Louis Creed, his wife and young children have just moved into a new neighbourhood, one that is the grounds of a powerful secret that can bring the dead back to life. When a tragic accident kills his young son, Louis decides to use the burial ground to bring his son back to life.
Promotion trailers of Friday The 13th: Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North, The Dream Team, Final Notice. After feature: Tales From The Crypt.
Revisiting the film adaptions of Stephen King’s work is always a fun time because his catalogue of published works is without a doubt, impressively consistent but the films are notoriously met with mixed critical reactions. By the late eighties, King had tallied up a whopping fifteen film adaptions. Starting with It (1990), his works through the nineties began to be adapted for the television audience and it was this moment the inconsistency of the adapted works began to lose their spark (not to mention their scare). Like many of King’s books, the narrative is often filled to the brim with unique mythologies, complex characterizations and miles and miles of sub-plots and backstory. Unlike today’s streaming dominated viewing experience, television wasn’t expected to harbour cinematic values. The two-part mini series (It, The Tommyknockers, The Shining telefilm, Rose Red) was as close as we got to today’s Netflix-inspired ten to twelve-part series. Now and then however, there is a Stephen King film done right.
1989’s Pet Sematary received mixed reviews from critics during its initial release but was a successful adaption of the 1983 novel.The film defied its mixed critical reaction by achieving a blockbuster theatrical run during its release. Director Mary Lambert who at the time was an established MTV music video director managed to adapt and bring forth a satisfying King adaption with the help of King, who penned the screenplay himself. Pet Sematary retained its mysticism, building tension nicely without going overboard; it’s a simple premise centered on one of King’s favourite set-ups; the domesticity of the family.
Lambert’s directional style manages to capture the deathly dread King’s bestselling novel managed to induce upon readers. The film is grim and death is the unrivalled theme here; if one accepts life, then death must also be accepted. The two cannot come without each other, like day and night, the classic binary rules of life. Lambert uses this notion well, foreshadowing many of the grim events and plot points very early in the film. The use of foreshadowing, in particular focusing on the big trucks that romp through the road by the house of the Creeds is quite unnerving. Lambert definitely built the dread effectively, leading up to the tragic death of Gage Creed (Miko Hughes) that sends the film spiralling into chaos mode.
Casting and performance wise, Dale Midkiff’s Louis isn’t as sympathetic as one would imagine; acting rather brashly, there is a disconnect between his character and the audience resulting in a conclusion that isn’t as impactful as it should be. Midkiff doesn’t illicit sympathy the way audiences should be responding to, for a man whose family has been bestowed such a horrible tragedy. The same instance is for Denise Crosby as wife and mother Rachel Creed. The performances are not bad, but the characters walk the thin line of being unlikable. Blaze Berdahl and Miko Hughes as Ellie and Gage Creed manage to adhere to the film’s dramatic plot rather well by giving performances that many children actors may struggle to summon. Fred Gwynne best known as Herman Munster of the The Munsters is a tremendous welcome to the film, bringing to life the wise ,old guy Jud, that one we all seem to live next door to. Gwynne’s performance also gives the audience some of the film’s best dialogue thanks to King’s expertise in writing such memorable monologues, grim dialogue and one liners that stay with you. A notable and frightening moment of the film appears through a flashback from Rachel, where her sister Zelda played by Andrew Hubatsek, suffering from spinal meningitis, scarred the character resulting in a sequence that scarred many viewers of the film. The deathly and terrifying appearance of Zelda was highly effective, echoing the famous room 213 scene of Kubrick’s The Shining. Zelda is the perfect depiction between of the transient stage on the brink of death, more terrifying than any resurrected character arisen from the sour grounds of the sematary itself.
So, why did critics loathe it? Possibly because by 1989 King’s paradigm and brand of horror was losing its critical oomph. Misery redeemed his waning impact in 1990, however it wouldn’t be until 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption that he rested his horror offerings. Pet Sematary is a much better film than Children Of The Corn (1984), Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Cat’s Eye (1988) . The film, also doesn’t have that tele-film vibe a lot of King’s films of the eighties seem to have (maybe this is why they became two part mini-series’ in the ’90s). The film does manage to take a rather drastic tonal shift three quarters of the way, leading to a climax that wanes and fails to hit the audience hard (or leave them emotionally empty) to level that King’s endings have in many of his stronger adaptions. Some critics thought the last quarter sold out with narrative morphing from a serious dramatic horror film to a relentless slasher. All the tension and dread had to progress to something and in this film the Creeds were torn apart by life and death. The Creed’s grieving and mourning leads to futile desperation and death appears imminent. While the change in tone is quite the shift (undead Gage on a rampage could definitely double as a Chucky film climax), to criticise the film’s conclusion as ‘too slashery’ is an exaggeration. This is a Stephen King story and happy endings are few and far between.
Playing over the credits is the Ramones’s ‘Pet Sematary’, a perfect segway from the ’80s into the grunge-rock ’90s. This appears to be a mark of Lambert, a successful music video director in the years leading to this particular film. It is true Ramones is King’s favorite band however the choice of Ramones is at odds with the film’s family-drama tonalities. However, the grunginess and aesthetic definitely resonates with the film’s fantastic (and well known) theatrical poster. King himself (like in many of his adaptions) appears as the priest at the funeral in one scene. The master of darkness overseeing a death ritual of mourning and grieving; a fitting sight (and always a fun easter egg for fans).
Overall, Pet Sematary pleases and unlike some other King adaptions, manages to retain the spirit of its source. The film is foreboding and is charged with death and King knows how to construct a narrative to perfection, however in this adaption the narrative seems to wane away towards the climax. Mary Lambert did a fantastic job on the directional front and delivered a decent King film that rounded out a spectacular decade for horror films (and King’s pop culture dominance).