I saw Pet Sematary back in 1989 at the cinema, and while I enjoyed it the thing I took most from it was the films gorgeous, ghostly score by a then-new rising star among film composers, Elliot Goldenthal: the score was part-Poltergeist, part something else entirely, and was a big part of the film’s success for me. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen the film again since… which raises the question- just how well does it hold up today?
Well, I must say it’s really rather mixed. Biggest issue for me (but possibly a bonus for others) is the fact that the screenplay was written by the books author, Stephen King. Now, what makes for a great, engrossing horror book is quite different to what makes a great, engrossing film- books and film are entirely different media and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in just the same way as some things that work in a Marvel comic just don’t in a Marvel movie. The Pet Sematary film would be just perfectly fine without Victor Pascow’s ghost, persistent ghoul that he is, dropping in with regular ghostly warnings, or daughter Ellie’s own warning nightmares- it’s all quite unnecessary and threatens to tip the film into parody (it’s just a pity Ellie didn’t warn daddy not to buy the house in the first place). In the book I’m sure it’s all harmless and part of the creepy fun (it’s been a long, long time since I read the novel- well before I saw the film*) but in the film it’s just a little too much on the nose, more subtlety would have been preferable to me and helped avoid the film tipping into the fantastic. Also, does Rachel really need the hokey subplot about her deformed sister Zelda and the guilt over her death complicating things even further? Fans of King likely differ from my opinion, feeling that the film is more authentic as a King film, but it reminds me of King’s disdain for Kubrick’s The Shining, which works brilliantly as a horror film in its own right but differs from King’s source novel. Kubrick knew what worked in film, and must have struggled with some of King’s material- the film has a life all its own, as it stands, but is not by any means Stephen King’s The Shining- its really Kubricks, and that’s how it should be.
Coming back to this film after near thirty years and being older (maybe wiser) I must say, I was surprised just how thoroughly nasty and unnerving Pet Sematary is. The central premise- childhood experience of death, mortality and the overwhelming parents grief from losing a child and the almost blasphemous, Frankenstein-like horror of bringing loved ones back from the dead- it’s quite heady stuff and genuinely unsettling. King’s excess in having scary dead sisters, friendly ghosts offering dire warnings and chummy old men with dark secrets they just can’t keep to themselves just threatens to overload what should be a chilling and very personal horror. Its a relentlessly morbid film, for all its faults, and as far as horror films go, I find that oddly rewarding.
What really doesn’t help the film is some of the casting- both Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, pretty as they are, are pretty dire, hopelessly wooden and not helped by sharing a shocking lack of chemistry while they try to carry off some of King’s dialogue and plot twists. Its almost hilarious how they are completely out-acted by then-two year old child actor Miko Hughes as their unfortunate son, Cage. He’s cute, charming and natural in ways that Midkiff and Crosby simply aren’t. To be fair to them, they would likely have benefitted without the film’s insistence of them having ghostly visitors and guilty childhood baggage.
Pet Sematary reminds me that Stephen King’s work exists in a world all of its own- hugely popular as his books may be, most of the time the situations and characters have no similarities to how real people would behave. I guess he can get away with it in books but in film, I really think he’s pushing it, and that’s where this film suffers for me. Sure, have a young family suffer a terrible tragedy and yes, let the grief and terror push them into trying to beat death and nature to a horrible end, but don’t chuck in the horror equivalents of the kitchen sink regards ghosts and nightmares and deformed sisters etc. In just the same ways as dead is sometimes better, so less is often more.
*I was a huge fan of King’s books back in the day, but over the years his prolific nature (and lack of a decent editor) meant I simply couldn’t keep up, and haven’t read much of his work for some years.