Written by: Stephen King
Directed by: Mary Lambert
Starring: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, and Fred Gwynne
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. Because what you buy is what you own. And what you own...always comes home to you."
Of all the horror movies I saw at an inappropriately young age, Pet Sematary is the one that even gives me pause to wonder just what in the hell my parents were thinking. Considering my dad brought it home, touting it as a new release, I would have been about seven years old at the time and had no business even glimpsing the terrifying cover art, let alone actually watching the thing. And yet, I took every bit of it in, leaving my young, totally unprepared brain to process 102 straight minutes of pure, uncut nightmares soaked in death and despair. Even though I would have had a vague notion of death at the time, I did not truly know what death was until viewing Pet Sematary, which seems profoundly upsetting in hindsight.
And yet, it’s somehow totally appropriate. After all, it’s that inevitability of death that still makes Pet Sematary one of the most disturbing films ever made. In adapting his own novel for the screen, Stephen King scripts a relentless parade of damned souls shuffling off to a bleak hereafter, sparing no one in the process. Before the Creed family can even settle into their home in rural Maine, the specter of death surrounds them—in front of their house, there is an awful road full of speeding vehicles that have claimed the lives of pets for decades; behind their house, there lurks a mysterious path to a makeshift pet cemetery housing those lost souls, reminding everyone—including young daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl)—of their final destination. Even infant Gage (Miko Hughes) has a brush with near-death when he wanders near that terrible road, foreshadowing the film’s later tragedy.
Death isn’t just content to linger. On his first day on the job as a new doctor at the town university, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) makes a futile attempt at saving the life of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a young college student whose head has been nearly taken clean off by a speeding truck. His face—which has been drained of life, leaving a ghastly pallor—is an indelible image in a film full of them, and there’s something ugly and vicious about Mary Lambert’s decision to linger on the bloody, blunt force trauma that ended his life. You must face his death, just as you must witness the Creed’s elderly neighbor commit suicide, a tangent that doesn’t amount to much narratively but reinforces the unrelenting dread of Pet Sematary.
Eventually, death catches up with the Creeds themselves, as the horrific aura of this place conjures up nightmarish memories for Rachel (Denise Crosby), who spent her childhood tending to a sister who died after a long, ghastly bout with spinal meningitis. Soon, the family cat Church suffers an inevitable fate when he wanders into the road during the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving Louis scrambling to conceal the tragedy from his daughter before she returns home from her grandparents’ house in Chicago. Enigmatic neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) offers his own cryptic solution by taking Louis out into the mysterious wilds resting beyond the pet cemetery. An eerie light glows through three the thickets, beckoning the two men to a slightly unreal landscape of rocks and barren soil, a far cry from the cozy, pastoral confines that somehow rest just on the other side. Without fully explaining himself, Jud insists this is an old Native American burial ground, which still doesn’t quite ease Louis’s bewilderment about this lengthy, out-of-the-way trek.
His answer soon arrives in the form of a miraculously resurrected Church, who wanders in quite impossibly, smelling of rot and death. Something is clearly not right here, and Jud is finally forced to explain the mysterious forces at work, at least to the best of his ability. In true King fashion, they remain inexplicable forces capable of reviving the dead simply because they can, and the universe owes no explanation for such unfathomable evil. Sometimes they come back indeed, and, in this case, they do so devoid of anything resembling a soul. Like Jud’s childhood pet before him, Church returns with a mean streak that hints at some awful, corrupting force resting out in that barren wilderness. Both the premise and the gothic touches take Pet Sematary firmly into fantasy territory, yet the film is no less terrifying.
All these years later—and at 33 years of age—I still can’t handle how profoundly and thoroughly fucked up Pet Sematary is. The entire ordeal feels as if it were crafted out of the stuff of nightmares with the explicit purpose of fueling more nightmares. There isn’t a single frame of it that doesn’t feel unrelentingly grim or unsettling, and it’s stuffed with one horrendous image after another. Only King himself could dream up an irresistibly ghoulish hook involving resurrected husks and embellish it with so much additional gruesomeness. Pet Sematary boasts enough ghastly images and sequences to fill multiple films, and those belonging to the generation scarred for life by this film can point to at least a half-dozen different facets that were immediately seared into their brains, never to be erased.
Obviously, Lambert’s unflinching direction plays a crucial role in capturing these unforgettable images. From Pascow’s grotesque head wound to Zelda’s sick, surreal bodily contortions, Pet Sematary insists upon burrowing right into your soul in its aim to leave you unsettled. Not content to confine these two supporting characters to their respective corners of the film Lambert and King allow them to linger like literal and figurative ghosts, haunting both the characters and the audience. In King’s universe, even a self-proclaimed “friendly ghost” like Pascow prominently features a gaping head wound and an ominous, sarcastic streak.
Likewise, there’s even something subtly unsettling about Gwynne’s presence as Jud, the ostensibly friendly, folksy neighbor who always seems to be harboring some awful knowledge, as if he were a messenger to the damned. His casting is an inherently clever stroke that preys on the nostalgia of his paternal Munsters persona, here twisted into one of King’s classically colorful and portentous personalities. Few actors have been able to capture that strange, otherworldly presence, right down to an exaggerated New England accent that produces the most bone-chilling pronunciation of the word “road’ imaginable. And this is to say nothing of the handful of tales Gwynne delivers in order to establish the sordid history of this strange little twilight zone where the dead are able to return. One involves the aforementioned childhood pet, while another spine-tingling recollection reveals that a person was once buried in that ethereal burial ground, only to return very much inhuman—as if Pet Sematary required even more nightmarish imagery.
Jud’s cautionary tale about Timmy Baterman—a World War II vet who died and had to be put back down after his rotting corpse was summoned from the Mirmac burial ground—points the way towards the film’s most staggering and upsetting turn of events. As if determined by fate, Gage eventually does wander into the road as a truck barrels forward in a scene that only grows more uncomfortable with each viewing of Pet Sematary. You watch on helplessly in horror as Gage chases a kite out to the edge of the road, the rest of his family oblivious to the horrors unfolding. Even here, Lambert refuses to turn away, as viewers are forced to watch the truck mow Gage down before his kite goes limp and his bloody shoe goes skittering across the pavement. His father wails in agony, a potent, stark contrast to an otherwise restrained performance from Midkiff. It just might be the scariest and most awful scene ever devised in a horror movie because it is so strikingly sad, if not all too believable. Despite the obviously supernatural trimmings to Pet Sematary, this scene is palpably authentic in its depiction of a parent’s most unfathomable nightmare.
As if all this weren’t heartbreaking enough, King and Lambert push on, wrenching the audience’s guts with a shocking confrontation at Gage’s funeral that sends the boy’s tiny casket plummeting to the floor, revealing its mangled contents. Even more horrors await once Louis gives into his only natural impulse to bury Gage at Mirmac, prompting the film’s disturbing, unholy climax. Gage does return from the grave, all dead-eyed and menacing as the evil force compelling him back to “life” has twisted him into a vessel of evil. Hughes is unnervingly terrific here, producing an eerie, playful lilt in his voice to accentuate his wide, vacant eyes, both of which heighten the haunting effect of Louis’s final confrontation with his undead child. Having pushed this far, Lambert continues to insist that the audience gazes upon the horror of a father putting his son back to rest with a poison-filled syringe. “No fair,” Gage cries, somehow innocent and knowing all at once, before he stumbles off and collapses into a wall, a dead husk that will soon be engulfed in flames.
Pet Sematary does linger on for one more beat, though Lambert wisely cuts away just before the film becomes too playful and wry for its own good. The crunching riffs of The Ramones’ theme song signal something raucous, which perhaps belies just how genuinely upsetting this film has been—though I suppose every bit of catharsis needs some kind of uplifting Greek Chorus. Still, even the upbeat murmurs of Joey Ramone can’t help shake off what has come before. No matter what age, Pet Sematary clings to you like a bad dream in its melancholy insistence on death as both inevitable and natural. It seems fitting that this film delivered such a crucial revelation to me at such a young age; after all, Ellie Creed learning to confront and accept death is one of its thematic touchstones. More than that, Pet Sematary further insists that no one is safe, not even those characters that should be “safe” in a horror movie, like pets and small children. If Gage Creed could die, then so could anyone—including myself, which was obviously a profound, fucked-up realization at the time.
Growing older has done little to diminish that realization: to this day, Pet Sematary remains a singularly unpleasant film, one that I can’t revisit with much frequency, a concession that speaks to its soul-searing power. Now that I’ve been a parent for the past 10 months, I cannot imagine watching it again anytime soon (like, within the next 20 years) because I can’t even imagine confronting that awful scene and its fallout. More than anything, that heartbreak is what defines Pet Sematary: for all the nightmarish qualities resonating from Pascow, Zelda, Timmy Bateman, Gage, and the infamous Achilles bloodletting, what endures is the profound, guttural sadness that resounds throughout one of King’s most unshakably disconcerting “bad places.” Both the soil and the souls have gone sour in this twilight corner of Bangor, where spirits never rest and the past doesn’t cease in producing haunting memories and regrets. No matter how many times I’ve seen Pet Sematary, it somehow manages to linger on more forcefully than before, cementing its status as the scariest movie I have ever seen.
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