Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
There was a time in my life when I read a lot of Stephen King. One of my brothers and one of my sisters did as well. I haven’t read close to all of his work and I haven’t read any in some time, but for a few years, Stephen King was probably 50% of my reading material. One of the reasons I stopped reading a lot of King is that he often has problems with his endings. Sometimes he really punks out on the end. When he gets an ending right, though, it’s pretty special. Pet Sematary is one of those times. As a book, Pet Sematary is slow, almost dull for the first several hundred pages. When King finally gets us to where we know he wants to get us, it becomes a freight train. The movie is exactly the same way, almost certainly in part because King wrote the screenplay.
The Creed family, Louis (Dale Midkiff), Rachel (Denise Crosby), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and baby Gage (Miko Hughes) have moved from Chicago to rural Maine because Louis has just been hired to work at the University of Maine. Their new house is large and comes with a nice bit of land, but is also on a major, truck-infested highway. Across the highway is Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who warns the family about the highway. He also introduces the family to the pet cemetery down the path beyond their house. According to Jud, many of those pets are in the cemetery thanks to the road.
It’s not long before that road claims its first victim in the form of Ellie’s cat Church. This happens when everyone but Louis is away from the house. Distraught at what he might have to tell his daughter, who is just starting to have concerns about the concept of death, Louis is advised by Jud to go a little further beyond the pet cemetery behind his house. Beyond a deadfall and a difficult climb lies a Micmac burial ground that can sometimes have a…restorative effect…on the recently departed. Louis buries Church here and the next day, the cat has come back. Church isn’t quite the same, of course. He’s more violent and aggressive and he smells dead. But he’s back nonetheless.
Now that we have established the basic premise of the film, it’s clear where we’re going to go here—we need to have a person buried in the Micmac burial ground. Before that happens, though, we need another touch of the supernatural. That comes in the form of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a jogger hit by a car. He’s brought into the hospital/clinic/emergency room where Louis is working. Before he dies of his injuries, Pascow forges some sort of psychic connection with Louis. In truth, all of this happens before Louis buries Church. Pascow more or less functions as a Cassandra here. He’s been sent to work the Creeds away from the Micmac burial ground and pretty much doomed to failure.
Eventually, though, we’ve got to get a person buried up there, right? The person of choice here is going to be Gage, the two-year-old. This is one of the things that truly makes Pet Sematary work as well as it does. The premise—a graveyard that can bring back the dead, but doesn’t bring them back the way they left—is a good one, and a classic horror idea. Now, match that up with an undead, evil child, and you’ve got a recipe for real horror. Evil kids are always scary, because the idea of corrupted innocence is always terrifying. And when we get there, Gage is scary as hell. He is the equivalent of a child’s laugh coming from an open grave after midnight.
The biggest problem with Pet Sematary is implied by what I’ve said here. We know where this going early on, but it takes us a long time to get there. The build is arguably too slow. I wouldn’t want it to be a lot faster—the slow burn only makes the end of the film that much more horrific—but snipping out five to ten minutes here and there would speed it up just enough while still keeping the excellent ending.
Even with it being as slow as it is, there’s a lot here that makes Pet Sematary worth seeing. The last 20 minutes are worth the slow burn, because those 20 minutes are about as good as a horror movie gets. What really works for me, though, are the minute or two before the credits role. The novel has the single best final page of King’s entire career, and the film version not only includes that final page, it takes it just a baby step further. It’s one of the great horror endings around.
Pet Sematary is just weirdly prurient enough that it will never have the class of films like Rosemary’s Baby or the importance of films like The Exorcist. There’s something here that feels just a little slimy, a little messy. It’s the kind of thing that will keep Pet Sematary from being mentioned in the same sentence with the great horror films of the ages. But it’s those same qualities that make it pretty damn great.
Why to watch Pet Sematary: It’s accurate to the book, and the book has one of King’s better endings.
Why not to watch: It’s a slow starter.