Saturday, November 23, 2013

REVIEW: Pet Sematary (1989)

That isn’t how you spell cemetery! Instant zero stars, review over!

Director: Mary Lambert
Starring: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne

Oh okay, I’ve read the Stephen King book; calm down. It was one of my favorite books as a teenager just for how absolutely, uncompromisingly dark and morbid it was. It’s said that it was the only one of King’s classics that he didn’t want to publish at first – he thought it was too scary. So in response to that, we got a movie version a few years later that mostly failed at recreating that scary and morbid atmosphere…let’s review Pet Sematary.

We start off with a graveyard for pets, with voice overs from the kids who buried them there. Well gee. Isn’t that a happy way to start off your movie? Fortunately after that, we get something much more grounded in every day life…a family arrives at their new home and is too busy re-enacting a Norman Rockwell painting to notice their two-year-old son Gage wander around the yard and almost get run over by a truck in the middle of the road.

All that's missing is a white picket fence, which would ironically have helped these morons quite a bit...

You could have just not let him wander near the road. You know, like decent parents. But I guess that would have prevented the introduction of the most sane and well-balanced old man ever, Jud Crandall.

They didn't have an old peoples' home in this town, I guess...

Am I being sarcastic with that last bit? Well, you decide: the first thing he decides to show them as a neighborly kindness is an old graveyard for buried pets, the same one as in the opening. “Hey, welcome to the neighborhood, let me show you a creepy old pet graveyard!” Isn’t that kind of weird? You could have shown them the nice areas to have a picnic in, or the general store downtown, or even the spot on the hill where you looked up at the full moon as a young man and realized you were stuck with that goofy accent for your whole life. But instead you show them a graveyard for dead pets killed in the road.

Oh, yeah, that’s where most of ‘em come from…seriously, here’s a piece of advice for you: PUT UP A FUCKING STOP SIGN ON THAT DAMN ROAD. How has that never been brought up at any community meetings or anything?

“Hey, we got this road where it seems like nothing but giant trucks come through, and there are tons of animals and little kids that might be in danger! Is it worth putting up a stop sign or at least some “drive with caution” markers?”

“Nah. We’re going to wait until an evil clown appears on the road before we do anything.”

“But there’s an Indian burial ground that brings dead things back to life just up the hill from the road! What if…”


Yeah, I guess that’s how it went. Anyway, we get some decent enough scenes of main character Louis Creed, his wife Rachel and his daughter, Mediocre Child Actress, interacting with one another and their cat, who they call Church. But I call him Cheap Scary Plot Foil. These scenes aren’t anything too bad or whatever, but the acting is about as credible as, well, any Stephen King adaptation this side of the Kubrick Shining version. King’s dialogue never translated well to the silver screen, like at all, but I don’t think the goofy acting really helps matters.

But anyway, we have more important things to show…like a grouchy old housekeeper who constantly tells Rachel how jealous she is of her marriage. Gee, I sure hope this character has a point in the end! Otherwise it would just be strange and non-sequitur.

"I'm just looking for my decency and likability...oh, wait, I left it at home..." 

We also see Louis at his job as a doctor. Some guy is wheeled in after a horrible accident, and like any good hospital, the whole place goes nuts and turns into complete chaos, even the nurses and orderlies, because of this. The guy’s name is Victor Pascow, and I only bring that up because for some reason, he’s an integral part of the plot. He knows Louis’s name somehow and reappears throughout the film as a sort of ghostly spirit guide…why? I have no fucking idea. Stephen King stories always have this sort of unexplained supernatural element to them, but this one is pushing it.

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…so Pascow dies and later appears to Louis in a dream, guiding him outside into the woods and explicitly telling him never to go beyond the Pet Sematary and into the Micmac Burial Ground. Since Louis had no idea it existed at this point and likely wouldn’t have known about it at all if Pascow hadn’t told him about it, this scene kind of shoots itself in the foot. Bonus points because Pascow comes off more like a character from a Return of the Living Dead movie than anything actually scary. How are we supposed to take this seriously?

It's like a Muppet version of Dawn of the Dead. Shaun of the Dead looked less silly.

The next day is apparently Thanksgiving, so Rachel and the daughter, Ellie, go to Rachel’s parents’ house by themselves. Why doesn’t Louis go with them? Because apparently he doesn’t get along with her parents…sounds like a shitty Thanksgiving, then. Instead he just gets a dead cat:

Jud, being a stand-up guy, decides to take him out to the old burial ground where, apparently, dead things buried there can come back to life. They bury the cat. Louis talks to Jud about it and it’s only NOW that Jud decides to let Louis in on a little secret. Apparently as a kid, Jud buried his dead dog at the burial ground, and it came back as a horrific blood-stained monster:

He got ketchup all over him!

So let me get this straight. He knew this whole time what horrible things that burial ground could do, didn’t tell Louis any of it, and still took him up there anyway? What kind of sick sadist is this guy? I guess his explanation is that he didn’t want the daughter, Ellie, to be without her cat, but what kind of reasoning is that? He would rather her have a horrific abomination of nature that would scare the living bejeesus out of her? I mean, holy shit, how much less sense can you make?

Well, I guess if you count the fact that the daughter comes home and doesn’t notice that the cat is now a horrific abomination of nature, Jud’s lies and deceptions aren’t so bad. How can she not tell there’s something wrong? She even says the cat smells bad! How does the mother not notice? It’s one thing for the cat to stink a little after running around outside. But this is supposed to be like, corpse rot of death. Wouldn’t that be, I dunno, A LITTLE BIT NOTICEABLE after a while?

I guess it’s understandable though, since that random grumpy caretaker lady kills herself shortly after. Why? Well, to incite Rachel to tell Louis about her sick, demented sister who died when she was a kid. That’s right. The caretaker’s only point in life was to serve as the catalyst for a horrible flashback scene. I guess I can’t blame her for killing herself then. I mean, wouldn’t you? Take a look at this shit:

What is that? It looks like Beetlejuice if he was run through a concentration camp. I remember this storyline from the book – it was integrated into the story a lot better there. Here it’s shoehorned in very awkwardly in the wake of a random death scene. Basically it goes like this: Rachel had a sister when she was a kid who got some kind of debilitating disease, confining her to the back room of the house because the parents were ashamed of her or something.

Who are the two random fat people in the corner? Never explained...*Twilight Zone music*

One time her parents left her alone with the sister, and the sister died. Rachel ran out the door and cried but also thought she could have been laughing…this incident, apparently, gave her an odd relationship with death for the rest of her life. I remember this plot thread being relatively well done in the book, but here it’s just done awkwardly – maybe they should have left it out, because it really fucking sucks actually. It tries for unsettling and disturbing, and mostly hits “kind of weird and a little comical with how over the top it is.” How am I supposed to take anorexic Bride of the Lizard People sister seriously?

Yeah, real fucking ominous and scary there. Hacks.

And I get it – it’s the 80s, the special effects aren’t going to be that great. But they didn’t even really try at any kind of atmosphere. If The Thing, released several years before this, could make one of the scariest movies of all time with just practical effects, and Re-Animator, released around the same time, had much better looking zombies, what is the excuse for the lack of effort in making any of the effects here look remotely scary? They’re just goofy.

Anyway, so Louis hears that whole creepy dead sister story, and says it gives him “one more reason to hate Rachel’s parents” for leaving Rachel alone with the sister. Which is fine and well, except later we see that the parents are fine and really not portrayed as neglectful or abusive or anything. So what’s the point of putting any of this in the movie? Nothing really, except to waste time – which is one of the movie’s favorite things to do.

Tragedy strikes later on when their young son Gage is killed by a truck when he wanders out into the road. Again, stop signs, they’re not a foreign concept! It’s all very tragic and sad and what not. But honestly, I can’t get over the hypocrisy here…so Louis is so quick to condemn Rachel’s parents for leaving her alone with her sick sister, but he can’t even watch his own fucking son when he’s walking into the very dangerous road full of speeding 18-wheeler trucks? Nice double standard there, asshole. Also, nice over-dramatic “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” shout right after it happens – doesn’t diminish the weight of the scene at all

I'd make a Darth Vader joke if this came out 15 years later!

So I guess some of these scenes are decent enough. Overall the movie at least tries to give a shit with these scenes, even if they’re not doing a terribly amazing job of it…though I can’t speak much for the goofy funeral scene where Rachel’s dad socks Louis in the face – deservedly so. Everyone starts screaming and shouting, and the whole thing comes off as more comical than it should. Pet Sematary, making child death way funnier than it ever had a right to be!

Rachel and Ellie leave to go live with Rachel’s parents for a while, and Louis ponders bringing Gage back to life with the burial ground. If you didn’t think it was stupid enough that Jud knew the effects of the burial ground and let Louis bury the cat anyway, well, the movie is about to top that. Jud then tells Louis the story of some guy who got buried in the burial ground after being shipped home from war in a coffin. In the book, this was an effective and morbid section. The movie treats it, unsurprisingly, like a big joke, having him bumble around slurring his words like a drunk. A middle finger to fans of the book if there ever was one.

So, yeah, that’s the size of it – Jud knew ALL THIS HORRIBLE SHIT happened at that burial ground, and showed Louis anyway. The stupidity is just reaching dizzying heights here, looking down on unsuspecting movie viewers and laughing at them. But hey! At least we have like twenty minutes of the ghost of Pascow “helping” Rachel to get back home after this!

Yes, if you weren’t convinced that this was just a schlocky horror comedy, well these scenes are like bright glowing neon lights pointing directly at that realization. We get all these ridiculous scenes of the ghost of Pascow, looking more and more like the ghost of Bill and Ted every scene, giving little hints to help her rent a car and hitch a ride after the car breaks down.

This has to be simultaneously the best and worst moment in the whole movie

She can’t do that shit on her own? She really needed help RENTING A CAR from the airport? Yeah, I guess that’s really one of those things that’s just too complicated to figure out without a ghost helping you. And to think these scenes were actually green-lighted by some poor sap of a studio executive…

Meanwhile, the now undead Gage preys on Jud by giggling childishly and asking to play hide and seek…yeah, real bone-tingling scary there. How come Jud doesn’t just leave his house and make a run for it? We see clearly he had many opportunities to do so. Oh well. Gage makes pretty sure he won’t be running anywhere any time soon:

How lovely…

When Rachel gets back, she for some reason goes to Jud’s place first instead of her own house. She sees the hallucination of her creepy dead sock puppet sister, which is as lame as ever, and then…

No. No, no, no, no no no. That can’t be real. You can’t be serious with that. When at any point in human existence did we need a cross-dressing undead baby? What the fuck was going through the director’s head when she allowed that in the movie? In fact, I think I know exactly what happened here. Gage came back to life the reincarnation of a certain fictional character…

If you were actually dumb enough to continue watching after that, we see Gage killing Rachel too. Louis the next morning gets a phone call from Gage – because that makes sense, even though he was too young to know how to use a phone when he was alive…and Gage tells him, quite creepily, that he wants to “play” with Louis. Louis stands there and shouts “WHAT DID YOU DO?!?” kind of like an over the top sitcom parent after the kid smeared finger paint all over Grandma’s expensive China plates. Just add in a goofy musical cue, cut to commercials, and the effect would be complete.

We get some more shitty ass acting when Louis yells at Church the cat to die after poisoning him – standing in the street and yelling at a dying zombie cat…not exactly a place you look forward to finding yourself, but there we are anyway. He goes inside and proves how hard it is to fight a two-year-old. Real fuckin’ gripping.

There is one good scene, where he has to kill Gage a second time with a lethal injection of some kind of poison. It’s a touching scene and is done well. I think it’s too little, too late.

The movie ends with Louis carrying zombie Rachel off to bury her in the burial ground. Pascow appears again and over-dramatically tells him not to do it, whilst simultaneously also sounding about as bored as anyone would with this mediocre script.

Contrast the seriousness of what happened with Pascow's girl shorts...

This could have been a powerful scene – if they cut out the silly ghost and didn’t have Louis muttering to himself about how it would work this time. In the book, everything he said was internal monologuing – NOT dialogue said out loud. Like most terrible book to movie adaptations, the movie feels the need to cram in all of that internal stuff and not just SHOW it through the visual power of filmmaking. Pretty fucking weak.

So, yeah, Rachel comes back and kills him for being a terrible actor and a terrible character, and then the movie ends.

Pet Sematary, promoting necrophilia since 1989.

So Pet Sematary kind of sucks. It’s silly, the characters are bland and the acting is pretty much awful. When I was a teenager and read the book, I didn’t see this movie because I feared it would be like this – just robbing all the power and macabre magic out of the story. And this movie was exactly what I thought it’d be back then. It’s got a few decent parts, but really it’s nothing like the book aside from the superficialities like the ideas in the plot – it’s got none of the darkness and mystery of the book.

And I don’t know. The book probably had some holes, too; plenty of the flaws I pointed out here were in the book, too. But King’s style of writing convinced you that the world you were in was real. That was a big asset to the story, as it is to any good book. The movie doesn’t immerse you like that. It can be entertaining at times, in a schlocky, silly sort of way, but it’s not the deep and immersive work that the book was. King’s writing style just doesn’t translate well to the screen. You can’t just take his long-winded dialogue and often abstract plot ideas and put them to film with no alterations. You have to make some changes to make it seem more natural, which Pet Sematary and most other King films do not do.

Oh well. There is a remake coming out, supposedly – maybe THAT will be closer to what I actually wanted from this story. It’s a far cry. But it won’t make this movie any better.

Images copyright of their original owners; I own none of them.