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Dustin Putman

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Pet Sematary  (1989)
4 Stars
Directed by Mary Lambert.
Cast: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, Blaze Berdahl, Miko Hughes, Brad Greenquist, Susan Blommaert, Andrew Hubatsek, Michael Lombard, Mary Louise Wilson, Mara Clark, Kavi Raz, Stephen King, Beau Berdahl.
1989 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence and gore, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Gage Creed:
First I play with Judd, then Mommy came, and I play with Mommy.
We play, Daddy! We had an awful good time! Now I want to play with youuuuu...

A horror movie that has done its job correctly will set a person off-balance, leaving one either disturbed or fearful about what is about to come next. Most of the time, the scare factor lasts for the length of the running time and then goes away as the viewer finishes the film and moves on with their hectic real life. The imprint that "Pet Sematary" makes is more lasting. Director Mary Lambert and screenwriter Stephen King (adapting from his own novel) introduce an idyllic family at the onset who are identifiable, happy and likeable, and then proceed for the next 100 minutes to viciously rip their world apart. The audience, in turn, is left sucker-punched and devastated by the events that unfold, afraid to watch any longer the destruction of the characters, yet unwilling to turn away from the screen. Lambert and King sharply hold you in their gaze, spinning the story in unfathomably horrific directions while never losing sight of their dramatic compass. Above all, "Pet Sematary" is a remarkably mature and thought-provoking look at the mysterious nature of death and the complexity of the grieving process.

The Creeds arrive at their new home in Maine with the same sort of high hopes the Lutzes had when they first pulled up to their dream house in Amityville, New York. Louis, a doctor, has uprooted the family for work, and he and wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) cannot help but notice upon getting there that the road beside their property is a favorite for truckers. When young daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) points out a path into the woods behind their house, kindly neighbor Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) offers to show them where it leads—back to the incorrectly-spelled "Pet Sematary," where heartbroken children and families have buried their beloved animals over the years. Soon after, the Creeds' luck begins to sputter out. On his first day on the job, Louis is unable to save the life of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a university student wounded in a freak accident. Though deceased, Pascow shows up in what might be Louis' dream or something else, warning him of the Indian burial ground located beyond the pet cemetery. "The border wasn't meant to be crossed," Pascow tells him. "The land is sour." Louis doesn't yet know what he means.

When the family cat, Church, is hit and killed by a truck while the rest of Louis' family is visiting Rachel's parents for Thanksgiving, Jud suggest that Ellie isn't ready to lose her favorite pet. They travel together up to the Micmac burial ground and lay Church to rest there. Hours later, Church shows back up at the house, smellier and more irritable than usual, but undeniably the same feline. Death will proceed to find its way into the Creeds' lives again and again. When their housekeeper, Missy (Susan Blommaert), suffering from a long-standing illness, hangs herself in her basement, it kicks up old traumatic memories Rachel has had since childhood of the passing of her own sister, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek). When tragedy eventually strikes closer to home and Louis and Rachel find themselves mourning their beautiful 2-year-old son Gage (Miko Hughes), Louis is unable to stop thinking about what might happen if he buries his baby in the same dirt that brought Church back. "The soil of a man's heart is stonier," Jud portentously tell him at one point, "and what you own always comes back to ya'."

Disregarding 1986's disparate coming-of-age classic "Stand by Me," "Pet Sematary" quite possibly is the best film adaptation of Stephen King's work. 1980's "The Shining" comes close, but that iconic effort is infamous for the creative license Stanley Kubrick took in translating it to the screen. By comparison, King wrote the script for "Pet Sematary" himself, and, with only a few minor exceptions, has remained truthful to his source material. This is a horrifying movie, but not without flashes of humor. The picture is set in the real world, portrays a conceivably authentic familial unit, and is piercingly human in the often raw emotions it rattles up. The story takes the occasional flight of fancy, for sure, but director Mary Lambert reels in its over-the-top elements or approaches them from a skewed nightmarish point-of-view.

Before the more overt grisliness has begun, Lambert has treated the characters as those of a straightforward drama. Missy's unexpected suicide, not adding up to anything more than it is in the story, allows the Creeds to put their own lives into perspective and acknowledge the inevitability of death. Rachel knows all about losing someone close. When she was a little girl, her sister, Zelda, suffered from spinal meningitis. Kept away in the upstairs bedroom like a "dirty secret," Zelda's emaciated body grew distorted and her mental health turned to clinical insanity. Rachel, meanwhile, was left alone to care for her—a child herself who had begun to take the shape of a monster—and was the one who witnessed Zelda's ultimate death by choking. At the time, in the back of her mind, Rachel was glad. Zelda, depicted in flashback before popping up twice more as a spectral purveyor of danger, is the most unnerving film creation in memory, and that is not just merely some emptily grandiose statement, either. Brilliantly performed by Andrew Hubatsek (a male actor), Zelda's upsetting, tormented, skin-crawling presence weighs down on the proceedings like a hideous wraith, the very embodiment of every fear and hang-up a person can conceivably have in relation to guilt and death.

The untimely loss of toddler son Gage is ruinous to the Creed family. There is a chance for them to move on, but Louis' denial over what has happened and his knowledge of the burial grounds' power proves too tempting an equation. Indeed, what returns is not his son, and it is Louis' fatal misjudgment in messing with the laws of nature that spells doom for him and almost everyone he has ever cared about. Filled with anguish, heartbreak, veritable frights, and an escalating sense of approaching calamity, the third act of "Pet Sematary" works magnificently as both horror and tragedy, nearly Shakespearean in its bleak turn of events and avalanche of dramatic force. When Louis decides to go back to the burial ground with a third body, all along knowing what has happened before, it is logical for viewers to become skeptical of the character's intelligence. What they fail to realize is that Louis has already unwittingly committed such atrocities that he is at the point of no return. When he buries that third body, he is burying himself, and he knows it.

Dale Midkiff, a consistently working actor who has for reasons unknown never hit it big, is close to faultless as Louis Creed. The journey Midkiff takes in his character's shoes would be demanding for any actor, and he pulls off every emotion with a gritty honesty and vulnerability that few performers could have played so well. As wife Rachel, Denise Crosby (best-known for TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation") does an equally fine job, displaying the love she has for the life she has built and the discomfort of a woman who has never been able to accept death or wrap her mind around it. Fred Gwynne is a standout as neighbor Jud Crandall, down-to-earth, wise and conversational in his reading of the sort of guy you'd like to sit on the porch with and shoot the breeze. And, as kids Ellie and Gage, Blaze Berdahl (and twin sister Beau) threatens pushing too hard at times, but handles difficult scenes like a pro, and Miko Hughes, two years old at the time of filming, is downright amazing. Even if his performance is the product of an expert editor, this can still not discount Hughes' naturalism in front of the camera.

A motion picture of loss and regret, "Pet Sematary" imagines the worst in its view of the permanent disintegration of a family. Haunting, sorrowful and reverberatingly eerie, the film is also complemented by the punk-rock flair of The Ramones (who perform the title track over the end credits) and the thoroughly unsettling, gothically enhanced instrumental score by Elliot Goldenthal (2007's "Across the Universe"). That "Pet Sematary" is as creepy as it is without bogging down in genre trappings is a rare miracle in horror circles. Director Mary Lambert trusts in the universality of her characters, their tightly drawn relationships with each other, and the insurmountable conflicts they face to carry the story forward. It is these things that most resonate—these are what we relate to and can connect with, after all—and the reason why "Pet Sematary" has endured and not been forgotten in the twenty years since its release.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman