Stephen King is the master of horror because he knows that horror runs deeper than nerves. Horror finds a thematic fear and uses allegory or parable to make a point. This is what Stephen King does better than anyone. Take that Poe! But really, Poe didn’t use allegory or substitution, he simply took a human flaw and made it dreadful—pride, anger, longing are Poe’s tools and loss, death, alienation are King’s. That’s not meant to be categorical, but a general comment. The real distinction is between King and those who would claim to make a horror film as opposed to a “scary movie”. Pet Sematary (1989) is a horror film of some caliber. Semat- (signal, sign, symbol) –ary (a place where).
The Creeds have moved to a new place in Maine and it’s a bit creepy. Meet Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), an M.D. at the local university, Rachel (Denise Crosby), his wife, daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), and his boy Gage (Miko Hughes). Behind the house is a pet cemetery where all the local children buried their fallen furry comrades taken by the small highway. Across the way is old Mainer, Judd (Fred Gwynne) who seems as though he’s never been a hundred miles from his house. He explains the cemetery as a place where the dead speak to them as a marker and memory. When the rest of the family is away, the cat Church is run over and Louis has to deal with it. Judd brings Louis up to an Indian burial ground (of course) and, next morning, the cat is alive and…not well exactly. Ol’ Church is a bit quirky now, but otherwise tame (as far as cats go). But sometime later, tragedy strikes and Louis finds the temptation too strong and uses the burial ground again despite dire warnings from Judd.
The essence of this movie is that if it were done in the form and with the cast of Take Shelter (2011) it would have been a phenomenal movie. As it is, the very strong story overcomes every obstacle put in its way by rough acting and questionable direction to remain utterly engrossing. That’s quite an accomplishment. Because the acting is incredibly rough and the direction is incredibly questionable.
The problem is that they made a horror movie when they should have made a psychological thriller. Again, Take Shelter is the twenty-two year later role-model that director Mary Lambert failed to emulate. I suppose she gets a pass this once. But that’s only because she laid out the most elaborate storyboard of all time. Now all that’s required is that Jeff Nichols gets his hands on it and corrects all the problems. (And what do you know, another adaptation is in development.)
First, the screenplay from Stephen King needs a little tightening. There’s something about his dialogue that is so hard to listen to. Perhaps it’s to many syllables in a sentence, perhaps it’s word choice (“she was our dirty little secret”) combined with intolerably superficial “acting.” Hard to say. Second, let’s make some serious camera choices. More detached from the action rather than that 70’s/80’s feeling that the audience floats somewhere just above the right ear of the person who soon will die. Third, as was clear from earlier, new cast. It wasn’t exactly tv-movie bad, but it was worse than an HBO movie. Enough said.
Still, credit where due, the movie was gripping and not just in the, “Girl you crazy if you go down dem stairs!” way (though there was plenty of that). The pacing was rough, but all the elements were there. There was a scene I was surprised by, which is the funeral scene. That scene was far more realist and human than perhaps the entire rest of the movie. I was surprised because most movies before 2005 (arbitrary) don’t try to put character-film moments in a plot-driven movie. There were some little flashbacks that were ahead of their time. Most of them worked (the others were just poor flash choices) and sometimes Gwynne was good. And the music needed a serious re-think in both placement and content. But it did match the ludicrous, Hitchcock-homage-a-thon they had going.
The main theme of Pet Sematary is loss and our response to it. One of the special features brought up a good parallel and that was the short story The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs. In that, an old friend leaves a monkey’s paw with a couple and passes on a warning “fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” Their wishes are fulfilled in ways that they come to regret. “Be careful what you wish for” being the obvious moral of the story. And as many commentators in the special features mentioned, this is a timeless story.
A little more on the Poe/King comparison. I must admit I have not read a Stephen King book, but I have seen a large amount of films based upon his work. And, as I mentioned, King wrote the screenplay for Pet Sematary. I have read Poe and it’s clear that Poe is the better, more elegant writer. “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis” (The Murders of the Rue Morgue). “Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened…although he called this man a friend, as a grown man must do when he finds the man who should have been his father relatively late in life” (Pet Sematary).
Both Poe and King express timeless feelings of dread and fear but King (again, so far as this screenplay) hits you in the gut over and over again while Poe (and I’m thinking of The Pit and the Pendulum or The Cask of Amontillado) slowly presses in the knife. I say slowly, but Poe worked into a dozen pages what King works into hundreds. I tend to think that the elegance and the subtlety makes Poe clearly the superior author, but it isn’t blasphemy to speak both names in the same sentence.
The BluRay-ness of the movie may well have played against its favor. Corner cuttings here and there and the depth of action really stand out. When directors film in high definition (and know it will be seen in that form), it seems clear that they shoot action differently. Landscapes are better, more beautiful when barren (a horizon) rather than full (a forest). Focus on small details of a face rather than large gestures and heavy weeping. What technology has brought is better, deeper, and more entertaining, but it has also made anachronistic older films in the same way that changing to color from black and white had done or sound from silent. What will be understood to be “classic” will almost certainly be judged in terms of how well the old kept up with the new (before they could have known).
The three main special features (“Stephen King Territory,” “The Characters,” and “Filming the Horror”) are repetitive but of interest. There are some technical points of interest, but few of those. Mostly, it’s King, Lambert, and the cast talking about how awesome the movie was and continues to be. Sometimes they’re right in saying why, other times it’s laughable how ignorant they seem to be of the film’s limitations (notably the visual style). The commentary was essentially repetition of these featurettes.
Warning, the bloodiness is way ahead of its time in grossness, but the R rating is not comparable to a like movie today despite the grossness being caused (spoiler) by a child which is, I grant you, wicked creepy.