JULY 12, 2009
I saw Pet Sematary once or twice as a kid, but once the 2nd film came out I saw little use in the original anymore, as the sequel had more of what I cared about: gore, kills, humor (“I’m just fucking with you!”), and actor Clancy Brown. But in the 18 or so years since I last saw it, I’ve not only become a little more grown up when it comes to how I judge a film (I still give any film with Clancy Brown an automatic pass though), but I’ve also experienced the death of both pets and close family members, so I figured it would resonate more than it possibly could have as a child.
And indeed, the very things that would have appealed to me as a kid are the things that annoy me now. I’d rather watch Dale Midkiff (whatever happened to that dude?) grieve over his son than watch his wife running around airports while Headwound Harry helps her along. One of King’s late 90’s novels focuses on a grieving husband ("Bag of Bones") and what works best about the book is his isolation for large chunks of it. I’ve never read "Pet Sematary", but since King tends to copy himself a lot, I can assume that these type of scenes would have been quite good in the source material. However, Midkiff is entirely absent for what seems like a half hour after Gage is resurrected; we only focus on the wife and good ol’ Jed Crandall (Fred Gwynne, whose Maine accent borders on xenophobia).
The most common complaint about King’s writing, and it’s certainly a justified one, is that his dialogue tends to suck. He is a genius at inner monologue, but when it comes to having people talk... yikes. So while theoretically having an author adapt his own book for a film is a great idea, in King’s case it’s NOT, because a movie, of course, has no inner monologue. This results in people talking to themselves unnaturally to get certain points across, and this is where King’s weakness hampers the film.
More damaging is the rushed feel of certain key events. The little girl’s reaction to the resurrected (and clearly not right) cat is addressed once (“He smells!”) and never again - in fact I don’t think the two even share a scene together after that point. It could have provided a great parallel to the film to see the girl dealing with her zombie cat and then later with the dad and his zombie son, but no dice. Also, the son’s funeral - which should be the most horrifying part of the entire film - is far too rushed a scene. The father-in-law, who hasn’t even been introduced in the film before then, instantly starts throwing accusations at Midkiff as soon as the scene begins, instead of letting things simmer and escalate until that point is reached. And Midkiff accepts the idea of a magic burial ground a bit too easily for my tastes. In short, there are lots of missed opportunities to make what should be a depressing/interesting horror morality tale really resonate. The opening credits, where we see the titular locale as we hear little kids say goodbye to their pets, is actually more upsetting than the death of the kid.
(And since The Ramones' theme song only appears in the film's END credits, this may be the first film in history where the best stuff is the "once upon a time" and the "happily ever after" instead of the actual story.)
I must say though - Midkiff’s NOOOOOOOOOO! is easily one of the top five all time best NOOOOOOOOO!s in motion picture history. Possibly as a result of the failure of Maximum Overdrive (steamroll the little leaguer!), we don’t actually see the kid being hit, so we get the standard “focus on the now-ownerless toy rolling/flying away” shot instead. But that’s fine; the NOOOOOOOOO! totally sells it anyway.
Now, it’s not a bad film. It works as a long-form Tales From The Crypt style horror movie, with the lessons learned and the downer ending and what not. And the gore effects are quite memorable; Pascow’s head wound is still disturbing, 20 years later. Ditto the scenes with the wife’s sister (actually played by a man), which are on par with the bathtub woman scene in The Shining. Again though; since the husband is the main focus, these scenes, while fine on their own, should have been excised or trimmed down in favor of staying with him more.
One effect that’s not as successful is the killer Gage puppet. Miko Hughes is terrific as the crazy, scalpel-wielding terror, and I am amazed how much shit they put this poor kid through (at one point he legit whacks his head on a wall). But the puppet that they throw at Midkiff is laughably stiff and fake, ruining the tension after the film’s best scare (when Miko is laughing before he “jumps” through the trapdoor onto Midkiff).
The DVD has a few standard extras, none of them long enough to really resonate but they are certainly well made and include some nice tidbits. But like any “retrospective” documentary on a DVD for a film that came out long after DVDs were invented, I’m more interested as to why certain people are absent than anything the ones that are there are saying. King rarely appears in these sort of things anymore, but where the child actors, or Denise Crosby? Midkiff and Brad Greenquist (Pascow) are the only actors to appear in new footage, the rest are taken from the film’s production in 1988. Lambert also pops up, and also provides a commentary. But since the track was recorded in 2006 it is of no use to me, as the only thing I want to hear from her is an apology and explanation for The Attic, which she shot a year later.
A remake has been threatened (Clu Gulager for Jed and Battlestar’s Aaron Douglas as Dr. Creed, please!); hopefully someone else takes a crack at it and makes it as strong as I am quite sure it can be. As it stands, it’s a decent enough yarn, and like always, makes me want to finally read the book.
What say you?