Death is (obviously) a reoccurring theme in horror, with a slashing knife or crunching jaws ending the pulse of many a hapless victim who appears between the opening and closing titles but few movies deal with the fear of losing a loved one and the horrible things one might do to misguidedly bring that cherished person back. This brings us neatly to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, a chilling study of grief, parenting and assorted dead things that rank as a welcome high point among the many attempts at the author’s work.
Lewis Creed, his family and their cat have moved to Maine from Chicago so he can fill a doctor’s position at the local university but finds that his new house sits next to a country road where monolithic trucks barrel past day and night. As he and his wife, Rachel and their two young children Ellie and Creed settle into their new environment they befriend the kindly old neighbour Jud Crandall who shows them a cemetery the local kids use to bury pets that have turned their toes, fins or wings up. This sets off an ever escalating series of tragic events starting with a young jogger, dying of head injuries caused by being hit by a truck (that have left him sporting an unsightly sunroof in his skull), who warns Louis with his dying breath of terrible things on the horizon which sparks a series of nightmares in the doctor. Next it’s Church, daughter Ellie’s beloved cat, who succumbs to the dangerous road, but Jud has an idea to spare Louis’ daughter the grief of a mangled pet and so he takes Louis way beyond the pet cemetery to an ancient Indian burial ground where the soil has the properties to bring back any dead thing buried in the stoney ground.
To a sceptical Louis’ surprise, Church does indeed come back but is obviously changed by being a way bigger sadistic asshole that even cats are unusually renowned for. Eventually the worse thing imaginable occurs and toddler Gage has a fateful rendezvous with an 18 wheeler and the gut wrenching ramifications and agonizing grief start to tear the family apart. However, with his wife and daughter recuperating with the in-laws, Louis puts a stupid, foolhardy plan in action that could only be conceived by the desperation of a grieving parent, and so he spirits Gage’s body away and plants him in the cursed earth beyond the pet cemetery. However the actions of a distraught man are destined to unleash a wave of death and murder on everyone he knows and as Rachel races back to Maine, warned by unearthly visions that something terrible is about to happen, events have already been set in motion that cannot easily be undone.
Pet Sematary, despite it’s array of ghosts and prophetic nightmares on display, exploits quite possibly the greatest fear a human being can experience, the fear of losing a child. Why frequently too lurid to be taken as seriously as “serious” horror classics, the 1989 version is a rare example of a Stephen King novel that embraces the nastier elements of the book while still presenting a story that resonates beyond simple jump scares and gore. Don’t get me wrong, this film may not behigh art like The Shinning, but director Mary Lambert (never given enough credit for being a female helmer in the 80’s who put out a legitimately great horror flick) tells a good story simply and well, armed with a screenplay by King himself.
Another impressive thing about the film is that the sparse but spiteful and genuinely wince inducing violence which avoids the familiar 80’s trap of being overly cartoonish for gore’s sake – try guffawing at the sobering sight of a scalpel meeting an achilles tendon or slicing through the corners of a screaming mouth – and the disturbing visuals continue way past the acts of bloodletting too. Little Gage’s villainous chuckle or his threats delivered in aggressive baby talk summons gooseflesh like a mystical incantation but it’s Rachel’s childhood flashbacks to her gnarled and twisted sister, Zelda, that stick in the brains of many.
The performances vary in quality, with Dale Midkiff’s lead role delivering more leaden line readings than an overly medicated cheer leading squad (although he can scream “NOOOOOO!!!” like a fucking champ), but the rest of the cast excel, especially Herman Munster himself Fred Gwynne as kindly old Jed and Star Trek TNG’s Denise Crosby thankfully avoiding melodrama as the tormented Rachel – but it’s wee little Miko Hughes as the simultaneously adorable and terrifying Gage who really impresses (also he would go on to further earn his horror stripes by being terrorised by Freddy Krueger in New Nightmare and all way before his teens).
Balancing it’s scares with a genuinely interesting and affecting plot, Pet Sematary is rarely mentioned as a high point in 80’s horror as much as it should be (few scenes of the decade fill you will as much primal dread as Gage uncomprehendingly goggling at the truck barreling down on him) and is comfortably superior to the fairly plain remake that surfaced in 2019.
Intelligent and adept at hurting you right where you live, this movie is definitely worth digging up…