RETRO ACTIVE: Pet Sematary (1989)
by Nick Schager
[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the resurrected-undead horror sequel [REC] 3: Genesis.]
For Stephen King
, places often have hungers that can only be satiated by flesh, by death, and by souls, and none of those locations—The Shining
's Overlook Hotel notwithstanding—has ever been quite as invitingly malevolent as the burial ground of Pet Sematary
, where the deceased come back to life. Director Mary Lambert
's 1989 adaption boasts a fidelity to her source material's signature moments and underlying themes that's due in large part due to a script by King himself, which through its main narrative and tangential asides deftly transposes his story's portrait of the way in which the dead haunt the living. That's most readily apparent via the titular cemetery, a remote and scraggly plot of wooded land dotted with aged, amateurish wooden crosses and scrawled inscriptions that lies hidden behind the new rural Maine home of the Creeds, which on its other side faces a street notorious for speeding semi trucks that have killed a healthy share of local animals and pets. As new resident doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff
) is told by neighbor Jud Crandall (The Munsters
' Fred Gwynne
), the cemetery and the street are related—one feeds the other—and the notion of the cemetery as actively engaged in sustaining itself through corpses runs throughout Lambert's film, which is predicated on an idea of death as a force of active ravenous evil.
Louis' wife Rachel (Denise Crosby
) doesn't like her younger daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl
) hearing about death, in part because she herself is still traumatized from watching, as a child, her disfigured, bedridden older sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek
) die after years of suffering with spinal meningitis. That plot thread is given great creepiness by Lambert's use of a man in ghoulish make-up to play Zelda, but it also resonates as a disquieting example of the deceased's continuing grip on the present, which also comes to the fore—in a more positive light—courtesy of the ghost of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist
), a student whom Louis fails to save from a traffic accident. For Pet Sematary
, the dead never truly leave. And the afterlife void reaches out to consume the living through the stretch of Indian burial ground out past the cemetery, where Jud explains to Louis, after the Creed's family cat Church becomes the latest victim of a big rig, that those interred in the shallow soil soon return from the hereafter. The promise of resurrected loved ones is death's sinister trap, and it's one that Lambert makes clear will eventually ensnare Louis, both from the intro sight of a red semi racing down the street, and later of the Creeds' toddler son Gage (Miko Hughes
) nearly running into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
builds slowly to its fateful tragedy, first by detailing Louis' discovery that back-from-the-grave Church is a glowing-eyed feline devil not to be trusted, and also by forwarding the view—in conversations between Louis and both Ellie and Jud—that God is, if not wholly absent, then unfair and passive with regards to human misfortune and misery. That bleakness, amusingly poked fun at through a cameo by King as a funereal priest preaching about God's "peace," is matched by Lambert's focus on the physicality of death, be it Louis peeling a rigor mortis-afflicted Church from the frosty grass, images of knotty tree roots and bark wounds (sights that relate to the overarching depiction of nature as malevolent), or the climax's focus on sliced skin and gashed bodies. Adding to that atmosphere is the underlying suggestion that the cemetery thrives by specifically preying upon men's roles as protectors of their broods—a notion furthered by Jud's tale (told in flashback) of a post-WWII father who brought back his dearly departed son to great calamity, as well as by Victor and Jud's caution to Louis: "The soil of a man's heart is stonier."
With a methodical pace that creates a mood of mounting terror absent any shock-tactic scares, Pet Sematary
occasionally drags, but such torpor doesn't detract from the sterling finale, in which Louis—having suffered through the untimely death of Gage, and the cruel reproach of his nasty father-in-law—ignores Jud's warnings and uses the cemetery to revive his son. Returning as a cherubic, creepily giggling monster, Gage finds dad's surgical scalpel and takes to playing a deadly game of hide and seek with Jud (ending in an unforgettable Achilles Heel wound) and then fatally welcoming home mom, who's made it back to the house after being confounded by one travel-related accident after another that ghostly Victor blames on the cemetery, which doesn't want its malevolent machinations interrupted. Lambert's staging of Gage's rampage is all the more startling for featuring the young Hughes in such graphic ways, the child (hair slicked back, scar across his forehead) snarling while brutally attacking his victims with a blade. A reverse-cinematography shot of Gage walking backwards and falling against a wall is particularly unnatural and unsettling, as is his cooing to his father about Rachel, "We had an awful good time. Now I want to play with youuuuuu"—moments that, like the despairing money shot, cement the film's belief that we have no greater weakness in the face of death than love.
Posted by ahillis at September 7, 2012 7:54 AM