Bird Watching – Mary Lambert’s “Pet Sematary”
Because February is Women in Horror month (you can get lots of information on that here), I’ll be devoting the month’s Bird Watching columns to horror films. As a big horror fan, and as someone who pays a lot of attention to female-directed films, I’m sad to say that women are even more of a minority in genre filmmaking than they are in the bigger picture. Luckily, the number of indie horror films being made by women is steadily rising (and we’ll get to some of those later in the month). There are also a few notable “big” horror films that had a woman behind the camera. One of those is 1989’s Pet Sematary, directed by Mary Lambert, from Stephen King’s own adaptation of his novel. I picked that for this week for a simple reason: I’d never seen it before.
I’m not going to lie, dear readers. All these years, I truly thought this was a movie about zombie animals attacking. I guess I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions based on the title alone. Of course, it does have quite a bit of zombiesque action in the end, but unfortunately only one instance of it being an animal, and he doesn’t even do anything interesting.
So, let’s go through this plot (spoilers ahead!). Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) has scored himself a job as the doctor on a college campus in rural Maine. He and his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar to me, and yes, I am a Tasha Yar defender) and their two children, 8ish-year-old Ellie and 3ish-year-old Gage, move into a house that, while lovely, is unfortunately situated on a road that has large trucks frequently roaring past. Across that road lives an old man, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne! Always a welcome sight). Within minutes of the Creeds’ arrival, Jud saves Gage’s life when the boy is about to wander into the mega-dangerous road. The Creeds become buddy-buddy with him, and even though he’s mildly creepy, he’s also got a trustworthy vibe. He shows them the “pet sematary” that lies down a path in the woods, where dead pets of generations have been put to rest, many of them killed by trucks on the road.
Wouldn’t you know it, when Rachel and the kids go away without Louis to her parents’ for Thanksgiving, the family cat bites the big one, due to one of said trucks. In a moment of poor judgment because of his concern for what Ellie’s reaction will be, Jud decides to show Louis the real cemetery: an ancient burial ground with the power to resurrect the dead. They bury the cat there, and the next day, it’s back…albeit with a new, dead odor and a greater tendency to scratch, hiss, dismember mice, etc.
Even with all of the hammer-over-the-head foreshadowing, I have to admit I was surprised when the tragedy that propels the film to its climax actually happened. Little Gage, chasing after a kite while on a family picnic, runs into the road and is killed by a passing truck. I guess this is Stephen King, and he is not in the business of being nice to us. Overcome with grief after the boy’s funeral, and with Rachel and Ellie away at her parents’ again, Louis make the VERY BAD choice to exhume the body and move it to the ancient, magical burial ground. The version of Gage that comes back is decidedly more chatty and murderous than the sweet little boy he had been.
While Louis sleeps, Gage-resurrected steals a scalpel (why does Louis have a scalpel at home, anyway?) and murders Jud. Sensing something amiss (oh yeah…there is this whole other thing with a patient who died on Louis’s first day and is now a specter who appears to him and is sort of inside the thoughts of Rachel and Ellie, warning them about stuff…), Rachel rushes home just in time to also be killed by Gage. When Louis finally wakes up and sees what’s happened, he injects both the cat and Gage with a fatal dose of some sort of drug that he also probably shouldn’t have lying around the house, and burns Jud’s house to the ground. (Why this would be helpful at this point? I couldn’t say.)
Though we might think he’s learned his lesson by now, Louis then takes Rachel’s body back up to the burial ground, ignoring specter-guy’s warnings and insisting that since he’s not waiting so long this time, this resurrection should go fine. And maybe it sort of does? The film ends with Rachel returning to Louis, and them passionately embracing, even though she’s still beat to hell and covered in blood and slime and dirt. That’s true love!
The main problem with this film is that all of the actual engaging action with the human resurrections starts much too late in the run time. It also feels a bit disjointed all along the way. The film is an odd sort of rumination on the various ways people deal with death, both in concept and in reality, but too often these ideas are introduced in tangents that don’t get explored in a satisfying way. For example, there is a maid character who commits suicide, believing she has cancer and not wanting to live through that, and she’s barely mentioned again after her death. There’s also some crazy stuff with a sister Rachel had who died of meningitis as a teen, shown in flashback scenes that are over-the-top grotesque. The way this affects Rachel’s attitude toward talking about death is almost interesting, but stops short of really getting there as the film bounces from scene to scene, trying to cram a 400-page book’s worth of plotlines into 100 minutes.
I did really enjoy much of the acting here, especially from Dale Midkiff. The exception is the character of Ellie, who is unbearably annoying in that child-actor way. I was also pretty impressed by the way the scenes with the murderous Gage were put together. Understandably, much of the action is implied off-screen, and I really wouldn’t have wanted it to be more blatant. But Lambert does manage to convey the disturbing impression of a bloodthirsty toddler on a rampage, without anything getting either too uncomfortable or too comical. I imagine it must’ve been a difficult balance to strike.
All in all, I’m glad I finally watched the film, but it’s not one I anticipate revisiting often. The word lately is that a remake is in the works for next year, and I would be interested in seeing another take on this story.
I’d also be interested in seeing an actual film about zombie animals. Recommendations, anyone?