Pet Sematary (1989)

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.

You missed some, Doc.

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?

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. this one is good but i still prefer the 2nd movie more...I remember watchin this a long time ago with my mom and than not again until i bought the 3 dvd stephen king pack in iraq..the lil kid is creepy but everytime i see him i see him from kindergarten cop tellin arnold boys have penis's and girls have a vaginas hahaha..

  2. I've actually never seen Pet Sematary 2 but I love the first one. Zelda is the scariest horror movie character of all time bar none!

    Clu Gulager for Jud in the remake...I love it!

  3. Growing up this movie really did me in, not for the story, but the side stuff. To this day I have a hard time with hanging bodies, and Lambert's sister freaked me out to the point of not looking. But since South Park started poking fun by introduing Gwynn's character and his dialect, my wife and I have watched it twice for comedic effect. "Up here, you bury your own."

  4. It is not the best King adaptation, but I must say that King's dialogue in his books is more realistic then what you find in most "literary" novels by authors who are supposed to be writing the contemporary classics. King knows people and writes them well. Pet Semetary would have been much better if the director had spent more time on character than the graphic gore.

  5. .... Having read most of King's books, I think I can say safely that it's not characters dialogue his problem, but the endings, most of the time (and mostly in his more lengthy works)He creates a great build up, but in the end He gets a ending that's kinda of a downer, sorta needless epilogues, a problem He has acknoledge a couple of times (He actually says he never knows how a story it's going to end until he gets there)I still think he's one of the best writers around.period, as for the killer kid, I saw this movie years ago and always though thatfinal battle really creepy (maybe since I'm a father of two myself)and I could relate to the main character's motive and feelings, part 2? a great sequel, but it had the work done for it, just follow patern, increase action, less explanation....

  6. Hey BC,

    The book is by far the most frightening novel I've ever read. My father says "The Ruins" is the most frightening novel he's ever read. Neither book translated great to film, in my opinion, but I have to say while the film version of "The Ruins" disturbed me (and I haven't read the book yet) I was disappointed as hell with the Pet Semetary movie.

    By the way, King sucks at dialogue? Are you serious?


  7. Not like, 100% of the time, no. But he has this strange tendency to have people say really awkward things that's always distracted me. Just me I guess.

  8. Man, this review makes me want to check out the movie again. AND the sequel again.

    But I can tell you right now, I'm gonna be skipping over the Zelda scenes. That shit is maybe the scariest stuff I've eve seen in a movie. Just reading the title, before clicking on it, I was thinking of Zelda, and now I'm likely going to have to sleep with the lights on.

  9. sometimes dead is better...

    i disagree as well about king's dialogue, i think he's believable. and as a writer, i find dialogue to be the hardest thing about writing. i love this movie.

    about the cat-- the little girl doesn't need to interact with it after it is resurrected; it's his cat now!

  10. You want to learn how to write a real review? Check it out and learn.. down to the 3rd entry.

  11. I saw this by myself in high school and asked someone to walk me to my car and check under the seat. I jumped into bed for days, weeks, months after seeing this movie because the freakiest part was Fred Gwynne getting his hamstrings cut. Incidentally, the scene in Caddyshack when Bill Murray talks about cutting hamstrings freaks me out too.
    This is playing on, might have to give check it out being that it's been 20 years since I last saw it (fuuuuck).

  12. I'm a dedicated King fan and have been for years -- he doesn't always hit it out of the park, of course, who could? Sure he has his flaws, but for pure storytelling and infecting readers with a case of the incurable "gotta's" -- as in I gotta know what's going to happen next, well, there ain't nobody better. And probably never will be.

    Observation #1: Read the book. King's books are so much richer and more complex than anything that could ever be represented on film (barring The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me) -- especially if he's doing the screenplay himself. King's a novelist, not a screenwriter and it shows.

    Observation #2: ZELDAAAAAA!!!! Okay, quite possibly the scariest frigging creation to ever appear on film. Zelda still gives me nightmares and has the capacity to pull me screaming out of a deep sleep. I actually think the make-up holds up pretty strong even after all this time.

    Observation 3#: I love Fred Gwynne's performance. Yes, it smacks of an over-done caricature now, esp. after South Park's spoofing, but at the time he was/is brilliant. And I've been to Maine, and yeah some small-town locals do talk like that, especially the old guys. You can beat King up about a lot of things, but not small-town Maine -- that he knows better than anyone.

    I think Gage's death scene (getting smashed by the semi) is intense and accomplished by some great editing. I knew what was going to happen and I was still perched white-knuckled on the edge of my seat. The kid who plays Ellie is one of the worst kid actors I've ever seen and I've always hated that performance. I'm glad we don't get any more of her and the damn cat! Oh, and I loved the Micmac burial ground...thought that was very well done. Cheers!

  13. Its been a long time since I watched the movie but I thought that we _did_ get to see Gage get hit. I seem to remember an image of the wheels of the semi going over him; its one of the reasons that, now I've got a little boy around Gage's age, I can't bring myself to re-watch the movie. I'm in Australia so maybe we got a different print here?

  14. I grew up watching Pet Sematary, likely in retrospect a mistake allowed by my parents, but to this day, that movie still weirds me out. Even though I can recite every line in the movie, and know what will happen next, I love watching it, like many love the thrill of rollercoasters. I showed it to a friend of mine, who was skeptical about my claim that she wouldn't sleep well after watching it, and after calling my bluff in the first half hour, she left horrified. It's not just the draw of the visual effects but the sadness of the story itself. It starts with a fresh start for a family and ends as tragicly as it could. Some critics claim the secret of burial ground that ressurects the buried is hard to believe. But take a trip up that way (Hancock, Maine). When your cell can't get a signal and you're miles from anyone, it doesn't seem so far fetched anymore. The scene where Gage is killed by the Orinco truck is still one of my favorites, because although terribly sad, it is also very realistic. Go anywhere in northern Maine, and trailer trucks (mostly loggers) FLY past. This scene could have easily happened in real life and was inspired by King's son almost being hit by a fertilizer truck at his his home in Orrington. The isolation in this movie is palpable. Despite it's many flaws, it still thrills me when I watch it.

  15. If only they could just use a proper young actress once. Just like "the lion, the witch and the wardrobe" the entire movie is dragged down by a 10 year old girl who you just want to strangle yourself...


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