Yup, Sometimes Dead IS Better: ‘Pet Sematary”

The first time I saw Pet Sematary, Mary Lambert’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, I was 12 years old. One weekend evening my social-butterfly of an older sister invited a group of her high school friends over to the house to watch a VHS tape of the newly released horror flick.

Even though I’d been banished to my bedroom upstairs for safe keeping, my sixth-grade self snuck down in the darkness—little known fact, a roomful of teenage girls are unable to watch a horror movie with the lights on. In my memory, two-dozen of them occupied every last bit of space, but it was probably somewhere between eight and ten. Unnoticed, I squeezed between the couch and an oversized ’70s style stereo speaker, and sat back to watch the movie.

This only lasted for part of movie. When Gage (Miko Hughes), the young son of the Creed family, wanders onto the highway and is hit by a semi-truck, there’s a moment, just after it happens—they obviously aren’t going to show a toddler get plowed into the concrete by a rogue truck—where the film cuts away to a slow motion shot of a bloody shoe bouncing across the pavement.

Something about this moment struck a chord in me. It’s so melodramatic, such obvious emotional blackmail that, especially considering the horrified reaction of my current company, I had no other choice but to burst out laughing. And just so you know, when surrounded by a horde of adolescent young women, don’t laugh when a car hits a child, even if only in a movie. In most situations this is considered poor taste, but in this circumstance I may as well have done it myself.

The shrieking chorus of chastisement that unceremoniously chased me out of that room still rings in my ears. In my memory I was being showered by a hail of candy, popcorn, and assorted detritus as I ran, but my parents wouldn’t have stood for that, so it’s most likely just a figment of my time-distorted imagination.

Sitting down to watch the new Blu-ray release of Pet Semetary, this scene plays over and over in my head. My recall is skewed, I knew that, but I didn’t realize how much. The incident with Gage and the semi doesn’t happen until almost the halfway point, but I distinctly remember being chased from the room mere moments after the film began.

This entire experience illustrates how fickle memory can be. My mind recollects Pet Sematary as a creepy, tense horror tale, full of dark powers that you don’t fully understand and that are never truly explained. Some of that holds true. There are a few legitimate frights, and the scene with Gage, a scalpel, and an Achilles tendon, still churns my stomach just thinking about it.

But Pet Sematary is also cheesy, cheap, and looks like a late ’80s made-for-TV movie. Strained acting, a helpful ghost missing half of his skull, and a friendly, though spooky neighbor, played by Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne, don’t do the movie any favors. That’s not entirely true, I could watch Gwynne’s Jud Crandall all day long, but his Maine accent is silly.

Pet Sematary is another example of horror cinema showing why you should never move into a new house. Nothing good ever comes from it. If the house isn’t haunted or the site of a horrific murder, it’s probably on or near some ancient Native American burial grounds, as is the case here. Deep in the woods, beyond the titular pet cemetery lies a place where, if you bury something dead, it comes back to live. The kicker is that it comes back different, and different is not necessarily good. The Creed family learns this lesson the hard way. First with a cat, then with their darling son, Gage. As Crandall says, “Sometimes dead is better.”

The Blu-ray of Pet Sematary has a handful of bonus features, the pinnacle of which are a trio of ten- to 13-minute behind-the-scenes features. One deals with the casting and construction of the characters in the film, while another explores the filming of the movie. Fun little tidbit: like many Stephen King stories, this tale is set in Maine. Most adaptations of his work, however, have been filmed elsewhere. When it came time to sell the rights to Pet Sematary, King refused to part with them unless it was guaranteed to shoot in Maine.

Out of the three videos, the only thoroughly interesting one is titled “Stephen King Territory”, which follows the author, who adapted his own novel for the screen (and played a creepy preacher), as he reveals the origins of the story. He’s as strange and unsettling as anything in the movie, but it’s fun to see what real-life incidents inspired events in the story. For example, he moved into a Maine country home, and his daughter’s cat became a casualty of the busy provincial highway. Much of the story was formed from everyday events, twisted and tweaked to create a horror tale.

Director Mary Lambert (who recently directed Mega Python vs. Gatoroid) has a commentary track, and while it is full of the usual background information, anecdotes from the set, and the like, the whole thing falls flat. It isn’t that she comes across as uninterested, but she isn’t particularly engaging to watch. Her tone, delivery, and overall lack of enthusiasm, makes the track bland, and the result is that it can be difficult to pay attention to for an entire film. If you happen to be a huge fan of the film you might get hooked, but otherwise it gets tedious, after a while.

RATING 5 / 10