Ed. note- George Romero was originally supposed to direct PET SEMATARY. It’s right in line with his zombies films, and I’m sure he would have made a vastly superior flick. Instead we get Mary Lambert. As for my review, I originally wrote it as part of a combo with CUJO. That review was right in line with the trash, so I rewrote it almost from scratch as part of Vol. 3 of Opening the Vaults. Don’t miss out on the other two reviews in Vol. 3.- P.F.
I’m well aware of the adage about Stephen King novels and their movie versions. Some of King’s novels that have received the most praise have become absolute failures when translated to the screen. But even forewarned, I still can’t for the life of me understand how one of my favorite Stephen King novels could turn into such a drab film. This is the case with Mary Lambert’s PET SEMATARY.
I read Pet Sematary when I was in high school (with a brief hiatus for a night, when my mom stole it to read for herself), and found it gripping and downright scary. My reading speed had increased vastly since I had read Cujo a few years earlier, and I plowed through the novel, white knuckled, in about a week. Dead pets, and eventually people, returning to life kept me pounding through pages. Right up to the last paragraph, the novel scared the daylights out of me. Mom and I discussed the ending, as well as many of the creepy plot points. Looking back on it, that was probably my favorite King novel I’d read in my high school days.
And then Mary Lambert came out and buried it like a dead cat with one boring film.
PET SEMATARY’s plot cleaves very closely to the novel. The Creeds have just moved to rural Maine. It’s a great house, but a poor choice for a family with two young kids and a cat, as it’s right on a road that gets heavy traffic from trucks. That traffic takes a lot of pets’ lives, as kindly elder Jud Crandall tells them. Crandall lives across the street, and once the family cat Church becomes a road victim, Louis Creed asks for help in burying the feline in the local pet cemetery, a graveyard imbued with mystical powers to bring living things back to life. When a family tragedy hits… well, this is Stephen King Country, so you can figure where it’s going.
No surprises in translation here, as King wrote the script and did the translating himself. It’s Lambert’s direction that buries this film in a place where no mysterious cemetery could revive it. From her choices of cinematography (everything seems flat, more in line with a Lifetime movie-of-the-week than a horror flick), action (the editorial choices are less than thrilling), and scares (there aren’t many, a shame given the source material), there is nothing in this movie to make my spine tingle. Subplots about a hit-and-run victim haunting the family and Rachel Creed’s memories of her ill, creepy sister fall flat. The biggest problem is the shift in atmosphere. The novel is a tense page turner. Lambert’s film seems too blah. Where a more practiced horror director would have created a palpable sense of dread, she creates all the atmosphere of a wet towel. For a woman who had mostly directed music videos before this, Lambert brings nothing to the horror table.
Her direction of actors sure doesn’t help. Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby seem to walk through the film as if asleep, and on the rare occasions they do emote, it rings false. Even Crosby’s retelling about that older sister falls flat, as I didn’t buy her fear at all. Child actor Blaze Berdahl doesn’t help; her performance seems more in line with an episode of Full House than a horror film. Miko Hughes gets the same pass that Danny Pintauro got in my CUJO review, because he was actually younger than Pintauro. His stand-in puppet, on the other hand, should have demanded a better payday and second billing. Miko-Puppet at least jazzes up the movie for a few minutes.
When people talk fondly of this film, the highlight they always mention is the performance of Fred Gwynn. The veteran actor acquits himself admirably and gives the film’s only credible performance. He imbues King’s lines with just the right amount of backwoods Maine, without ever forging a silly caricature. When he says, “Sometimes, dead is better,” I buy it. As far as King flicks go, this performance is right up there with Keith Gordon in CHRISTINE and Hell of Famer Dee Wallace in CUJO.
Speaking of every King fan’s favorite St. Bernard, his story and this one have a lot in common. An isolated location in rural Maine provides setting. Once loving family pets are now more than a little off and become monsters. Parents try to save their children (though in one case, not the healthiest choice). Both are great novels.
So why couldn’t both be great flicks? CUJO is one of the better translations of a King novel. In some ways, it even improves on the source. PET SEMATARY, on the other hand… with a gripping story, a filming location in Maine and a director who had previously captured the essence of Madonna, this flick falls more in line with the likes of THINNER and the TV version of Carrie. Not exactly welcome company, for what could have been a masterpiece in the right hands.