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Pet Sematary
★★☆☆☆
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One of Steven King’s best and simplest premises is found in his 1983 novel Pet Sematary (spelled phonetically the way a child might write it). A young doctor named Louis Creed (played in the film by Dale Midkiff) moves his young family to an idyllic country home in Maine, which unfortunately happens to be located on a road where big trucks speed by. Down a path from the house are mysterious woods where generations of neighborhood kids have built a makeshift cemetery for all the animals killed by the trucks on the road. The pet cemetery happens to be located not too far from an ancient Indian burial ground. The Creed’s mysterious new neighbor, Jud Crandall (wonderfully played by Fred Gwynne) keeps the cemetery's dark secrets until a tragedy makes him rethink his silence.

Stephen King adaptations were practically a genre unto themselves in the '80s, but by 1989, studios executives believed movies made from these books had peeked. With the declining success of Children of the Corn, Cat's Eye, Silver Bullet, Creepshow 2, and King’s dreadful directorial debut Maximum Overdrive, the idea of a new Stephen King horror movie inspired fewer dollar signs in the eyes of studio heads, though adaptations of his non-horror works like Stand By Me and The Running Man had been hugely successful. Pet Sematary was one of King’s personal favorites of his own novels and he had resisted offers for options on that title. But he agreed to sell the rights to his friend, Night of the Living Dead director George Romero, as long as those rights came with a few stipulations: King would write the screenplay and the film HAD to be shot in his home state of Maine, where most of his novels—including Pet Sematary—are set. Romero wasn’t able to get the film set up anywhere and moved on to make Monkey Shines, but Romero's producing partner Richard Rubinstein kept shopping the script around.

The project soon found its way to Lindsay Doran, a whip-smart producer and development executive known for grooming up-and-coming directors and green lighting pictures that outperformed their modest expectations—like Ghost, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and The Naked Gun. When the Writer’s Guild went on strike in 1988, Doran put King’s long-completed script into production at Paramount. Her first choice for director was Mary Lambert, who was riding a wildly successful career making high-profile music videos for an impressive roster of major acts: Janet Jackson, Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox, The Go-Go's, Whitney Houston, Mötley Crüe, Sting, Debbie Harry, and (most of all) Madonna. Lambert met with King, who was very involved in this production, and the two bonded over their mutual love of horror fiction and the band the Ramones—who Lambert would hire to write and perform the title song for the movie.

Despite poor reviews from critics, Pet Sematary was a major hit, proving that there was still indeed a desire for more Stephen King horror adaptations—even mediocre ones like this film. The first third of the picture is solid, but King’s screenplay, which adheres closely to his novel, has a fatal logic flaw in that we never understand why Jud Crandall would tell Doctor Creed about the dark powers of the Indian cemetery when he knows no good has ever come from disturbing that sour ground. The more we learn about Crandall’s past experiences with “the place where the dead walk” the less convinced we are that he would ever want anything to do with it again. Rather than try to make up for King’s narrative shortcomings, Lambert doubles down on them, shooting the flashbacks all three main characters experience in an exaggerated style. The narrative momentum and the spooky tone established in the first third are slowly replaced by excessive exposition that unnecessarily complicates a simple plot that could have been highly effective with fewer narrative layers. By the final third, the movie devolves into a litany of the very clichés studio heads were worried about. 

King attempts to upend our expectations by painting Crandall as a kindly old man who might, in reality, be beholden to a dark power. As a counterpoint, we’re given the character of Victor Pascow (played by Brad Greenquist) the bloody ghost of a young man who Doctor Creed is unable to save during his first day at his new job at the local University hospital. Pascow seems like a scary, evil force, but he’s actuality trying to warn Doctor Creed not to listen to Crandall. Pascow is a clever conceit that works well in the book; and Greenquist’s spooky yet humorous performance in the film (as well as the fantastic make-up design by Dave Anderson) is effective. But the motivations of all of these characters to do any of the things they do are baffling. Far too little of the action in this movie makes any sense at all, so viewers end up trapped watching people make bad decision after bad decision.

The themes of guilt, grief, loss, and the fear of death are further hammered home via a subplot concerning the childhood trauma of Doctor Creed’s wife Rachel (Denise Crosby). As a little girl, Rachel had to care for her deformed, dying sister Zelda, who we see in flashbacks. The scenes of young Rachel and the sinister Zelda are effectively creepy, but they’re not well integrated into the narrative. Likewise the overtly hostile relationship between Doctor Creed and his in-laws is never explained—what Jewish parents are resentful that their daughter married a nice young doctor?

As imperfect a film as Pet Sematary is, there’s no denying it’s a crowd-pleaser. The blend of atmosphere, gory effects, and humor sustain the viewer and even invite multiple viewings. But what makes this movie special is that it features the single greatest performance by a toddler since Cary Guffey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Miko Hughes plays the younger of the two Creed children, Gage—a major figure in the story. His casting and performance are Lambert’s greatest directorial triumph. Everyone at Paramount wanted to follow the standard practice of casting toddler roles with twins, as child labor laws prevent little kids from working more than two hours a day. Indeed twins Blaze and Beau Berdahl portray the older Creed child, Ellie, (though only Blaze is credited as she handled most of the dialogue scenes). But when Lambert discovered two-year-old Miko Hughes she knew he was a one in a million child actor who would both enjoy doing the film and deliver the goods as Gage. What she’s able to do with this little boy on screen is pure cinematic magic; never feeling manipulative or exploitative. Hughes is so natural, funny, and authentically scary in this movie he makes it well worth seeing on his own.

Twitter Capsule:
Illogical plotting and uneven performances impair one of King's best horror premises about human powerlessness in the face of grief and loss. Still, Lambert's screen adaptation features the greatest performance by a toddler since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Directed by Mary Lambert
Produced by Richard P. Rubinstein

Screenplay by Stephen King
Based on the novel by Stephen King

With: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Michael Lombard, Blaze Berdahl, Mary Louise Wilson, Andrew Hubatsek, Miko Hughes, and Stephen King

Cinematography: Peter Stein
Editing: Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill
Music: Elliot Goldenthal

Runtime: 103 min
Release Date: 21 April 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color