Stephen King was once asked if he ever wrote anything that scared even him. He mentioned two things: the scene in The Shining with the lady in the bathtub, and pretty much the whole of Pet Sematary. In fact, when he was finished writing it, he found what he had put on paper to be so disturbing that he put the manuscript in a drawer, unsure if he would ever submit it for publication - if anybody would even be WILLING to publish it. Being Stephen King, that of course was not a problem. A variation of sorts on the classic horror story "The Monkey's Paw," Pet Sematary was (and is) a truly grueling experience in terror and probably gives even the likes of Jack Ketchum nightmares.
Originally intended as another project for George A. Romero to direct (like The Stand and the hopefully forthcoming From A Buick 8), the directorial reins were ultimately taken by Mary Lambert and the film was released in the spring of 1989. King himself wrote the screenplay adaptation - and a fine job he did at that, making sure that the novel's darker, sharper edges weren't dulled by someone reticent to go as far as the master did. The resulting film, while flawed, nonetheless remains one of the more faithful and effective flicks made from Big Steve's work.
Our story begins as the Creed family arrives in Maine, having just moved from the big city of Chicago. Dad Louis (Dale Midkiff), Mom Rachel (Star Trek: T.N.G's Denise Crosby), daughter Ellie, baby Gage, and Ellie's cat Church have relocated here as Louis, a doctor, has just landed a job at the local university. The Creeds are adjusting well to a slower, more languid pace of life, and have made fast friends with their elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who shows them an interesting little feature of the woods behind their home. . .a pet cemetery, old and unused, made by the local children (hence the misspelling in the title) from back when Jud was a boy. The family finds it odd, to say the least (except for Rachel, who seems particularly bothered by its very existence), but nothing to be dwelled upon or worried about. Even the fact that the street on which they live appears to be a playground for speed-crazy truck drivers, whose big rigs are essentially the reason for the existence of the pet cemetery, is something they can watch out for and deal with. This is a happy little clan, the Creeds, and all signs point to contentment.
Obviously, that's when things start going wrong. On Louis' first (!) day at his new job, a student is hit by a truck and brought into the emergency area, where he dies (unsurprising, as his skull has been torn open, giving us a nice, juicy look at what's on his mind), but not before giving Louis a cryptic warning about "the soil of a man's heart." Louis' reaction is to try to forget this creepy little message, understandably. The fact that the dead man's ghost comes calling on Louis in his dreams makes this a bit difficult. Then, with the wife and kids visiting family back in Chicago, Jud gives Louis the bad news that the road has claimed his daughter's cat Church. But maybe Jud knows a way for Ellie to keep her cat awhile longer yet - he tells Louis of another burial ground, deeper into the woods, beyond the pet cemetery. A special place, with a power all its own; Louis buries Church there and is shocked the next day when the cat returns, very much alive, but markedly different. Seems the other place, a former Micmac Indian burial ground, has the ability to resurrect the dead, but the soil has gone sour - as Jud tells Louis, "Sometimes. . .dead is better."
And that's about when the Creed family suffers an awful, terrible tragedy and Louis' knowledge of what the Micmac grounds are capable of have him plotting something awful and terrible in its own right, and everything goes to hell.
This is a well-done flick, certainly, but a feel-good story it ain't. It's dark and depressing and horrible things happen to good people, over and over again. It's kinda like the harshest parts of life in that respect. Regardless, it's effective and creepy as fuck and awesomely gory when it needs to be and just flat out twisted nasty. Lambert's direction is solid, assured and has no qualms whatsoever about punching you in the gut; it's a shame that she squandered all the goodwill she earned on this flick by making a generally repugnant and worthless sequel a few years later.
Sadly, the movie's flaws can be attributed to one aspect: the acting. Save for Fred Gwynne (instantly likeable and charming, just a great turn by the wily old pro) and Miko Hughes (who is DAMNED good, considering he had to be only 3 or so when this was made), the acting holds this back from being all it could have been - namely, a true classic. Midkiff is a pleasant enough presence but unremarkable; it would have been nice to see him REALLY lose his shit as his character's grip on sanity slackens. Crosby is - and I am going to attempt to be diplomatic here - as expressive as a 2 x 4. You really want to root for her, but Crosby makes that next to impossible by coming off as frosty and detached. And the less said about little daughter Ellie, the better. I take no pleasure in slamming child actors (cause, after all, they ARE kids and as such shouldn't be raked over the coals), but her screeching and wailing made me pretty much want to gouge my eardrums out. So, basically, the movie manages to pull off an impressive feat, of a sort - the main characters may be miscast, but somehow it's a secondary matter. King's storytelling skills and the fact that Lambert just plows onward, assaulting us with fresh horror, is what makes this flick work. It's uncompromising and straight-up hardcore when it gets down to its dirty buisness, and sports the same shocking ending that the novel had, and even goes a little further.
Paramount's recent special edition DVD actually has special features, as opposed to the bare-bones edition that's was out previously - that one didn't even have a friggin' trailer! Here, though, we've got some meat on the bone; a newly recorded commentary by director Lambert is really quite good (she has a very measured way of speaking, however), even if she doesn't apologize for Pet Sematary II. Three featurettes, all between 10 and 15 minutes long, cover various subjects like adapting a King novel for the screen, what gave him the idea for the story, the characters of the flick, the gruesome makeup effects, and actually shooting the thing on location up there in Maine. They're good and generally stay away from the infomercial, EPK style, with some interviews with cast and crew, but I was most excited about hearing from Douglas E Winter (author of the acclaimed Stephen King: The Art Of Darkness and a riproaring fiction debut, Run). There's a few trailers here as well.
Pet Sematary, in spite of its shortcomings, rocks all kinds of ass and will kick yours if you let it. I don't know how else to say it. I've seen it over and over and it's always a worthwhile view. It's a real horror flick, so be prepared - it'll get to you if you let it. So turn the lights down and enjoy another tale from the master of terror; I doubt you'll regret it.