Paramount // 1989 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // September 24th, 2012
Sometimes dead is better.
Who is the most cinematically adapted author of all time? If I weren't feeling lazy, I'd go online and find the answer. Because I'm not feeling especially journalistic, I'm going to just assume its horror master Stephen King. And even if it's not, King has to be right up there on a short of list of writers whose work has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times for the stage, screen, and television. In 1989, relatively new director Mary Lambert (Siesta) brought King's terrifying 1983 thriller Pet Sematary to life, and it's now available on Blu-ray care of Paramount Home Entertainment.
Welcome to the town of Ludlow, Maine, where the population is slowly dropping with each passing hour. Respected doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff, Love Potion No. 9), his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, Star Trek: The Next Generation), and their two children (Miko Hughes and Blaze Berdhal), have just moved into a beautiful new house that shares its property line with a large busy highway. When the Creed's cat Church dies while Rachel and the kids are on vacation, their neighbor Jud (Fred Gwyne, My Cousin Vinnie) takes Louis to an ancient Indian burial ground with the power to bring the cat back to life. The mystical powers do their work, but not without a cost: Church comes back more aggressive and violent than before. Tragedy strikes again when the Creed's youngest child Gauge wanders into the road and is hit by a passing semi truck. Grief stricken, Louis remembers what the Micmac burial grounds did for Church, makes his way to Gauge's gravesite, and unleashes consequences so dark they will change the lives of the Creed family forever.
Stephen King's Pet Sematary is a rare horror movie that stands the test of time. Released in 1989, the film scared the snot out of me when I was only thirteen years old (I recall seeing it with my parents, much to their chagrin). It was creepy, atmospheric, and above all else, really freaking scary. Heck, I even ran out and bought the cassette single of The Ramones song used at the end of the movie, whose lyrics were as equally disturbing as the movie ("I don't want to be buried in a pet sematary / I don't want to live my life again..."). Almost twenty five years later, a lot of viewers may be wondering if the movie has the same power to horrify as it used to.
You bet it does. Somehow director Mary Lambert was able to avoid almost all of the trappings of 1980s cheese and delivery an experience whose power lies in its ability to mess with the human psyche. On a guttural level, there are the typical scares -- bloody wounds, multiple deaths, demonic cats. On another level -- one saved for those who have become parents -- there's the underlying theme of losing a child, one of the worst horrors that can befall an adult. Pet Sematary not only faces this fear head on, but goes one step further in doing something most movies steadfastly avoid: showing the death of a child, and the parents dealing with such a tragedy. The movie goes yet ANOTHER step further by showing the father digging up his dead child, burying him a mystical burial ground, and witnessing the horror of that child coming back to life...in the worst way possible ("The ground is sour!"). It's no wonder Stephen King, upon completion of the novel, set it in a desk drawer for fear that it might be "too much" for most readers to digest.
One of the reasons Pet Sematary works so well is because it's enclosed in its own little world. The Creed's house and Jud's house seem to be the only homes occupying the town of Ludlow. As viewers, we are stuck with these two families, knowing with mounting dread that something bad is about to happen to just about everyone. Keeping the film locked in these two locations also minimizes any connection to the outside world (save for a few brief shot at Rachel's parent's house and a funeral); 1980s fashions and technology aren't seen very often at all. This was a smart decision on the part of the director, as it makes the movie just as accessible today as it was when it was released.
The performances in Pet Sematary are all very good. The best is Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall, the Creed's next door neighbor who shares more than he should with Louis and his family. Most viewers will recognize Gwynne as the lovable Herman Munster from the classic TV series The Munsters. Here Gwynne is miles away from that character; Jud is a man consumed by guilt and remorse, and Gwynne plays him with a perfect mix of sadness and world weary wisdom. Dale Midkiff makes for a somewhat strange leading man; his demeanor often feels detached from his family, no more so than when little Gauge is killed by an oncoming truck. Somehow, Midkiff is able to make this detachment work in the film's favor, adding to the horror of the movie's final harrowing scene. Lambert is able to wring maximum performances out of her two child actors -- Miko Hughes and Blaze Berdahl -- injecting each with depth and pathos. Mike Hughes is especially impressive as the young Gauge. Poor Miko must still be shelling out lots of money on therapy bills after making this movie.
The makeup and effects work are slickly professional, especially poor spectral Victor Pascow (a wonderfully foreboding Brad Greenquist, Water for Elephants), whose brain matter could have easily gotten its own special billing. Thankfully, Pet Sematary doesn't rely solely on gross out effects to scare the audience. Yes, there's the requisite blood and guts, but it doesn't feel gratuitous or sensational, instead existing to serve the story and characters. Special mention must be made of composer Elliot Goldenthal's score. Horror movies rise and fall on the quality of the music, and Goldenthal's erie, tinkling piano works wonders at jangling the nerves.
Thinking over Pet Sematary, I don't really have any substantial complaints, except for the horribly lackluster sequel it spawned, the dully titled Pet Sematary Two. Stephen King's book was an exercise in tension and terror, and the same could easily be said for the film adaptation of his work. This movie is easily recommended for anyone who loves not only to be scared but also totally and unequivocally creeped out.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Paramount's work on this transfer is a giant leap up from the standard DVD version released in the 2000s. Pet Sematary's world is not one of bright colors, but rather shadows and muted palates. Even so, the detail is very good (especially during the daytime sequences) and the black levels are dark and solid. There is a thin layer of grain that gives the film a nice, warm quality.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix sounds just as terrifying as ever. Goldenthal's wonderful score often finds its way through both the front and rear speakers. Though not super aggressive, there are many moments when ambient noise or 'stingers' come abruptly to the forefront. I wouldn't say this is the most impressive sound mix ever created, but it works very well within the confines of the film. Also included are alternate language tracks in French (Dolby 2.0 Stereo), Spanish and Portuguese (Dolby 2.0 Mono), plus English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
The bonus features are all ported over from Paramount's 2006 "Special Collector's Edition" DVD. These include a commentary track by director Mary Lambert and three semi-newly produced short featurettes ("Stephen King Territory", "The Characters", and "Filming the Horror").
Pet Sematary still has the power to get under my skin after more than two decades. This may not be my favorite horror film, but it sure is up there as one of the finest examples of Stephen King done right.
Not Guilty. Be prepared to give up a night of sleep for being scared out of
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R