Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Pet Sematary (1989)

...aka: Stephen King's Pet Sematary

Directed by:
Mary Lambert

Rural Maine is the setting for this ultra-grim Stephen King adaptation, which he himself scripted. The results are a mixed bag of the potent and the preposterous. Young couple; doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) and his troubled wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), as well as their two young kids, move into a new country home whose front yard extends about ten feet before a busy highway with Mac trucks barreling through every two minutes or so takes over. Good call! To no one's surprise but their own, they turn their back on cute little three-year-old Gage (Miko Hughes) for a couple of seconds, he wanders out into the road chasing a kite and is mowed over. Dear depressed dad decides to take advantage of the neighborhood's cursed Indian burial ground to bring his dead baby back to life. Hey, it worked for pet kitty turned road kill Church, so why not a person? Well, for starters Church came back as a vicious, evil little shit with demonic, glowing eyes. Count that as a warning. Not direct enough for ya? How about friendly ole wise owl neighbor across the street, Judd Crandall (Fred "Herman Munster" Gwynne), informing you the ground is tainted and relating a flashback to how, as a child, he witnessed first-hand what happens when you put a person in there... and it's not pretty. Guess it doesn't matter to Louis. Grief stricken to the point of delirium (there's no other way to explain his senseless behavior), Louis decides to raid Gage's grave and relocate him to the cursed site, resulting in a pale zombie kid who kills everyone off with a scalpel. Is this a comment on how a family can be torn apart by the loss of a child? Literally.

What we basically get here are poorly-conceived central characters doing ignorant things from scene to scene, and it's hard to feel sympathy for people this dense. The book had a better grasp on Louis' descent into madness and the supernatural pull of the graveyard, which is lost in this film version. Being familiar with the book, however, is part of the battle and helps to fill in all of the gaps. There are also several half-assed subplots that needlessly overcrowd the film. One involves the whiny (ugh) young daughter's ESP abilities. Second, Rachel's childhood flashbacks to her deformed sister Zelda writhing in bed in agony as she succumbs to some terrible disease. Pointless? Yeah, pretty much, especially in context to the film and trying to give sad sack secondary character Rachel some kind of human side. But hell if these scenes aren't creepy and priceless, anyway. I still remember as a little kid watching this at the drive-in and hiding my eyes any time Zelda came on screen. Finally, the worst of all the little side steps is Louis being haunted by a level-headed, Jiminy Cricket-style zombie (Brad Greenquist) who pops up trying and failing to hammer some sense into him. What the fuck? Sure, it's probably just a figment of a deteriorating mind, but it's pretty much just an irritating break from the action.

On the plus side, some scenes genuinely do evoke pure horror. The tone and feel of the entire production is extremely dark and nihilistic. Production values (from the make-up FX to the cinematography to the score to the graveyard set) are all excellent. Performances are somewhat less successful, but it's hard to blame the actors when they aren't given a solid footing in the script. Gwynne is pretty good, though, and little Miko Hughes is terrific as the zombie baby. Director Mary Lambert (best known for her music videos at the time) shows some genuine promise when it comes to creating an atmosphere of dread and being able maintain it; promise we'd later see squandered not only by the dreadful 1992 sequel but also her other later ventures into the genre (Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, anyone?) The title track by The Ramones ("I Don't Wanna Be Buried (In a Pet Sematary") won a Razzie award. I'm sure they took that as a compliment.


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