Week 20 — Maine
The quality of Stephen King adaptations range from being very good — The Shawshank Redemption, Misery — to absolute junk — Graveyard Shift, The Lawnmower Man. Pet Sematary falls in-between. It’s entertaining and actually quite scary at parts, but ultimately falls short of what it could be.
I’m pretty sure most people have seen Pet Sematary, as it was a box office success grossing $57 million domestically — that’s not including how much it made worldwide and in rentals. I have not seen Pet Sematary in its entirety. I’ve seen clips of the film in various “Scariest Scenes” horror movie compilations, specifically the climax of the film where Fred Gwynne’s character, Jud Crandall, is stalked by the resurrected and murderous toddler, Gage. I’ve also seen maybe the first 30 minutes of the movie — when I was in 7th or 8th-grade. A substitute teacher in junior high school decided to pop it in a VCR in an effort to entertain us, which in restrospect was probably not the wisest decision on his part (although I admit, when I was a substitute teacher, doing the same thing with a copy of Poltergeist.)
I was eager to see now whether Pet Sematary was, indeed, a horror classic or whether it was just the scare flick of the moment.
Pet Sematary, the book, was based on experiences Stephen King had with his family living in Maine. Like in the film, the home that King lived in with his wife and children was located next to a busy highway. Like in the film, the highway was notorious for claiming the lives of numerous pets and there was, in fact, a pet cemetary nearby where many of these animals were buried. A cat belonging to King’s daughter was killed in the road. In the movie, a cat named Church which belongs to the daughter of Louis — a doctor who just moved into a new home in Lulow, Maine — is hit by a truck. That’s where the similarities between the book and movie end, but it’s still a bit unnerving to me knowing these real-life counterparts exist.
The story of Pet Sematary revolves around an Indian burial ground located behind the pet cemetary which Louis’ neighbor Jud convinces Louis to bury Church after the cat’s unfortunate incident with the truck, knowing full well that things buried on sacred Indian land sometimes come back — only, they’re changed. Still, after Louis’ little son suffers the same fate as Church, that doesn’t stop the grieving father from attempting to bring his son back to life.
King wrote the manuscript on which the novel was based in 1980 but shelved it initially, stating that the subject matter was too gruesome even for his tastes, according to author Stephen Jones’ Creepshows, an illustrated guide to the films of Stephen King.
In 1986, it was announced that director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) intended to make a film of Pet Sematary based on a screenplay by King. Romero had previously directed 1982’s Creepshow, an anthology film based on some of King’s short stories. Creepshow wasn’t a huge hit with audiences but received some positive critical feedback. Not to mention that Pet Sematary is essentially a zombie movie, Romero’s specialty.
However, for reasons not entirely known, Romero’s Pet Sematary fell through. By the time the pieces were once again in place to turn Pet Semetary into a movie in 1989, Romero was not available. Instead, directing duties went to Arkansas-born filmmaker Mary Lambert, who had directed music videos for Madonna (Borderline, Like a Virgin) as well as a little-seen art film called Siesta with Ellen Barkin, Jodie Foster and Isabella Rossellini. King felt Lambert was a good fit because of her ability to handle disturbing and provocative material like anything having to do with Madonna.
Filming began on the $10 million Paramount production in August 1986 in Ellsworth, Maine. The movie wrapped up filming in 60 days and the film was set to be released in February 1989, but was pushed back to April after test audiences disliked the ending — finding it “too graphic.”
Pet Sematary works as a story because it preys on a fear that nearly everyone can identify with — the fear of death. It starts with a cat, then Louis’ son. Louis is haunted by visions of a dead student named Pascow who warns him about tampering with death. At one point in the film, Louis’ wife Rachel tells Louis about how, when she was eight, she had to care for her sister who was dying of spinal meningitis. A neighbor, Missy, hangs herself when she can no longer deal with the pain of cancer. If the story on which Pet Sematary was based wasn’t as good as it is, I probably wouldn’t have been as disappointed in Lambert’s adaptation.
While Fred Gwynne, who plays Jud, is awesome and Miko Hughes, who plays Gage, plays a great creepy little kid, I wasn’t thrilled with the rest of the cast. Dale Midkiff (who?) plays Louis Creed and Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar of Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays Rachel Creed. Both are passable as actors and don’t really hurt the film, but you can’t help but think what a much more accomplished pair of actors would have done with the roles. Louis and Rachel’s roles could have been an acting tour de force. Their kid dies, Rachel is scarred from the experiences with her sister — these are two very interesting characters. Unfortunantly, Midkiff and Yar’s performances feel one-dimensional.
The special effects limitations of 1989 hurt the film as well. The way Pascow appears and disappears is just laughable. The makeup, at times, is underwhelming, although if it’s true that the MPAA forced Lambert to cut out some of the more spectacular effects, that’s their fault and not her’s.
Still, there are reasons why Pet Sematary is held in regard by horror movie enthusiasts. The scene where Gage is stalking Jud is wonderfully edited and really intense — the well-known “achilles tendon” shot which ends the scene is classic. The setting of Maine is great. The accents of Jud and Missy are as memorable as anyone’s accent in Fargo. I couldn’t help but think of the South Park episode from Season 9 which lampoons Pet Sematary, in which Butters dies and they bury him on the Indian burial ground.
And who doesn’t love Church?
It’s probably no shock to anyone that Pet Sematary is getting a remake. Matthew Greenberg, who wrote the screenplay to the King adaptation 1408, began working on the script in March 2010. Unlike most remakes, I’m interested in seeing this one. Done right, “Pet Sematary – The Remake” could be a terrifying film.
In the meantime, check out the original. It’s scary. It’s fun. And, with Halloween just a few days away, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half.
I couldn’t end this review without mentioning Pet Sematary, the Ramones song, which is inspired by the book and movie. The song plays over the end credits of the film. For those of you keeping score, there’s another Ramones shout out in the movie when a truck driver is listening and singing along to Sheena is a Punk Rocker as he’s cruising down the highway.
Next week: On to Maryland, where trashiness is simply Divine!
Pet Sematary on YouTube
5. Zero, the ghost dog from The Nightmare Before Christmas
4. The dinosaurs from Jurassic Park (Yeah … I know … this is kind of cheating. But the dinosaurs did die and were later “resurrected” … so it kind of works.)
3. The zombie dogs from the Resident Evil series (The video games, not the movies)
What beasties would you add to this list? Leave me some feedback.