Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary (1989) 
Directed by: Mary Lambert   
Written by: Stephen King based on his novel.
Starring: Dale Midkiff (Louis Creed), Fred Gwynne (Jud Crandall), Denise Crosby (Rachel Creed), Brad Greenquist (Victor Pascow), Michael Lombard (Irwin Goldman), Miko Hughes (Gage Creed), Blaze Berdahl (Ellie Creed), Susan Blommaert (Missy Dandridge), Mara Clark (Marcy Charlton), Kavi Raz (Steve Masterton), Mary Louise Wilson (Dory Goldman), Andrew Hubatsek (Zelda).
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is not one of his best novels – but it is one of the leanest, meanest and outright disturbing ones. It would seem that compared to his massive novels, that Pet Sematary would be better suited for a movie, because there aren’t quite as many characters, and the plot is not as complex. It is also not marred by the same thing that often hurts King’s novels in the last act – when he has to explain the supernatural elements of the story. Here it’s simple – you bury something dead in this one spot, they come back to life – but aren’t the same as before. And yet, while the 1989 adaptation of King’s novel contains one great performance, and some nice atmosphere – I don’t think it really adds up to very much. A large part of that is probably that other than Fred Gwynne, the rest of the cast isn’t very good. Another part is that this is a nasty story – one of the nastiest King has ever conceived – and yet there’s some unintentionally funny – even goofy – moments that undermine the horror. What could have been great – and hopefully will be in the upcoming remake – doesn’t quite hit you are hard as it should here.
The story of Pet Sematary (and screw you Stephen King for deliberately misspelling Cemetery) is relatively simple. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) and his family – wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and toddle son Gage (Miko Hughes) move into a new house in Massachusetts – that backs onto a vast forest, but is on a street that gets a lot of truck traffic. They meet their neighbor – affable older man Jud Crandall (Gwynne) – who seems nice enough. He shows the Creed’s around the forest – including the Pet Sematary out there – where his own dog has been buried since 1924. Most of the animals were taken by those trucks on that road – and when Denise and the kids are off visiting her parents, that’s exactly what happens to Ellie’s beloved cat Church. But instead of burying Church in that Sematary, Jud shows Louis another burial ground – much deeper in the woods, and tells him to bury Church there, without telling him what will happen. So Louis is shocked when Church shows up the next day. He smells bad though, and doesn’t have the same demeanor as before – he’s a meaner cat, a nastier one. But at least Ellie won’t have to lose her beloved cat. What would happen if a person was buried there – has anyone tried that, Louis asks Jud – who denies it. But we all know at some point in this movie, that is precisely what is going to happen this time.
As a novel, Pet Sematary is difficult to read – for one thing, it is so depressing, especially as a parent, and for another, it is just so nasty. King apparently didn’t think he could publish the novel – and had to be convinced by his wife, and while this could just be a story made up to sell books, I believe it. This is a cruel book in many ways. It is also, of course, brutally effective, because it is so dark, so nasty, so vile. That’s kind of the point. It’s also one the simplest of King’s novels – a basic morality play, in which Louis is tested – and fails miserably. It’s almost as if he has an angel and demon on his shoulder – one in the form of Gwynne’s Jud, so nice, so charming and so, so wrong and the other in the form of Victor Pascow – a young man who died on Louis’ first day as a doctor in the new town, who tries to warn him against what he wants to do – and of course, he doesn’t listen.
In the role of Jud, Gwynne is legitimately great. In one of his last roles, he makes Jud into the friendliest guy in the world who every damned his neighbor. You immediately like him – because why wouldn’t you. He’s nice, his’s friendly – the kids like him. He offers you a beer on a hot summer night, etc. He is, in essence, so evil because he never actually says or does anything in an evil way – right to the end. But everything is his fault.
The rest of the cast don’t measure up to Gwynne. Louis should be a plum role given everything he goes through, but Midkiff isn’t particularly good here – he either seems to sleepwalk through the role in the depressing moment, or overacts in the others. Denise Crosby doesn’t have as much to work with as Rachel – but she isn’t very good either – her flashback recollections feel like soap opera over acting. The best performance in the film other than Gwynne is probably by young Miko Hughes as Gage – an actor who many over the years have expressed concern for given what his character does (and that makes sense) – although you don’t have to watch too close to see that we never really see him to anything. He’s good though. I think the makeup and performance by Brad Greenquist pretty much sinks Pascow as an interesting character – he’s basically giving a Hilarious House of Frightenstein level performance here – which works great on that show, not so great when you have to take the character seriously.
I do think director Mary Lambert does some interesting things visually throughout the film – and whenever actors are not speaking, she is able to build some tension. And the final confrontation with the Gage is legitimately creepy. She does overdo the very ending – which worked better in King’s book – but then again, I understand that was studio mandated to get a bigger shock. And part of the other reasons the film doesn’t work as well – the slow motion shots, etc. – seem like a sign of the times it was made more than anything. And it isn’t that the movie is bad per se – it’s not great, but it’s better than many King adaptations. But this novel should have – and could have – made a truly disturbing, sickening little horror film. And I don’t think this is that.

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