Originally, author Stephen King didn't even want to publish "Pet Sematary." His wife Tabitha and fellow novelist Peter Straub told him that the book was too dark to be enjoyed. However, because he needed to submit a final book for his contract with his then-publisher, he submitted the draft to Doubleday anyway. The book was a smashing success, selling 657,000 hardback copies in the first year. Movie deals started pouring in almost immediately, but King declined all of them until being approached by the late zombie-film icon George Romero. Unfortunately, Romero ended up dropping out because he was working on "Monkey Shines." A few changes in Paramount's board of directors later, the director's chair went to Mary Lambert and the film finally got underway with a screenplay written by King himself. While the critical response to the film has been mixed at best, it was still a domestic box office success and still retains a faithful following. With the newest incarnation of the story coming out this weekend, it seemed appropriate to look at the original adaptation from 1989. With the upcoming remake hitting theaters this weekend, it's fitting to look back and see if this creepy creature tale can hold its own in the Stephen King pantheon.
When a family's pet cat is tragically hit by a car, their elderly neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) shows the father Louis (Dale Midkiff) a dark secret. In the nearby woods, there's a magical area that can bring animals back to life when buried there. When further tragedy strikes, Louis is tempted to use its power for much darker purposes.
One of the trickiest parts of making a horror film is creating an oppressive atmosphere. How do you convince your audience not only that what they're seeing on screen is real, but that they're in that world with the characters? This can be done in quite a few ways including using light and color to make a dark, dead-looking environment.
With this being a horror film before the invention of color correction, there's only so much the filmmakers can do with the lighting and color. For example, there's a funeral scene that is brightly lit. However, that's less of a problem here than it is in older movies. Many scenes are wisely lit in oranges and cold blues to convey either suffocating heat or debilitating cold. It helps that the majority of the sets in the film are brown or grey, two muted colors that give a feeling of lifelessness. It brings you into an oppressive atmosphere of death and misery, which in this case is a good thing because that's what a horror film should do.
However, the scares of this film aren't just delivered through the atmosphere. The visual effects do plenty of heavy lifting. The makeup and prosthetics in this movie are incredible, creating bloody scenes of nightmarish body horror.
Considering King's past screenwriting work, I was nervous about how he would handle the script for this film. However, it wasn't that bad. I don't know if he had a stricter script doctor or if he got more practice, but it's a significant improvement over his more infamous slip ups.
The acting from the adult cast is pretty bland, but it's not like they're given much to work with. When it comes to writing characters, Stephen King weirdly has no middle ground. Either he's creating some of the most interesting characters in fiction or he's writing flat archetypes with no dimension. These characters fall somewhere in the middle. They're not completely boring, but they're not in the same league as characters like Annie Wilkes or Andy Dufresne.
Horror films are interesting to view from a generational perspective, because different times are scared by different things. In 1942, the scariest film was a metaphor for sexual desire. In the 50s, every other film was about Russian spies. And these days almost every horror film is a supernatural story (which is interesting considering our societal insistence on materialism, but that's a different article entirely). And while "Pet Sematary" may not seem to have much in common with films like "Hereditary" or "The Conjuring," I think it might have more resonance now than it did back then.
Like with most cultural observations, this has no solid evidence to back it up, but from my perspective the greatest fear of my generation is aging. We'd rather die young than grow older; we've been surrounded by pop culture that portrays the horrors of the mid-life crisis or the average life. And even the concept of death has been romanticized; we'll either die tragically young or in some kind of meaningful way. Nobody likes to imagine that they'll either die for no reason or wasting away in a nursing home.
However, "Pet Sematary" has examples of both. Death is never romanticized in any way. No character is given the honor of a meaningful or quiet death. It's an inevitable destination for everybody and it's no use struggling against it. This takes the film from just a standard horror movie to a terrifying cautionary tale about embracing death rather than trying to run from it.
"Pet Sematary" isn't the best Stephen King adaptation. It's not the best shot, the best acted or the best directed. However, it is probably the most scared I've been sitting through one of his films. The visuals and ideas at play combine to make a teeth-clenching tale of letting the dead sleep.