CULT CORNER: Pet Sematary (1989)

Rod don’t wanna be buried in a pet cemetery! Is this Stephen King adaptation still a worthy entry? 

Who made it?: Mary Lambert (Director), Stephen King (Writer), Richard P. Rubinstein (Producer), Paramount Pictures/Laurel Productions.

Who’s in it?: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Michael Lombard, Miko Hughes.

Tagline: “A Pet Isn’t Just For Life.”

IMDb rating: 6.6/10.

Pet Semetary is one of the very first Stephen King adaptations I ever watched as a child on a VHS rental from the local video store. At that stage, I hadn’t read any of King’s novels, so I didn’t have the source material to compare it to. I feel the film does a good job adapting the novel, but there’s room for improvement, which could be achieved in a new version. Rest assured, though, this doesn’t mean I hate this 1989 stab by any means.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen the film adaptation, the basic rundown of the story is that there’s a Micmac Indian burial ground beyond a cemetery for families to bury their deceased pets – the Pet Semetary of the title (the sign above the entrance was written by a child, hence the incorrect spelling). The place has a power which resurrects the dead who are buried there. Except, when they come back, they aren’t quite the same as when they were alive. The novel goes into more detail about the Micmac burial ground, and how the power affects not only the environment around it, but also those who visit the place, too. This is just one of the things that could be incorporated into in a remake. There’s other omissions, of course, but I really do recommend reading the novel as well.

The main characters of the film are the Creed family, consisting of Louis (Dale Midkiff), Rachel (Star Trek‘s Denise Crosby), their daughter Ellie, and son Gage (Miko Hughes). Louis Creed is a doctor who has moved his family to Ludlow, Maine, to take up his position at the University as the campus doctor. The house they move into has a highway right in front of it, with trucks rocketing past every so often. On the day that the Creeds arrive, they meet their neighbour across the road, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), an elderly man who becomes fast friends with Louis. The standout performance is most likely Gwynne as Jud, as he really sells the old neighbourly character. He also has such a memorable voice, too – I can’t really do it much justice in text form! The other actors do fine jobs as well, but it’s not the high-calibre acting of, say, The Conjuring. In some ways, it feels like TV-movie acting with the presence of Midkiff and Crosby, which isn’t surprising since both had worked in made-for-television productions before their roles in Pet Semetary.

The main theme of this film is death, and how it affects a family, especially their emotional states, and what they are willing to do afterwards. The story is also about the fear of losing a loved one, which is something that definitely plays into the theme of death. Rachel is someone who doesn’t like talking about the subject, so she is very uncomfortable when her daughter, Ellie, when being shown the pet cemetary by Jud and her parents, has a conversation with him about the afterlife. This film has a really bleak tone and atmosphere, and it is one of the things that makes me appreciate Pet Semetary, even though I wouldn’t call it an excellent film. It is dark and horrific right from the beginning and doesn’t let go,  and that is perhaps the strongest element of this entire adaptation for me.

One of the most memorable moments would have to be the scene where Rachel recounts a childhood experience to her husband about being left alone to look after her older sister, Zelda, who suffered from spinal Meningitis. The role was actually played by a man, but you wouldn’t guess because the make-up is so well done. It is shown in flashback form and is truly creepy, really making you understand where Rachel is coming from when it comes to death. It also adds more of a reason for Louis to hate Rachel’s parents, since they left her alone as a child to look after her sister, who would most likely have been clinically insane by that point. There’s a lot of animosity between Louis and Rachel’s father, which is why he doesn’t want to visit Rachel’s parents for Thanksgiving. While Rachel, Ellie and Gage are away for Thanksgiving, Louis is faced with the tragic demise of the family cat named Church. Knowing that Ellie will be devastated by the revelation, and to try and save her the pain of this discovery, Jud decides to take Louis to the Micmac burial ground beyond the Pet Semetary to bring Church back to life. It is a very long journey to say the least, and several times along the way, Jud tells Louis that they’re not far from the burial ground when there’s more ground to cover. When they eventually get there, we are treated to one of my favourite parts of the film’s score by Elliot Goldenthal, and it’s certainly worth the wait.

Overall, Pet Semetary is one of the better King adaptations, even though I think the book deserves another crack. It has a pessimistic tone and  a gritty feel which absolutely works in the film’s favour. Director Mary Lambert really knows how to set a mood and tone. And it has a really good score by Goldenthal which suits it like a glove (complete with a title song by the one and only Ramones, no less). Oh, and keep an eye out for a King cameo, which I think is one of the best he’s done in adaptations of his work.

There was a sequel by the way, which was an entirely original story. It starred Edward Furlong, Anthony Edwards and The Kurgan himself, Clancy Brown. The first is superior, whereas the second could have easily been called something else, with all the references to anything from the first summarily taken out. The best thing about it is actually Brown’s performance, so I’d only recommend watching it if you’re curious.

Best Scene

Ur, yeah, this was more nightmarish than anything in the first season of TNG.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Stephen King was present on location for most of the shooting of the film. The area it was shot in was only twenty minutes away from his home in Bangor, Maine.
  • Bruce Campbell was the first choice for the role of Louis Creed.
  • Actor Brad Greenquist had said, in an interview, that while in his gruesome makeup for the role of Victor Pascow, no one would sit near him while the cast and crew were having lunch.
  • In King’s novel, Judd mentions that a dog went wild in a nearby town and killed several people. This is a reference to the events of Cujo (1983), another novel by King. It is common for characters in King’s novels to mention the events of his other novels.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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