Pet Sematary (1989) / Horror-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: Rated R for strong disturbing horror violence and images including mature themes, gore, language, some alcohol/drug use and terror involving young children
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl
Cameo: Stephen King

Director: Mary Lambert
Screenplay: Stephen King (based on his novel)
Review published March 2, 2015

Stephen King adapts his own best-selling novel about a family of four who move from Chicago to a country house in Maine, right next to a bustling street with speeding fuel trucks in the front of their otherwise idyllic abode.  The patriarch is a doctor named Louis Creed (Midkiff, Love Potion No. 9) , who meets and befriends an elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (Gwynne, Fatal Attraction), who welcomes them to the area, including a visit to a site where all of the poor pets who've met an untimely demise by venturing out to the busy road are buried.  Turns out there's another burial ground of sorts further down the road, which is on sacred Native American soil, and when the family's cat Winston Churchill (aka 'Church') is the next victim, old Jed helps Louis out by having him bury the deceased kitty in a special spot.  Louis wakes up the next day, only to find Church is back, but not quite the same, and soon Louis learns what Jed means when he says, "Sometimes, dead is better."

While not one of the best book-to-film adaptations of Stephen King's novels, this one at least has the pedigree of the author himself providing the script, his first (and only until 2014's A Good Marriage) which will likely give it an automatic pass among his millions of faithful fans around the world. As a film, it isn't bad for its era, treading the line between dark horror and camp in a way that goes down easy, even if it isn't quite the chiller likely to keep you up at night in a cold sweat.

For the most part, until the final twenty minutes or so, it's one gaping head wound away from being mostly gore free.  The main nemesis for the last half of the film -- well, I won't spoil it except to say, it's quite unnerving when you see it, even if the editing gets a bit too choppy and inconsistent to truly buy as happening in "real time." 

The acting is a little stiff, save for a relatively lively and game Fred Gwynne, who leavens the seriousness of the film with his colorful and genial repartee.  Other than perhaps the cat, none of the rest of the cast stands out, save for a flashback to Zelda, sister of matriarch Rachel (Crosby, 48 Hrs.), obviously played by a man who looks a lot like Chris Kattan in drag. (Keep an eye out for Stephen King himself in a cameo role as the minister at the funeral.) As directed by music-video alum Mary Lambert (Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, Halloweentown II), reportedly filling in for George Romero, it's not the most stylish piece (certainly leagues below the likes of other King adaptation helmers Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma), but there are enough effective moments at regular enough intervals to keep the movie from being boring.

Pet Sematary is primarily recommended for King fans, who should enjoy a relatively faithful film based on his work, and whatever changes are made can be laid upon King himself.  It should also be worth a look for those who like the campy horror of the 1980s, with all of the schlock factor in production values and dubious thespian-ship that implies.  I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a good film overall, but given its relatively low aims, and for its subgenre, it is an entertaining one, though some might be disturbed at a few of the grislier narrative turns, especially at seeing a loving family torn apart, quite literally.  Sometimes dead might be better, but it sure isn't as entertainingly twisted to watch as the undead.

-- Followed by Pet Sematary II (1992)

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo