My Horror Movie Project Part 4: Pet Sematary
For those late to the party, I am doing a series of reviews of horror films that I have never seen before. The wrinkle is that each one comes from a different decade. Today we will visit that era of slasher franchises and questionable fashion choices we call the 80’s to take a peek at Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
To appreciate the ubiquity of Mr. King, consider this: To date there have been 79 feature films, TV Series, and TV Mini-series adapted from his work. That exceeds the entire horror output in the history of Hammer Studios as well as that of Universal from Frankenstein (1930) through Psycho (1960). And while his entertaining page turners have clearly found a niche in the movies, they illustrate a principle that rings most true with horror films – quantity does not equal quality.
Young doctor Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and their two kids Ellie and Gage, move into a farmhouse in Ludlow, Maine. It is located on a busy trucking route that has claimed so many animals that a makeshift pet cemetery adjoins their property. When Churchill, the family cat, is killed neighbor Jud Crandall takes Creed to a hidden Micmac Indian burial ground and convinces him to inter him there. It turns out that the site has restorative powers but, as the Creed family discovers, with a most definite string attached.
I’ve only seen a fraction of the available King material adapted for film. I find some of them (Carrie, The Dead Zone) to be truly great and a few more (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Misery) to be quite good. The rest range from intriguing concepts (It!, The Stand) that go on way too long, and one note projects like Pet Sematary that would be hard pressed to make the cut as a half hour Twilight Zone episode, let alone a feature film.
As you can probably guess, what I don’t like about Pet Sematary is a lot. Director Mary Gilbert simply shows no aptitude for building tension in a scene. This along with a story whose plot developments can be seen coming from a mile away, are a deadly combination. Sequences meant to be cathartic seem sluggish and perfunctory.
Adding to the recipe for audience disinvolvement are the performances by Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby as Louis and Rachel Creed. They are totally unconvincing as a married couple or as parents. Their roles demand a raw portrayal of abject grief but neither actor is up to the task. They come off as lightweight and superficial. Other jarring elements include the ghost of a car accident victim named Victor Pascow, whose sole purpose is to be a one man Greek Chorus repeatedly warning Louis to stay away from the secret burial site. Even weirder is a sub-plot about Rachel’s sister Zelda, who died of a disfiguring illness when Rachel was a child. It seems to exist just so Gilbert can use it for a rather cheap scare near the end of the film.
While these shortcomings are bad enough, there is one thing about Pet Sematary that really gets me, that makes me start calculating how many food banks or homeless shelters could have been funded with the budget for this movie. I will explain.
In all movies, but especially horror films, people do dumb things. At times, that can be OK. In Psycho, If Lila Crane hadn’t made the rather dumb decision to react to the approach of Norman Bates by ducking down to the cellar, we would never have been treated to one of the greatest reveals in film history. But when the dumbness is the engine that drives the entire story that is a different matter. Churchill returns, with eyes blazing, from the dead, but is now aggressive and viciously attacks Louis. A short while later, toddler Gage is killed when he wanders into the path of a speeding semi. Creed decides to exhume his son’s body and place it in the secret burial ground.
Let’s break this down. You have a tag along spirit begging you to stay away from the Indian graveyard and you’ve been living with Stuffy the Devil Cat, never knowing when the next attack will occur. Oh, and old timer Jud relates the story of a father who tried to bring his son back the same way, only to discover that he returned as a shambling monster.
What could possibly go wrong?
As expected by everyone except Louis, little Gage resurrects as a soulless killing machine. After dispatching poor Jud Crandall and Rachel, he sets his sights on Louis. In a most awkwardly staged “confrontation” he re-kills his son. The End, right? Nope, Louis carries Rachel’s body away, and heads for you know where, thinking that the third time must be the charm.
We now officially know that Louis has a bag of rocks for brains. Thankfully, relief comes quickly. Rachel reappears and murders her husband just before the end credits roll.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Pet Sematary was a big hit. It more than quadrupled its original production budget, earning $57 million in the US alone, and spawned a 1992 sequel. In fact, there is a rumored remake in the works to begin production in 2016. I think this is partly because the theme, “be careful what you wish for”, which has been reworked countless times since A. A Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” back in 1902, still finds new audiences. Unfortunately, Pet Sematary, with its trifecta of beyond belief plot, indifferent acting, and leaden direction just makes me carefully wish that I have better luck with the next entry in this series.