Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1987)
It’s another Stephen King horror tale, so naturally it’s another threat to the status quo, with this latest in my daughter and my all-King viewing block being Pet Sematary a story focused around a noble, if sometimes emotionally struggling (as all families do — hence, the nobility) family unit and the attack upon them (as well as their values) by a monstrous force; with The Shining, it was a haunted hotel, with _ Cujo_ it was a killer rabid dog, and now, it’s that damn pet cemetary that was – wouldn’t you know it — built a little too close to a Mi’kmaq burial ground (and as all of us white imperialists know — especially those of us that watch horror movies — them Natives had some scary powers!).
While I’m sure there was some showmanship involved when King announced Pet Sematary as the book that so frightened him he had to immediately hide it away when he finished it (though to pull it out and hand it over for publishing within the week I’m sure), finally catching up with this film adaptation for the first time (with the King script drawn pretty faithfully from the book if I remember correctly – having read the majority of it 30 plus years ago in the back of a college buddy’s station wagon while hitching a 10-hour ride from Buffalo down to my home in Long Island, with joints aplenty passed about to which I remember only taking moderate puffs so as to maintain just that proper buzz that allows greater reading focus), I can see what would have so initially freaked the author out about this one… and it’s the very things that elevates the book (and movie) to the ‘best of’ list of his works.
It’s not the literal cavalcade of juicily horrific imagery – taken from the supernatural as well as culled from the everyday alike — such as not only the family cat, but then our hero’s infant child Gage, mowed down by four-wheeler trucks, a suicide by hanging of a woman unable to cope any longer with the agony of her stomach cancer (and another surprise hanging of a corpse, of a character we can barely believe is killed, let alone treated so… well… abjectly), the supremely creepy hauntings by the cackling demonic presence of a long dead, horrifically twisted spinal meningitis victim come back to haunt her guilty sister, family members from the grave now shambling mockeries, a dead jogger with a crushed head, his bloody brain exposed and leaking, who keeps returning with warnings for our hero, then throw in the startlingly violent filicide… and some truly squirm-inducing razor slashing bits (done by a demonic little boy, no less!) – no, that’s all stuff we expect from King (if perhaps not always this relentlessly presented). It’s the bleak worldview from which he comes at it which is where the extra intrigue – and quality – comes.
The bulk of King’s tales have an ‘out’; they give us ghosts to be avenged or to provide clues (proof of the ‘afterlife’, naturally), or inevitably protagonists finding a symbol or a device along the narrative way that becomes paramount for re-establishing order. And all the while, in general, he can’t help but wax nostalgic about humanity, ad nauseum.
Listen, I’ve read a ton of the author’s books and stories (and still read him now and then). And I’m immensely enjoying this all-Stephen King retro with el kiddo… but — ultimately? — face it. He’s a status quo whore. It’s why the masses love him. Like the all-engulfing corporate consumer complex, King sells the masses narratives they wanna believe in, making them feel they matter in the universe. I mean, he’s folksy, he believes in the big Gee-Oh-Dee, and he likes humans. He likes them, they like him. Along with some juicy gooey bits along the way for us horror hounds, and – voila! — a winning formula is found.Pet Sematary finds King in his familiar genre playground… only it’s all decidedly darker; more nihilistic than where he normally dares tread. Hence? No surprise. The King discomfort. The fact that the head patriarch of the Creed family (a family name I might normally have seen as way too obvious, but ends up having just the right black touch in this case), Louis (Dale Midkiff), expresses his ‘faith’ early on in a film in which his decision-making will lead his family and himself down a path of not just death and destruction but… into literal abjection, with the human body revealed not as a temple, but as a site of defilement, is potent stuff; it’s even more Fulci, than King. Rather than reinforcing the nobility and importance of holding intact the nuclear family (ie, “Cujo”), this “Sematary” is saying, once you put aside the false illusions (and ‘faith’), what you have left – what’s underneath – is perversity.
Yes, there’s still ghosts running about, and all sorts of supernatural markers and forces working for/against the family, all of which I don’t really understand the necessity for (intimacy, Stephen, it works so much better in horror!) – I mean, does everyone in the Creed family have ‘shining’ abilities or something (an endless trope in the author’s work that he simply can’t stop himself from overusing, even in the recent 2013 Hard Case Crime book of his I read, “Joyland”)? And why do they give a shit about the Creeds, pet cemetery or not? Also not the biggest fan of brain-bashed jogger Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), who keeps showing up (why him, what’s the connection, I have no idea) to give warnings to the Creeds, in sometimes amusing fashion (it seems an awful lot like King cribbing directly from Griffin Dunne’s mauled and killed yet returning Jack Goodman in 1982’ An American Werewolf in London, a character I also didn’t particularly care for, who keeps bringing these arbitrary lycanthrope rules made up for the film). Saying all that though… there’s something… ghastly about their presences; imagining the nether world after death with them just doesn’t seem so… appealing. It’s dirty. Bloody. (Rotted) fleshy.
As a second feature (and first horror one), Mary Lambert’s direction is impressively assured, with her directing of some big time 80’s music videos likely having helped her create atmosphere — the Semetary setting, the dark wood surroundings, the Indian burial ground that seems like entering a new landscape, and the rural house locations are all exceedingly effective in creating things strange yet real.
The two leads, Midkiff and Denise Crosby as Rachel, Louis’ wife, the one deeply haunted by memories of the dirty ‘family secret’, sister Zelda (she of the spinal meningitis), are a bit underwhelming in the acting department as the city folk moving their family to King’s preferred rural America to find not only the road they’ve taken up on filled with endless menacing commercial trucks barrelling down it all day and night long, but a convenient cemetery for the associated mostly crushed and mangled road-kill pets built just off their backyard – and adjacent secret burial ground just beyond it, with their lack of thesp skills reinforced by the fact that these two handsome lookers didn’t at least becoming better known television figures (watching Crosby as the put-upon young matriarch of the family reminded me again just how intensely good Dee Wallace was in Cujo, in fact). Balancing that out, Miko Hughes, the boy hired to play Gage is a serious find, looking dopy and strangely off right from the start, but then harrowingly scary after his – well – ‘return’ (and the things that Lambert has him doing, from full out fighting with adults, to falling back bumping his head, to weeping, to just going mental… I’m surprised the kid didn’t suffer PTSD after it was over). ‘Herman Munster’ himself, Fred Gwynne, is a nice addition as the ill-fated (and, ooh boy, do I mean ill-fated… let’s just say he’d have been able to smile quite a bit wider if he’d have survived) slightly odd, yet warm and friendly neighbor to the Creeds who introduces them to the cemetery… and eventually leads Louis on to the hidden section of burial grounds with the dead Creed family cat.
The scene of Gage’s coffin spilling over as Louis and his father-in-law get into a fight in the middle of the funeral doesn’t muster up the emotional intensity required and ends up coming across a bit comical… which had me wondering if perhaps Lambert was going for just that blackly comical feel in a number of scenes… moments that don’t quite land, but if they are trying for that, I respect the intention (the material is so dark, adding a black sense of humor is far from a problem, and doesn’t relieve the intentions at all). The introduction of Zelda, for instance, as a hazy memory of Rachel’s, visiting the agonizing crippled girl locked away in the family attack plays that way (though only that once… everything after with Zelda plays deeply and unsettlingly scary… ).
Like W.W. Jacob’s infamous short story “The Monkey’s Paw” from which it clearly draws so much inspiration, Pet Sematary is a cautionary tale about leaving well enough (ie, the dead) alone, but King takes his further. It’s the stuff that great tales are made… and while I don’t know if I’d call it a masterpiece, it’s one of King’s best. And director Lambert does a fantastic job creating an exceedingly grizzly, creepy and darkly perverse genre gem.
Goading my daughter into some musings post-screening, she decided that while The Shining was the most psychological (and the kind she’d like to make one day – I didn’t bother to mention that, dear, EVERY filmmaker would like to make a masterpiece, so that goes without saying), Cujo was the most intensely real… and Pet Sematary was by far the scariest. I agreed (and this from a genre regular who isn’t in the habit of getting scared very often). In fact, it was the first time I slightly fretted over if my daughter might not have a nightmare or two about that insanely terrifying, maniacally cackling Zelda… cuz I could certainly imagine having one…