Pet Sematary (1989) review

Pet Sematary posterDirector: Mary Lambert

Starring: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist, Miko Hughes

“I’m at Judd’s, daddy. Will you come over and play with me? First I played with Judd, then mommy came and I played with mommy. We played, daddy! We had an awful good time. Now I want to play with yoooooou.” (Gage, Pet Sematary)

Losing a loved one is always a harrowing process, one in which you’re often at your lowest possible ebb. But what if there was a way to undo the process?

Specifically, what if there was a way to bring back the recently deceased and have them back in your life again?

What if the consequence of said person becoming an ex-corpse is they don’t behave like they did before pegging it? Would you still want to see their body alive even if their mind and personality wasn’t the same?

These are the questions raised by Pet Sematary, the 1989 movie based on Stephen King’s book of the same name and, I should probably just come out and declare at this early stage in the review, one of my favourite horror films ever.

Glasgow Rangers fans had to admit, the state of the turf at Ibrox had seen better days
Glasgow Rangers fans had to admit, the state of the turf at Ibrox had seen better days

Louis Creed and his family move to the small town of Ludlow, Maine after he gets a new job as the director of the University of Maine’s campus health service.

While his family – wife Rachel, daughter Ellie and toddler Gage – initially love their new home, Louis doesn’t get off to a great start at work, losing a young man named Victor Pascow when he’s brought in with severe injuries from a car crash.

What’s worse, Pascow begins appearing to Louis in visions, warning him about a pet cemetery on the outskirts of town (created by children, hence the terrible spelling in the title). More specifically, the larger burial ground that lies beyond it. Still, not to worry, why would he ever need to go there?

Unless he ever needed a 250-foot dartboard, of course
Unless he ever needed a 250-foot dartboard, of course

Naturally, the need does eventually arise. While his wife and kids are visiting his in-laws in Chicago, Louis fails to keep an eye on the family cat, Church, and it’s hit by a big bastard of a truck.

Concerned that the kids are going to be distraught when they return home to find Church dead, Louis is convinced by his large friendly neighbour Judd Crandell (Fred Gwynne, who used to be Herman Munster) to bury the cat in the ground beyond the pet cemetery.

The reason? Because according to Judd, said burial ground used to belong to the Micmac Indians and is said to have magical powers. Sure enough, after burying Church, the cat arrives back at the house the next day, seemingly alive and well.

Well, except for the glowing eyes and angry face
Well, except for the glowing eyes and angry face

The problem is, Church isn’t really acting like its normal self. It attacks Louis and generally smells like a dead cat. Which it essentially is. Still, if it means the kids aren’t be upset when they get back, Louis is happy to put up with it being a bit rotty.

So far then, a fairly straightforward plot. Cat dies, man buries cat in cursed ground, cat comes back as a sort of zombie thing. But then that greedy bastard Stephen King, not content with that, decides to throw a taboo into the mix.

Not long after the Church incident, Louis’s toddler Gage is also hit by a truck and killed. Could Louis possibly consider burying his son in the ground beyond the pet cemetery, considering what happened to the cat? Come on, what do you think?

I mean, look at him. He's such a friendly looking wee prick
I mean, look at him. He’s such a friendly looking wee prick

Pet Sematary is an outstanding story because despite its obviously fantastical premise, the characters and their actions are grounded in realism.

Of course a grieving father would consider bringing his toddler back to life despite the possible consequences: confronted with the reality of having all those future years together snatched from him, it’s only natural that he would try anything to screw the system.

It’s genuinely creepy too. A sub-plot involving Rachel’s past in which she’s constantly haunted by the death of her sister Zelda (stricken with spinal meningitis and a horrible sight, played by a man to give extra unease) is nightmare fuel of the highest order.

Oh, don't look at me like that, you know I love you really
Oh, don’t look at me like that, you know I love you really

Meanwhile, young Miko Hughes, who plays Gage, puts in a superb performance even though, at only around three years old during filming, he can’t have really realised what he was doing.

At the start of the film he’s the most adorable wee boy you could ever hope to find in a film, but by the end he becomes one of the most chilling antagonists I’ve seen. His phone call to his dad from Judd’s house (in the quote at the top of this review) sends a massive shiver right up my spine every single time without fail.

It even ends well. Obviously I don’t want to spoil things, but as Louis gets even more desperate and can’t resist resorting to drastic measures yet again, it’s horrible but fitting when things finally catch up to him.

"I mixed up the bottles of conditioner and corrosive acid again, Doc"
“I mixed up the bottles of conditioner and corrosive acid again, Doc”

Everything about Pet Sematary is just perfect to me. The story is easily one of Stephen King’s finest, the performances are immaculate all round, it’s genuinely creepy throughout and it’s not afraid to dabble in taboo every now and then. Plus it’s got a bespoke Ramones song during the end credits.

If you’ve somehow managed to dodge Pet Sematary up until now, do yourself a massive favour and put that right. You don’t necessarily have to read the book first: as fantastic as it is, this is probably the most accurate film adaptation of any of his works (he wrote the screenplay himself) and as such can be enjoyed independently of its literary ancestor.

I have no hesitation in holding Pet Sematary up on the same pedestal as The Shining. Though both are very different King adaptations with wildly different directorial styles, both are massively effective portrayals of King’s work and both are absolutely essential.

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Pet Sematary’s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see which other films have made the grade.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?
Criminally, Pet Sematary has never been released on Blu-ray in the UK, meaning Brits will have to make do with a bare-bones DVD. Americans, meanwhile, can get the DVD or a lovely Blu-ray version.

In terms of streaming options, Brits can actually buy (but not rent) the HD version from Amazon Instant Video. Alternatively, it can be streamed on NOW TV.

If you’re a bookworm and want to read King’s literary rendition first, here’s a UK link and a US link to the paperback and Kindle version.

SHOW ME THE TRAILER:

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