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

Halloween Horror Diary #2: House of Usher (1960)

As the story goes, famed director and producer Roger Corman was tired of making disposable films on a laughable budget. During the 1950s he’d typically produced two black and white films at a time, to be shown as a double feature at grindhouse theatres. But when approached by American International Pictures to make a horror film, Corman had a proposal: maybe this time, he’d make one film, not two, on a decent budget, and it would be shot in color. It would be a real film, he promised, respectable enough to show in mainstream theatres.

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

Halloween Horror Diary #1: The Funhouse (1981)

The Funhouse, a little-remembered follow-up to Tobe Hooper’s influential horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, stars Elizabeth Berridge (the future Constanze Mozart of Amadeus) as Amy Harper. Amy attends a local carnival with her boorish blind date and a few friends, and after seeing plenty of unseemly sights and smoking a few joints, the group decide to spend the night inside the titular funhouse. After they accidentally witness something terrible, a masked freak begins stalking and picking them off one by one.

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Sixteen from 2016 + Missed Connections

Six Favorites

What's this, you say – no Top 10 list? That may be the standard way to take stock of the previous year's movies, for professional and amateur film writers alike, but I had trouble with that approach. I'm yet uncomfortable with making a declaration of the best movies of the year, but I can certainly single out favorites and others I strongly appreciate for various reasons, so I'm sticking with a unique formulation of six clear favorites + ten more great ones.