Pet Sematary (1989)
Rated R for gruesome child death and brains leaking out of someone's head. It's '80s horror. You should basically know what you are getting into. There's some uncomfortable stuff that involves genetic deformation, which is kind of a gross trope the more I think about it. There's some language. If you are squeamish about corpses, buckle up because there's a lot of stuff based around that. There's a ghost. He's a gross ghost, but he's nice apparently. Regardless, R.
DIRECTOR: Mary Lambert
The trailer for the new one looked sick! That's why I watched it. I'm sure no one is shocked by the spike in rentals that this movie probably just got. I read the book too. Okay, I audiobooked the Stephen King novel. I think that might have been the worst thing I could have done before watching this film. Stephen King wrote the screenplay for the 1989 adaptation of his book and I see all of the parts in shorthand. But Michael C. Hall read the book. That means I had Michael C. Hall play the part of Louis Creed, the protagonist of the book. Michael C. Hall is absolutely amazing. You know who isn't amazing? Pretty much of the cast of this movie except for Miko Hughes, who plays Gage. That's right. The kid who plays the two-year-old is entirely worth the watching of this movie. I mean, I'm never letting my kids be in movies. But I'm glad that Miko Hughes is really good at being adorable and terrifying at the same time.
There's a definite quality jump when it comes to Stephen King adaptations before the era of Netflix. The grand-daddy of them all was The Shining by Stanley Kubrick (I have to stress that so no one gets confused with the TV version...which I also kind of like). I know that people like the original It, but that TV version doesn't survive the test of time. Watching these terrifying movies in today's environment is a little unfair. Stephen King is, oddly enough, having a renaissance with his stuff. Yeah, The Dark Tower was an abomination, but most of his stuff now looks the way it should have looked in the '80s. Some of this I could chalk up to the '80s. The '80s were a remarkably fun time for horror. It was being produced en masse. Some of it was absolutely phenomenal. But a lot of it was a rush job. I know that people preach about Pet Sematary, and more often, Pet Sematary 2. But this was my first time watching it. I remember when this movie came out. I remember being terrified by previews and the box at Blockbuster Video. But I never watched it. I never really wanted to watch it. As such, I had no nostalgia for this film that I'm sure people have. Pet Sematary feels completely soulless (pun intended). It is a movie that hits every beat of the novel. I kind of like the novel. The novel is a very slow Stephen King book. From a structural perspective, it almost breaks every rule. There are scary events scattered throughout the book. But in terms of actual horror, all of it is pretty much compressed into the finale, building upon the theme of "Dead is better." The story consists of Louis Creed learning to question everything he knows about medicine and morality for the sake of having his son back. It plays around with mysticism and the occult a bit. That's completely fine. But it is really a character study of Louis. King creates a world where every person in Louis's life represents another element of an argument. Louis is almost a tabula rasa. He is sheer logic. As a man of medicine, he is grounded by fact. Death is a part of life. He should try to prevent death. But whenever he can't prevent death, he knows that it is logical to move on. He's never cold about it, but he is an extremely practical human being. Throughout the course of the story, others represent other philosophies. His wife is extremely emotional. She avoids logic when it comes to death throughout the book. Her reactions are gutteral and knee-jerk. Jud is the moral character who's morals seem somewhat compromised. He's the one always spouting off that "Dead is better." Honestly, if I could get away with it, I would use Pet Sematary to teach about the rhetorical triangle in a hot second. But trying to film that exactly isn't really practical. If these characters are just coming into spout off philosophies and watch Louis change over the story, it doesn't make a compelling film. The entire book is pretty much in the movie. Some of the minor characters are reduced to traits that other characters carry, but for the sake of the film, the entire thing is in there. The movie is less than two hours long. This means that this long and complex story is really truncated to extremely useless scenes. It actually faces the same problem that The Dark Tower did. It tried to do everything when it should have focused on one thing really well. On top of that, they added an unnecessary death to the movie. Missy Dandridge is added to the story for no absolute reason. King has her foreshadow her own death in the first scene and then just deliver on it in the middle of the film. Again, the movie is mostly a build up to its climax and not a horror story throughout. Adding her felt like a studio request to make the film scarier.
I'm going to come out and say it. This movie is bad because it has absolutely terrible performances and weak directoral choices. Anyone involved in this movie, I apologize. I know that it was a different time and the expectations were probably all over the place for this film. I'm going to be doing some dunking on performances and I'm going to chalk up a lot of it to "It was the '80s." I'm sure that your performances are better in other movies. I mean, Denise Crosby gets a million passes just for being a Next Generation alum and her involvement with my favorite documentary of all time. But Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed is...really bad? Again, I had Michael C. Hall in my head. Dexter was playing Louis Creed. That's so good. There's honestly a scene where Midkiff as Creed rolls out of bed and hits his head on the nightstand. The nightstand is very far away, so he kind of has to launch his head into it. If my analysis of the separate characters playing the different appeals is accurate, then he's playing logic flawlessly. The range on this character is nowhere. He's somber, somber, somber, screaming. He might be one of the most unlikable characters I've seen in film. It just screams like no one really cared about getting the character or the film right. It feels very budget. I don't know how, but I didn't care about Jud Crandall at all. He's portrayed by the late Fred Gwynne. I don't know if there's anything wrong about the performance, but he's very shoehorned into the plot. It actually makes little to no sense that these characters are friends. It's actually a bit of a stretch in the book, but King has time to develop these characters. We have insight into Louis's skeptical relationship with Jud because we have this very fleshed out character. I'm throwing more shade at Dale Midkiff, but I get none of that from his character. He's just kind of...there. This old man and Louis Creed, just hanging out. Maybe it's not the performers' faults at all. I really get the vibe that the movie just didn't take the time to do anything. You know when people say that "the book was better." I normally hate that, but Pet Sematary might be the quintessential case of this playing out. It's either the book is slavish to the material, like it is here, or it completely ignores the material. The best of adaptations gets to the root of the story and build that up. Looking at To Kill a Mockingbird, that story ignores a ton of the moments from the novel. Instead, it gives particular focus to Scout developing as a character in the shadow of an awful trial. It ignores so much of the family dynamic of Scout and her extended relatives. (I have to apologize. I try getting an analysis out a day, but I had a doctor's appointment and night class at a school that has Weebly on its blocked websites page.) I know that it seems like a "no, duh" moment to say that Pet Sematary doesn't have the staying power of To Kill a Mockingbird. But the thing about the whole endeavor is that it didn't learn a darned lesson from it. I think Pet Sematary might be kind of precious for Stephen King. I know, he probably loves all of his books and claim them all to be his favorite. But in the introduction to the book, King talks about how Pet Sematary is the one that actually scares him. There are all these moments that tie to his life and it seems kind of precious. There's no real distance when writing the screenplay. I also think that King works really well in novel form, but kind of lacks any punch when he writes his own stuff. I hear that he's really personal about letting other people adapt his works, but it is also the weakest choice.
Then what is redeeming about this film? I mean, people really liked this movie. Perhaps it is the schlock factor. The kitschiness of the whole film is really palpable. I want to talk about the last shot of the film, so SPOILER warning. I know that King wrote both versions, but I was really thinking that we were going to get a different ending from the book. To a certain extent, I know that there are differences. I want to talk about that too, so hopefully I remember. But in both the book and the movie, Louis resurrects Rachel. (Oh, geez...was there any reason to bring back Zelda, especially as a man in makeup?) In the book, there's a sinister implication. Rachel looks normal, but will rip him apart after we close the back cover / turn off the mp3. That element is still there, but in the most Addams Family way I've seen in a horror movie. Gage stabs Rachel to death with a scalpel. But when she returns, she has a chunk of her face missing. We get to see the skull, and, for the complete over-the-top element, have liquids squirting out of her face. The two embrace and kiss in what seems to be a horror VHS cover enacted in the film. This seems almost like a promotional piece for the movie Pet Sematary, but no one would actually dare put it in the film. It made me guffaw and I have to give it points for that. It went there so hard that I can't even fault it. When the movie as off the reservation as Pet Sematary, it's nice to know that it can have a little fun. There's one thing that is meant to be fun (and see, I came back to it!) but it doesn't work for me at all. The characterization of Victor Pascal is really bizarre to me. In the book, he was a temptation for Louis. He brings him out to the forest and ties him to the gravesite. I know that Jud brings him out there, but it always gave me the vibe that the gravesite wanted more bodies. Pascal was always that character. Making Pascal a spiritual guide is an odd decision. He doesn't really work. There's a throw away line about the fact that Victor is protecting Rachel and Louis's family because Louis tried to help him when everyone thought it was hopeless. But bringing Rachel to Louis is only killing her faster. She can't see him. She kind of gets a...shining (?!) about him, but that's as far as that goes. What is the logic of making him a benevolent spirit? Every choice he makes wrecks the family. I couldn't help but think of the comparison between Victor Pascal and Jack Goodwin in An American Werewolf in London. But look at the characterization and commitment to each character. Victor Pascal is one of the elements that could be completely left out of the movie to help with characterization. It seems like it is thrown in the movie to make it closer to the book. But it is seriously harming the film. It isn't invested in and it just seems like this disparate element to the film.
Is it weird that my desire to see the sequel and the remake has cooled? I thought I liked Pet Sematary a lot, but watching this movie feels like reading a book report of the story. It really highlights the faults of the story and it might not be one of my favorite Stephen King stories, in retrospect. Yeah, I should be forgiving of the era. But this movie...kind of stinks? I think I hate lazy and that's what this movie feels like.
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