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.”