For the month of October, the Queen Ka‘ahumanu’s Consolidated Theatres is throwing Horror Fest: Stephen King Edition, with a different classic King film adaptation every Wednesday night at 7pm. The offerings are Brian De Palma’s Carrie (Oct. 3), Rob Reiner’s Misery (Oct. 10), Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (Oct. 17), David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (Oct. 24), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (Oct 31). The lineup is solid all around but I’m especially excited to revisit Lambert’s Pet Sematary, which is among the scariest movies I’ve ever seen.
Louis and Rachel Creed (played by Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby) move to Ludlow, Maine, along with their two children and cat named Church. While Louis takes up his new practice as the town doctor, his daughter begins asking him a lot of pointed questions about death. Not long after, Church winds up roadkill. A friendly neighbor, Jud Crandall (played by Fred Gwynne), instructs Louis to take his late pet to the nearby pet cemetery. We learn that Louis buries Church within the mystical Micmac Indian burial ground, which explains why Church comes back the next day… with glowing eyes and a rotten attitude.
I have a long history with King’s tale, which was the first novel of considerable length I ever read (at the too-young age of 10, no less); it gave me nightmares for months. Then came the movie, which I didn’t see for years but, thanks to glimpsing a pictorial in Fangoria Magazine, invoked another season of lost sleep. In grade school, I heard stories of kids being taken to see the film at the Maui Theater in Kahului, with reports of kids fleeing the theater and crying in the parking lot. For my college senior project as a theater major, I wound up writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw, upon which Pet Sematary is based. There’s something about King’s tale that holds a fascination with me, continues to bother me, and tumbles around in my imagination.
While the film was harshly criticized for its violence upon its initial release, the performances by the two leads are the main point of criticism that, unfortunately, does hold up after all this time. Roundly dubbed “bland,” the acting by Midkiff and Crosy is actually worse than that: As hard as they try, neither is up to the emotional demands of their characters. Thankfully, Gwynne is excellent (in fact, this is the best performance of his career) and little Miko Hughes is unforgettable as Louis’s son, Gage. The art direction and cinematography are excellent, creating a vivid mood and unsettling vantage points to witness the horror. The editing is quite brilliant – note how the horrifying second act-inciting incident is marked by a primal scream and contrasting series of family photos. Likewise, how a quick shot of a young boy at play flashes over the screen during the peak of the film’s macabre climax. Detours including Rachel’s traumatic childhood and flashbacks to other unfortunate souls resurrected via the pet cemetery are truly horrifying.
The character of Victor Pascow (well played by Brad Greenquist) poses a problem; Pascow is a dead patient who materializes as a ghost after Louis fails to save him. While his initial appearance is jolting, the characters overstays his welcome (unlike Griffin Dunne’s character in An American Werewolf in London, who Pascow is clearly modeled after).
A remarkable, undervalued aspect to Pet Sematary is that it is one of the very few American horror films directed by a woman (in fact, the other horror titles made by women are hybrids). Mary Lambert took up directing duties after horror legend George A. Romero passed on the project. Lambert, best known for helming dozens of iconic MTV videos (including Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” and “La Isla Bonita”), creates an understated but distinct style and never shies away from visceral impact. Pet Sematary is imperfect but Lambert’s uncompromised shaping of King’s vision isn’t merely frightening, but emotionally crushing. The superb, somber score by Elliot Goldenthal provides perfect accompaniment – as much as this is based in the supernatural, it’s a tragic tale about a family’s inability to deal with death. Old Jud remains correct: “Sometimes, dead is better.”
Rated R/103 min.