Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” (1983) is perhaps his darkest hour, taking the shocking child death of his earlier “Cujo” (1981) to its natural next stage: an oppressively grim, “Monkey’s Paw”-inspired study of a nice family man who goes to extreme lengths to keep his family together in a time of unimaginable grief. King, despite his oft-quoted distaste for the novel’s subject matter, adapted it for the screen himself for this box-office hit, which struggles to do the story emotional justice but delivered a visceral cinematic experience in a barren period for hard-edged American horror. The set-up naturally invites corny cat-scares while also losing audience empathy by immediately drawing attention to the shitty parenting of Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, who fail to notice toddler Gage (Miko Hughes) almost wandering into the path of a speeding 18 wheel truck in their introduction scene. The performances are variable: Midkiff is movie-star handsome as the all-American dad but lacks the range needed for Louis Creed’s harrowing character arc. Crosby – her character referring to Gage as “the kid” and “the baby” in a way that few parents would consider credible – is an oddly alienating, frosty screen presence regardless of the tragedies the story throws her way. Blaze Berdahl is excruciating as young Ellie Creed, whose cat Church becomes the first tragically killed test subject for the nearby, corpse-reviving “Pet Sematary”.
The rest of the cast excel, however. Susan Blommaert is a disarming presence as the ill-fated, cancer-ridden Missy Dandridge (dropped from the 2019 remake), while Fred Gwynne emanates warmth as the yarn-spinning old-timer neighbour – with the added nostalgia factor for monster kids who recall him as Herman Munster from two decades earlier. Brad Greenquist plays Louis’ “spirit guide” Pascow as a grinning, omnipresent harbinger in the tradition of Griffin Dunne’s walking corpse in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. If the shoehorned melodramatic flashback sequences make the film play out almost like a grotesque soap opera, they do yield Crosby’s recollections of her physically and mentally ill sister Zelda – a (literally) twisted character right out of back-bedroom Gothic melodrama who is visualised in such horrifying terms she almost upstages the wrenching moment of Gage’s subsequent death on the road. Lambert ill-judges a couple of key moments (notably, Midkiff yelling “Noooooo!” skyward in slo-mo), but delivers a mean-spirited, ghoulish horror movie. The extended climax is splendidly nasty, boasting the genuinely macabre spectacle of a scalpel-wielding dead kid eerily decked out with top hat and cane, graphically hacking at Gwynne’s ankle and trilling cheerfully “I brought you something Mommy…” This climactic carnage sets the scene for a blackly comic punchline straight from the book, confirming the EC Comics influence and providing Crosby with her one scene-stealing moment as a pus-oozing corpse.
PET SEMATARY II *** USA 1992 Dir: Mary Lambert. 96 mins
Critically derided and commercially ignored, this is one of those tonally bizarre Hollywood sequels that holds up better than most due to its decision (via returning director Mary Lambert) to cut loose, embrace the clichés and have fun. A faux Gothic horror prologue features Edward Furlong (top-billed in his first post-T2 movie) looking on as his actress-mom (Darlanne Fluegel) is electrocuted on the set of a horror movie. He moves in with estranged veterinarian Dad Anthony Edwards in the town that was host to the first film’s mayhem: the Creed murders are now the stuff of campfire stories and the rumour mill suggest Ellie Creed hacked up her own grandparents and has just escaped from the insane asylum. Persecuted at school by bullies who look like they missed the casting call for SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK, Furlong befriends an equally downtrodden fat kid who lives in fear of his bullying stepdad-Sheriff (Clancy Brown, with an awkward 90’s Hugh Grant haircut). When Brown shoots dead the kid’s beloved pet dog, you can guess which direction the plot heads.
Its tone set by an outrageously contrived, slo-mo, jet-propelled cat scare early on, PS2 deemphasises straight scares in favour of gore gags and surreal, post-ELM STREET visuals. If you thought one loopy nightmare sequence in which Furlong imagines his dead mom with the dead dog’s head wasn’t out-there enough, Edwards has a variation on the same dream in which he is straddled by said dead dog-woman! Brown returns from the dead grunting and snarling in the 80’s tradition of wacky zombie gore comedies – and ravages his repelled wife in bed -though Lambert cuts away before we get into queasy RE-ANIMATOR territory. Gratuitous efforts to link these shenanigans to the original rope in a mad taxidermist who remembers working on Church the cat, but mostly Lambert laps up the chance to ditch that film’s serious horror in favour of free-wheeling splatter comedy. For a major studio early 90’s movie, it’s riotously gruesome, with exploding heads, melting faces, poked eyeballs, power drill abuse and Brown cheerfully shoving motorcycles into the faces of local delinquents. Steve Johnson’s crew provide the fine old-school gore FX for the anything-goes second half and the soundtrack has an eclectic mix of Traci Lords, Jesus and Mary Chain and (echoing its predecessor) The Ramones.
UNEARTHED AND UNTOLD: THE PATH TO PET SEMATARY ** USA 2017 Dir: John Campopiano, Justin White. 97 mins
Mary Lambert’s gruesomely fun MTV version of Stephen King’s most wrenching horror novel made a fortune and enjoyed a lucrative afterlife – though it’s too bad that one of the genre’s true giants (George Romero) never got the chance to bring his interpretation to the big screen. This feature documentary sketches the project’s years in development Hell, alongside King’s struggle with the writing of the book but, with King (and Mary Lambert) nowhere in sight and no critical analysis of the finished product, it’s mostly a bland account of how great everyone was on set and what a great movie it is. Movie historians, residents of the town in which they shot (yawn), Sean Clark and many cast members all offer soundbite contributions that mostly tell us very little about the film’s making. What’s more, in elevating the film to “classic” status, some commentators denigrate the genre itself: one Fangoria writer suggests horror was M.I.A. after the slasher cycle, with no “real” horror movies until PET SEMATARY came along…conveniently overlooking a boom period in the mid-80’s of inventive, witty genre films that have stood the test of time. Another interviewee speaks of FRIDAY THE 13TH and its contemporaries in disparaging terms before falling back on the patronising early 90’s Hollywood studio executive talk of “It’s not a horror film…it’s about life and death…” (Bullshit detector: 98.8%). Heather Langenkamp and Dee Wallace have no direct links to the movie but turn up presumably because they had a couple of minutes to kill at a convention, while no one is really interested in the viewpoint of the guy who played the airport gate agent or the film’s “lead greensman”. The insight provided is mostly redundant: oh, so three year old Miko wasn’t in any danger during filming of the truck scene…shocker! There are quite touching reminisces of Fred Gwynne, and Dale Midkiff, Hughes, Denise Crosby and composer Elliot Goldenthal share some engaging anecdotes – but as a documentary, it’s visually dull, with no clips from the movie itself and unimaginative use of the talking heads. A lot is left uncovered – including the film’s battle with the MPAA – and we’re left with a feature-length “making of” that has no more depth than a featurette a third of its length.
PET SEMATARY **** USA 2019 Dir: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. 100 mins
The unprecedented success of IT (2017) helped usher this second adaptation of PET SEMATARY to the screen, with the co-directors of the superb STARRY EYES bringing a much stronger cast to their own take on the original material. Screenwriter Jeff Buhler (also behind THE GRUDGE reboot) strips away the novel’s secondary characters and alters the flashback-laden structure of the book so that the only significant speaking roles are for Jud (John Lithgow) and the Creed family. Highly atmospheric in capturing the supernatural pull and malevolent power of the “sematary”, it reduces Pascow to a sombre, incidental hanger-on and affords a glimpse of cat-masked rituals conducted by otherwise unseen locals. Humourless and dread-infused, it once again follows Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) setting up home with their two kids Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), but this time nails the casting. Clarke adeptly captures Louis’ despair as he prepares to do the unthinkable following an enormous loss. Seimetz credibly portrays Rachel’s lifelong guilt and mental scars following her part in her terminally ill sister’s death and Lithgow touchingly underplays as the lonely, elegiac old widower who dotes on the Creed children and nurses his own regrets and losses. Zelda and Jud’s late wife Norma are two past “ghosts” exploited by the Sematary’s power when the shit hits the fan.
The build-up is quiet and eerie, and the inevitable 21st century jump scares are not over-used, though it really comes into its own when a clever misdirection playing on our knowledge of the novel and the earlier film changes the course of the second half entirely. Though this shift from the source material was spoiled by the film’s trailers, the road accident that sets up the narrative turn is a sequence of significant power. The second half is now constructed around a returning “dead” character able to articulate post-mortem resentment and a sense of bitterness at being brought back. The denouement still brings cat-and-mouse suspense and a wince-inducing gore moment but takes on a more upsetting resonance in its portrait of a pre-pubescent zombie – notably in a horrifyingly intimate bathtub sequence that will likely haunt loving fathers everywhere. Further story changes risk lapsing into absurdity, but the sincerity of the acting and execution keep it on course and the replacement of the original EC Comics-style ending with a more subtly disturbing final family reunion perfectly suits the sombre tone of this smart reinterpretation.
Reviews by Steven West