In an effort to find something a little more, well, let's just say “Trusted” for today's review, I sought out a Stephen King. Namely, Pet Semetary, a 1989 movie that hopefully carried a bit more promise in it's execution. Films based off of Stephen King's stories operate on a very unique gradient going from excellent examples of horror to ridiculous but entertaining shlock. At the very least, all of his movies have proven to be watchable by some stretch of the imagination. I understand that Pet Sematary is one of the more well regarded King films but one of the less culturally influential. Granted, I've never seen the film, but you don't need to see The Shining to know that we owe creepy twins and REDRUM to that film, just as we know that IT can attribute to the local rash of costumed jackasses wandering around these days. Let's unearth Pet Sematary.
The camera opens with panning shots of the titular graveyard, showing off concentric circles of improvised grave markers, most of them bearing discarded collars or the occasional fish bowl.
God, this is depressing.
Some creepy atonal childrens choir sings over the whole scene and the camera leaves all that behind, pushing forward to a family moving into their new home in Ludlow, Maine. Good god, why is it always Maine? What did Maine do to you Stephen King?
These folks, their sixish daughter and infant son, Gage have moved here from Chicago and are eager to start a new life out in the country for some reason. As they explore, the daughter Ellie decides to play around on a tire swing, which immediately collapses around the same time that Gage wanders into traffic.
Holy hell, this family is doomed.
Gage is saved from being rendered into road pizza by a passing truck by Judd Crandall, an old man who lives on his own across the street from them, with the most adorable accent I've ever heard. He chats up the new neighbours, with the father Louis explaining that he's planning to join the local hospital. He heads into the backyard and notes the simple pathway leading off his property and through the trees, wondering where it leads. The family cat, Churchill introduces himself by being an asshole and prancing off and the folks settle down for the night.
That evening, Jud shares a beer with Louis and explains the presence of the Pet Cemetary in the woods behind his house. I can tell you that the way that the main road is shot, the trucks that barrel by the house are quite terrifying. Jud comments that the graveyard primarily exists because of that road, as it “Has eaten up a lot of dogs and cats in it's time”.
The next day, the family decides to take a hike out to the woods, guided by Jud. Oh boy, what a great idea to picnic up at an animal graveyard. The kids'll love it!
As a matter of fact, Ellie does kind of love it, skipping between the markers and exploring while Jud merely comments that kids have to learn about death some time. Children created the cemetery, it's unique name stemming from a misspelled sign hung over the entrance. Rachael, the mother, is less enthused, eager to protect her kids from such heavy thoughts. That night, Ellie even talks to her father about the thought of losing a pet, worried about the longevity of her cat. The discussion inspires the parents to take Churchill to the vet within the week, hoping that getting him fixed will reduce his wandering tendencies and keep him away from the road. Again, Rachael is very quick to make promises to her kids that she can't keep when she tells them that everything will be fine, which Louis confronts her on.
As he heads out to the car, some hobbling lady that I haven't seen before mumbles something about her refusal to stop swearing in front of the children and limps inside with a basket of laundry. A woman after my own heart.
The idyllic family life is quickly interposed with a shot of the visceral duties of a doctor once Louis gets to work, busily patching up patients and tending to one man with a particularly garish head wound. Despite his efforts, the man with the open skull dies, gripping onto Louis and mumbling about the soil in men's hearts. Okay...
That night as the family slumbers, an incredibly vocal mob of crickets descends on the house until Louis is startled into wakefulness by Head Wound, who's chilling by his bed and asking him to come outside. Wow, we're barely twenty minutes into the film and we've already decided to jump had-first into fully manifested ghosts and elaborate hauntings. For all his chilling appearance, Head Wound seems friendly enough, offering to help Louis the same way that Louis tried to help him. For his part, Louis seems to take all of this quite well, though he may just think that he's dreaming. The two wander outside to the pet cemetery, where Head Wound points to a wall of fallen trees and warns his doctor not to go any further before disappearing.
Such is the problem with any horror film when it comes to the lessons a phantom may try to impart: When you tell someone to stay out of the forbidden closet of mystery and don't tell them why, you really only have yourself to blame when they decide to peek inside and get eaten by something. The next morning, Louis wakes up in his bed, thinking that it was all just a dream until he sees his dirty feet...
After a quick bit of research reveals Head Wound's name to be Victor Pascow, Louis decides to banish his family to his in-laws for thanksgiving, sticking around considering that he can barely stand Rachael's father. He gets a call from Judd and finds that the road has claimed Church after all. Judd offers his condolences as Louis peels Church off of his front lawn, with his bare hands no less. That's real hygenic there, Doctor Creed. He considers hanging on to the news of the cat until after his family returns, But Judd suggests that there might be a better way...
He and Louis head out, down to the Sematary with cat in hand. They cross the barrier of trees and venture into the woods, Judd toting a pick and shovel on his back. At around this point I would start to wonder why I agreed to follow my shovel-toting neighbour out into the back woods and well out of sight of civilization with my dead cat, but I suppose Louis is really just up for anything, be it proposed by the living or the dead. If some vampire drove up to his place and was all “Yo, wanna see a dead body?” I have no doubt that this doctor would hope right in back. Dr. Ben Carson shows better judgment than this guy.
After what seems like an hour long hike and a climb up a steep escarpment, they finally arrive at The Burial Ground, a ritual site seemingly built by Native Americans.
I have to commend the design of the place; a few well placed sticks an rocks really make the place seem menacing and ancient. There is something eldritch about the burial ground, and very tangible. Judd promptly drops his pick and shovel and instructs Louis to dig, noting that “It's gotta be you that puts it in the ground”. Okay, I am smelling a gangland execution coming up.
So, Louis buries his cat and the two head back home, Judd encouraging his neighbour to keep what occurred up there confidential, repeating the words that Pascow said to Louis. “The soil in men's hearts is rocky”. I hope that if they keep repeating those words, eventually they'll mean something.
The next day, Louis gets a call from Chicago. It seems that Ellie is upset about something, claiming to have had a dream about Churchill dying and her father burying him with Judd's help.
Okay, we need to pump the breaks for a minute. This premonition that Ellie Creed had has introduced the third, unrelated supernatural event that the Creed family has experienced since they moved here. That's what you get when you go to Stephen King's Maine: Before you know it, your car is haunted, an alien is psychicaly communicating with your goldfish, your dead neighbour is yelling at you in your dreams and your daughter is talking to a sewer-dwelling clown. This combination of a foreshadowing ghost, a Cursed Indian Burial Ground and now the daughter's manifesting psychic powers represent a common issue I have with Stephen King's work. This cluster of loosely connected paranormal occurences is bogging down the story with a few too many ideas. King has a habit of mounding one idea for a spooky story on top of another with little connective tissue between them, leaving the story feel bloated and a little confusing. More often than not, this needless complication takes the form of a child or adult with utterly unexplained psychic powers, which you might remember in works such as The Langoliers, Dreamcatcher, Children of the Corn and so on. I feel like there are better ways to explain the plot or add complications than some kid rolling their eyes back head and muttering out a quick synopsis. I understand that King has written a HELL of a lot of books, and on occasion things can overlap, but maybe he could lay off a few tropes for a while.
The next day, Church pops up, alive and well, though clearly looking like he dragged himself out of the grave. He gives Louis a scratch, seemingly irate at being left to dig HIMSELF up and wanders off. That night, he and Judd share another drink, and Judd explains the nature of the burial ground: Things put in the ground come back to life, but what you get isn't exactly what you put in. He explains that he used the burial ground on his dog, Spot, when he was a boy. The dog was never the same, more like a hungry piece of meat than his canine companion. At this point, he openly acknowledges that creating an evil cat revenant to keep a child happy was probably a bad idea, but he says that he intended to help protect her from adult concepts like death.
Wait, aren't you the same guy who brought that girl to the graveyard in the first place so that she could learn about death? And also, you know that the Burial Ground doesn't work exactly as advertised, yet you introduced Loius to it in the first place. ALSO, you know that animals buried there come back as hostile and dangerous and you decided to give one to an unaware six year old? The ball-dropping that Judd commits in this scene is staggering for a character that, up until now, seemed to be an intelligent and capable voice of reason. I can see where that parody of his character from South Park came from. He dismisses Louis with a reminder that the ground should not be taken lightly, and the doctor heads home. The resurrected Churchill continues to act slightly more evil than an average cat, and the wife and kids finally return.
The plot takes a minor detour when Mumbles the Maid rather unexpectedly hangs herself in her basement due to cancer. This scene kind of comes right the hell out of nowhere, and doesn't seem to strike much initial purpose beyond getting the obligatory Stephen King cameo out of the way as the priest at her funeral. The purpose of all this becomes a LITTLE clearer when the characters all start to talk about their experiences with death and loss. It seems that Rachael had an older sister while she was growing up that died of Spinal Meningitis when she was young. The flashbacks depict her sister as a woman with a very...odd bone structure and visible spine, and these scenes might have been a little more disturbing if Rachael's “Sister” wasn't clearly played by a male contortionist in a wig. She mentions that she ended up hoping her sister dead close to the end of her life, if only to spare the rest of the family the suffering of having to look after her, and that the pain she endured made her spiteful and bitter. I suppose this scene exists to remind us all of the important lesson that the terminally ill are cruel, hideous monsters that we should only wish death upon.
Some time later, the family and Judd are enjoying an idyllic picnic in the sunlight-kissed field next to their house in a scene that carries all the warmth and familial innocence of Bruce Wayne leaving the movie theatre with his parents. The scene cuts back and forth between the Creeds and a shipping truck piloted by some Jonah Hill-looking dude as it becomes very obvious that things are going to get nasty. Gage flies a kite a little too far out and runs off to retrieve it, while the entire group is distracted by the proud moment of Ellie uttering her first profanity. How many times can you take your eyes off of that damn kid? By the time that Louis notices that his son has wandered out into the road and started sprinting out to him, it's a bit too late to get to him before that oncoming truck does. The panicking father even trips a few feet away for good measure and...welp.
The scene depicting the death of Gage is pretty well shot and the camera resorts to that ol' Mad Max style “Cut to flying bloodied personal possesion” shot to save us from the visual of a 2 year old being flattened by a semi. On Louis's part, I can imagine that being able to properly display the mind-obliterating anguish of being a father who has just lost his youngest child is difficult even for a skilled actor, but even in a scene like this, I have to question the authenticity of a man sinking to his knees and letting out a big, loud “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!”
So yeah, that kid got wrecked. To add insult to injury, Louis's father-in-law actually picks a fight at the funeral, punching the father in the face, knocking the child's coffin over and screaming that he is a murderer. Holy hell, that is rough. This story has started piling on the trauma with a shovel to the point of being almost unrealistic. If I were one of Louis's friends at that funeral, I probably would let the poor guy get one or two swings in before pulling him off of his wife's dad. Back at home, Ellie ponders the idea that a merciful God would bring a families loved ones back to them. And Churchill continues to be a shit.
Finally, Judd comes over that night and puts the cards on the table: Of course Louis is thinking of burying his son up at the Burial Ground. He reminds him what a shitty idea this is, stating the citing that somebody actually tried this before with their own son, a KIA soldier. He came back alright, but it didn't exactly pan out.
Judd was there the night they burned that house to the ground to stop the abomination within, even as he was eating his own father, and offers a simple, chilling warning: Sometimes, dead is better.
Rachael heads back to the in-laws with Ellie, and her father makes at least an attempt to apologize for his behavior at the funeral, though by this point, Louis is mentally shattered. Maybe think about that before you vocally and physically assault a man inches away from his son's casket. As soon as they get to Chicago, Ellie immediately has more psychic visions out of nowhere about the dangerous path that her father is taking, mentioning Pascow by name. Rachael...somehow recognizes this name, even though I never saw her even be made aware of his existence up until now, and makes a run for it, determined to get back to Maine and prevent her husband from doing something terrible, all with Pascow hanging out nearby.
Louis heads up to his son's grave with a shovel, ignoring the advice of Judd, the experience that he had with Churchill's reanimation, the story of the initial attempt at human reanimation that resulted in the deaths of everyone involved, his own common sense and even Pascow's ghost visibly standing there and yelling at him that this is a really shitty plan. Louis is the five year old that you spend five minutes explaining the dangers of touching a hot stove, only to have him touch it as soon as you turn your back. I am beginning to see why his son kept wandering into traffic. He digs up Gage's corpse and books it, all while Rachael has more dreams of her sister trying to haunt her. She wakes up on the airplane back to Maine, with my absolute favourite shot of the movie: The distraught mother willing the plane to land faster while the mutilated phantom of Bascomb watched her while looking really damned pleased with himself.
She lands and sprints onto her connecting flight with Bascomb helping her along, back in 1989 when you could just bolt through a departure gate while offering the flight attendant a rushed IOU.
As Lous makes the trek to the Burial Ground, more and more forces attempt to dissuade him, including an unexplained screaming face that lunges out of some rocks and then disappears. Where the hell did that come from? Who was that? What the hell?
Rachael gets a flat tire on the last leg of her journey and is forced to hitch hike back home, arriving too late to prevent Louis from burying his son's body and trudging back home. As he sleeps, something small and smelling of the grave enters his room and steals a scalpel from his doctor's bag. Across the street, Judd wakes up and notices a trail of small, muddy footprints leading inside. He quickly puts two and two together and begins searching his house, something about his expression and movements making him look a lot like Leslie Nielsen. Pulling out his switchblade, Judd looks fully ready to knife this kid as soon as he sees him, but the giggling Gage gets the drop on him, slicing his achilles tendon and giving him a nasty Glasgow Grin with his knife before finally coming in to view.
And it isss...just...a baby. It's just the actor who played Gage wearing a little funeral suit with some minor scarification on his forehead. Gotta say, that coroner did a bang up job on the body if that's what he looks like after getting mowed down by an over turned 16-wheeler. Is that really the best you could do when it came to making a hellish abomination child? Get that kid to sit still long enough to at least put on a little eyeshadow? Come on, I paid for the movie, I wanna see you corpse up that toddler! He proceeds to be very unintimidating at a gaping Judd and then chomps on his neck like the littlest zombie of all. For so much build up, this is very disappointing.
Rachael enters the house soon after and it's the same old song and dance as Judd. We get one more flash of her transvestite sister (Hey, if she wants to be referred to as she, I'll call her she) and then Gage shows up again. In a little...top hat and cane. And a dress. This kid does not know how to put on the Ritz. I get the feeling that maybe Bascomb's ghost could have braced her a bit more for what she was gonna see, or at least warned her that this film was taking a hard turn for the unintentionally hilarious. She gets knifed up offscreen and we cut to Louis waking up with a pratfall. Great.
He notices that things are askew and gets a call from Gage, summoning him over to Judd's place. He loads up with a few syringes and gets ready for his showdown with a toddler, testing out the poison on Churchill and finally putting that damn cat down. At this point, Louis is pretty unhinged, which is horror movie acting code for “Just stop trying”. This isn't helped when he enters Judd's messed up place and hears Gage taunting him from upstairs. He finds Judd's mauled body, then quickly afterwords, Rachael's hanging corpse.
Dammit, they killed off Tasha Yar AGAIN! And it's still unsatisfying! So much for any character arc she might have been having with her sister and everything. That is gonna lead to some awkward dinners with the in-laws. A cackling Gage appears from above, and I have to wonder exactly how this two year old managed to carry these corpses around, much less drag them upstairs. It is not a matter of strength or capability, but rather of physical dimensions. I do not care bout how inhumanely strong this kids is, a child barely clearing the knees of an average person cannot carry their limp body up a ladder. We're talking about leverage here. Then, in a very bizarre trend in the Stephen King films I've been watching, a grown ass man wrestles with a much smaller opponent, this time a scalpel wielding baby. He finally manages to inject the kid, who stumbles off to collapse in the most adorable death scene ever, and Louis leaves the house with his wife's corpse, torching it behind him.
Bascomb's ghost makes one last chance trying to warn Louis against doing exactly what he's thinking of doing, but Doc is completely checked out at this point, rambling about how he'll make it right. His wife died very recently after all, so the process will have a different effect on her. Damn, now Louis is proving himself to be the five year old that burns himself on a stove after you explain why he shouldn't, then proceeds to keep touching the stove, determined to figure out what it tastes like. The last scene of the film is a completely broken Louis playing solitaire on the kitchen until a sullied Rachael wanders in. She shows off a little bit of the gross skull face she got and they kiss. We fade to black as she grabs a kitchen knife behind his back, and Louis actually sounds surprised as the credits roll.
Pet Sematary is a movie all about how we deal with death and loss. Some believe it must be confronted and discussed, like Judd, while others try to shelter themselves and others from it, such as Racheal. These ideals can change in the face of genuine loss, such as the death of a pet or loved one. Some people are haunted by their past experiences with death, such as Rachael's sister, and other deal with it every day like Louis at his job. And sometimes psychic's come back as ghosts or something. As much of a fizzle as the last quarter of this film is, it still has excellent pacing and set up through most of the storyline, fueled by solid characters. The repeated lapses in judgment of the main characters can be somewhat explained by the influence of the Ground itself. Judd mentions that it gets inside peoples heads, wanting to be used. The film raises some troubling questions about the nature of ethics and connection. How far would you be willing to go to bring back a loved one? Is untimely death ever fair, and if you had the chance to re balance the cosmic scales , no matter the cost, would you? It isn't hard to imagine a parent ignoring every warning or possible disastrous outcome if it meant seeing his dead child again.
I can suggest this film for a spooky, sometimes disturbing film with the occasional bout of ridiculousness. I also recommend the original story, which King actually avoided publishing for numerous years after writing it, as it haunted even him. Plus, that book also has a wendigo. And wendigos are rad.