“Sometimes, dead is better.”
In 1989 Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” became a hit box-office attraction. It could hardly have been otherwise, given that so many of the author’s other works had already done so well adapted for the screen, things like “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Creepshow,” “Cujo,” “Christine,” “Firestarter,” “Salem’s Lot,” “The Running Man,” “Children of the Corn,” “The Dead Zone,” and many others. Before long, King had to start writing under pseudonyms, his name was becoming so oversaturated in the market. Some of King’s works were actually better on the big screen than they had been as novels; others didn’t fare as well. In the case of “Pet Sematary” the only other time I saw it was on cable years before, and I didn’t think much of it. Now, after watching it in high definition, I can’t say I liked it any better. Nevertheless, I seem to be in a minority.
While I recognize that horror stories have to stretch credibility in order for them to work, the problem I find with “Pet Sematary” is that author King and director Mary Lambert (“Siesta,” “The In Crowd,” “Clubland,” and a ton of TV series and video movies) stretch credibility so far, it snaps apart in all the wrong places. Besides my finding a movie about the killing of pets and children distasteful, there are the main characters to consider, a family of four, the Creeds. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) is the father, a young medical doctor who has just moved with his wife and two kids from Chicago to rural Maine to take up a post at a local college. His wife, Rachel (Denise Crosby), is a sweet, devoted mother; his eight-year-old daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) is something of an annoying, demanding brat; and their youngest, the baby Gage (Miko Hughes), seems merely a pawn. None of them smile very much, nor do they ever have reason.
Now, here’s the thing: You’d think Doc Creed would be a fairly smart guy. So, how to explain that he and his family have just bought a house in the country that’s about two feet from a major state highway, where gigantic trucks and trailers haul down the road every minute at seventy miles an hour? Or that they never noticed before a path right next to the house leading down to a pet cemetery, misspelled “sematary” for obscure reasons never explained. (Was King ridiculing the ignorance of the people who first built the cemetery, or was he suggesting that illiterate children originally founded the place? And how old is this cemetery, anyway? Supposedly, it’s filled with the bodies of dead pets, pets that tried to cross the highway and got hit by trucks. So, the cemetery can’t go back any further than the invention of cars. Who knows.)
Next, there’s the musical track by Elliot Goldenthal that runs high to loud, weird, histrionic outbursts to underline every plot element; an opening shot of the cemetery meant to be frightening (it looks like something out of the eighteenth-century, “where the dead speak”) but winding up not so much; and an ancient Indian burial ground, making the film more corny than scary. After that, we meet the other main characters in the film: the obligatory creepy old man, a neighbor named Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who keeps giving arcane (and very bad) advice to the doctor; a young fellow, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), who gets hit by a car, dies, and returns as a ghost; and a maniac father-in-law (Michael Lombard). All of this sets the tone for a film I found downright irritating for its silliness.
It doesn’t help, either, that we recognize almost no one in the cast today. It’s not like “Carrie,” where relative unknowns (Sissie Spacek, John Travolta, William Katt, Amy Irving) soon became household names. It means, in effect, that with “Pet Sematary” the filmmakers can kill off anyone they want without offending anyone in the audience. Well, at least we recognize Fred Gwynne from “The Munsters” and Stephen King himself in a bit part as a preacher.
The family cat makes for cheap thrills as it jumps out of nowhere to go “boo” several times. But worse is the film putting a child in danger. I never read the late Gene Siskel’s review of “Pet Sematary,” but I’m sure, given his dislike of movies that put children in danger, he must have hated the idea of this one having a baby wander out in front of a speeding truck. And what about that scene? I mean, Doc Creed hands the string of a kite to his baby son and then he, the rest of the family, and the neighbor don’t notice that the kid strays unattended about two hundred yards to the roadway? With a kite in his hand? Nothing makes sense in this movie.
I suppose King intended the story as some kind of treatise on the meaning of death (“They have to learn about death somehow, now don’t they?” says old Jud). However, there are so many grisly, gratuitous deaths in it, the whole thing just becomes morbid.
“Pet Sematary” is one of the most witless horror movies I’ve sat through, essentially a zombie ghost story that’s wholly predictable throughout. It even borrows heavily from “An American Werewolf in London” and Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Small Assassin.” There is nothing in it I found frightening or suspenseful because, as I’ve said, I found so much of it just plain corny.
Paramount’s video engineers did a bang-up job with the picture quality, transferring the movie in its native 1.85:1 ratio (1.78:1 here) to Blu-ray using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. Everything about the PQ is good: good detailing; good definition; good, natural colors; good facial tones; and a good, bright but not flashy image. Everything about the PQ is vivid and lifelike and a pleasure to watch.
Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to reproduce the sound, Paramount provide a welcome listening experience to match the picture quality. Although there isn’t a lot of surround information, there is an excellent front-channel stereo spread, good midrange clarity and transparency, good dynamic impact, and at least some good ambient musical bloom from the side and rear channels.
A modest number of extras accompany the movie. First, there is an audio commentary by director Mary Lambert. After that, we find three brief featurettes: “Stephen King Territory,” thirteen minutes, wherein the author says he wrote part of the novel based on personal experience; “The Characters,” also thirteen minutes, wherein Ms. Lambert calls King “the Dickens of our culture,” uh-huh; and “Filming the Horror,” ten minutes, wherein the filmmakers continue to talk about what a great picture they made.
The extras conclude with nineteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The flimsy Blu-ray Eco case comes enclosed in a handsome slipcover with a 3-D holographic picture on the front.
“Pet Sematary” screams “corny” from beginning to end, from the B-movie opening shots of the cemetery itself to the ridiculously melodramatic background music to the unnecessarily gory climax. If there is a cliché that author King and director Lambert overlooked, I don’t know what it is. If you’ve already seen the film and liked it, this Blu-ray rendering of it is as good as it can probably get. If you haven’t seen the film, well, you’re on your own.