Sometimes Dead Is Better (Pet Sematary, 1989)

Pet_Sematary_1989_PosterWhen Stephen King wrote Pet Sematary, the publisher rejected and King himself felt it was such a dark tale, he shelved it.  He ended up submitting it to complete a deal with his publisher.

And, understandably, Pet Sematary is a dark book that explores life, death and trying to overcome death. The Movie also struggled to get to the screen, ultimately only getting greenlit because of an impending writers strike in Hollywood.

Luis and Rachel Creed have moved their family to a home in rural Maine. They meet their neighbor Jud, who warns them about the dangers of the road in front of their home. Their young Daughter Ellie discovers the local Pet Cemetery.

 

Jud tells them about the history of the cemetery, which has been around since he was a child.  When the family cat Church is hit by a truck, Jud takes Luis past the Pet Sematary to an ancient and sour ground. They bury the cat and Luis is shocked when Church returns to the house. Church is not the same pet, and Luis tries to reconcile the “miracle” with his rational mind.

The family faces a traumatic event which causes Luis to spiral into desperation and…poor choices.

With a screenplay by Stephen King, the film keeps its core tragic tale.  It downplays some of the heavier sinister supernatural stuff. Specifically, while there is a scene where Jud and Luis pause and hear something loudly moving through the forest, it is never really addressed. In fact, when the moment passes, a fearful Jud claims it is “just a loon”.

On the other hand, the film keeps the terror and the ultimate human horrors parents face. And there is Pascow.  According to actor Brad Greenquist, Director Mary Lambert told him Pascow is less a ghost and more of an angel.  And this really is a pretty accurate view of the character, as he is constantly trying to guide the Creed family away from the awful path they are facing.

Of course, the thing most people remember about the film is Zelda. Zelda is the sister of Rachel who died from meningitis when Rachel was a child. Zelda is a force of both fear (of death) and guilt, as Rachel confesses that she wanted Zelda to die.

The film makes great use with its locations.  I love the houses in the film.

The performances are all strong.  Of course, the most memorable is Fred Gwynne as Jud.  It is amazing that the studio opposed this casting, because they believed people would just see Herman Munster. But Gwynne proved Mary Lambert’s instincts to be very correct.  He has a genuine kindness.  And it makes everything that much more painful when you realize that his attempt to spare little Ellie the pain of losing her beloved cat results in the suffering of this family.

Pet Sematary is at times dread inducing and has a gory finale.  But it is a film that attempts to explore some painful themes through a horror fantasy story.  One of the crew recounts how he had once worked on a Friday the 13th film and swore off horror movies.  But Gwynne convinced him, in  part sharing the tale of his own loss of a child. And I think this is a fear most parents have, and tend to suppress. This is the power of the film.

The film was recently released on 4k and Blu-Ray, so it is a perfect time to catch up on the film if you have not seen it or revisit it if you have not seen it for a long time.

 

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