Pet Semetary (1989) - Mary Lambert
Thanks to the success of IT Chapter One (2017), we are going through something of a renaissance of Stephen King big-screen adaptation. With IT Chapter Two, Doctor Sleep and the remake of Pet Semetary all following in quick succession. This recent spate of films has a long way to go though to replicate the output of King's 80s movies. The original Pet Semetary, released in 1989, and the first for which King wrote the screenplay is, for those who haven't seen it, both not what you'd expect from the title and everything you'd expect from the master of horror writing. Everything that makes King's story both excellent and awful is present and correct in Mary Lambert's film. One of the big challenges this film presents is how to separate the merits and strengths of Lambert's direction from King's script and story.
The story opens with the Creed family moving into a new house in New England. They have moved here because the father, Louis, is starting a new job as the local college's doctor. He is joined by his wife, Rachel, of whom we learn little, and their two children, Ellie and Gage. Both of whom will play significant parts in the unfolding horror.
Initially, it's Ellie who appears to be the focus of the story, and from whose perspective we'll experience the events. Shortly after arriving she spots a path leading to somewhere ominous. Their neighbour, Jud Cranwell (played with zeal and relish by Fred Gwynne) layers on the portentous tone by explaining that the path leads to a pet semetary, where local animals killed by trucks speeding by on the road which runs alongside the Creed's new home. From very early on the film layers on the foreshadowing. The Creeds have cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill), who it seems is destined to run out of his nine lives very quickly. It begins to appear as though this film is going to be about Ellie learning about the cycle of life, and how death is not something to be feared, but a natural part of life, and one which allows us to keep loved ones alive through memory. Jud explains to Ellie when he takes them to the cemetery that a graveyard is where the dead speak. Speak to us, reminding us of the lives we shared. It's meant to be a comfort. It's not.
Inevitably the cat dies. Whilst Rachel and the kids are visiting her parents, Louis remains behind and as Jud predicts earlier, Church is killed by one of the big rigs rattling down the road. In classic King style, the film then takes a turn for the spookier. Jud explains about the ancient burial ground beyond the cemetery and that, if he so chooses, Louis could bring Church back from the dead, delaying a significant coming of age moment in Ellie's life. It's not giving anything away to say that things don't turn out happily.
These early moments are just set up though for the bigger, broader themes the film wants to explore; the grief of losing a child. It's here that the film delivers its most entertaining and visually interesting ideas, but also its most ridiculous and outlandish plot developments. Lambert's direction slowly increases the tension and a number of sequences are commendably directed to give us a sense of the impending tragedy and the horror that is to befall the Creeds. The challenge with the film is that Louis (played perfunctorily by Dale Midkiff) is an irrational, illogical and confusingly motivated character throughout. His initial desire to resurrect Church, does, in the context of the film make some sense. In believing that he will spare Ellie the heartbreak of losing her beloved cat, he is somewhat seduced by Jud's suggestion. Although, despite being a doctor, he never once appears to question either the legitimacy of the claims of the moral implications. To add to that, in classic King style, Louis is also haunted and tormented by Victor Pascow, a student who has been killed by the seemingly demonic trucks - surely the real villain of this film, no? Pascow is one of Louis' first patients and despite arriving with fatal injuries, his death haunts Louis both literally and figuratively.
When the full tragedy of the film finally arrives the sequences is handled with deft excellence by Lambert. The film may telegraph its eventual arrival but when the horrific moment does come it loses none of its power. The film never reaches those heights again, but the effect does carry over until the film's climax. Louis continues to be haunted by Pascow, although he is less malevolence than he first appears. Despite this, and the failed attempt to bring Church back Louis endeavours to once again return the dead to life. The film is at its worst here, as Louis' reasoning is feeble and his how grief blinds him to the foolishness of his actions isn't remotely convincing. Thematically, the second half of the film does explore some interesting concepts about grief and the loss of a loved one. To add to Louis' continued hauntings, Rachel (a commendable, but underwritten Denise Crosby) is returned to her youth and the devastating reality of her dying, emaciated sister. These sequences are genuinely chilling and amongst the film's strongest. Eerie, unnerving and with excellent effects. It's a shame that more wasn't made of this subplot and Rachel's character as its a detriment to film as a whole.
Thanks to Louis' actions the final act of the film descends into classic horror mode as the body count rises. It's in these moments that film most assuredly excels, and many of King's best tropes come to the fore. Lambert uses space, sound design and framing to create unnerving sequences that are both disorientating and disturbing. Effective editing in the final act also adds to the effect. But ultimately this film can never quite escape the poorly written characters and plot and you are left wondering what Lambert could have achieved with a better, more nuanced and subtle script.