Directed by Mary Lambert
Distributed by Paramount
The huddled mess sits quivering in the bedroom’s corner, perched on its haunches with its back to us.
We approach, oh so apprehensively.
“Rachel? Is that you?” a warped female voice croaks.
The disfigured wretch spins, revealing its gaunt, pale face and maniacal grin.
It lurches towards us with an uneven gait.
Leering. Giggling. Taunting.
Growing ever closer…
The scary bitch in question is Zelda, and she damn near put me into catatonic shock when I was eight years old. In a movie populated by a killer kid, a spectral zombie, demon pets, and lots of the red stuff, it was the aforementioned Rachel’s dead sister that genuinely traumatized me.
Released in 1989 at the height of the “let’s film everything Stephen King has ever written craze,” director Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary opened to box office success and critical indifference, eventually spawning a decent sequel starring young John Connor and The Kurgan. With its nightmarish tale of unyielding grief and unholy resurrection, the film manages to be as emotionally gripping as it is genuinely frightening and is one of the more indelible horror films from my childhood.
The film opens with the family Creed: father and husband Louis (Midkiff), his wife Rachel (Crosby), their daughter Ellie (twins Blaze and Beau Berdahl), and their infant son Gage (Miko Hughes). They arrive at their new home in the country and are soon met by their kooky next door neighbor, lovable old coot Jud Crandall (the incomparable Fred Gwynne), who quickly warns them of the dangerous trucks that race by their houses (”Don’t go DOWN by the RO-WOAD!”) and introduces them to a strange piece of land behind their newly-acquired home: the titular pet cemetery (complete with an entrance sign created by children with the misspelled second word).
Events transpire that rob the family of their treasured pet cat Church. Realizing how much little Ellie would be crushed by the animal’s death, Crandall takes Louis into the cemetery, then past it, up to a large hill with a massive, stony burial ground at its crown. There, the old man speaks of the hill’s bizarre history and instructs the distraught father to bury his cat there.
Louis complies, only to have the furry little fucker reappear the next day – looking the worse for wear and seeming evil as shit, but lively all the same. Strangeness aside, this is taken as a blessing. But eventually, an even larger tragedy strikes the Creed family, and Louis must consider doing the unthinkable, even if it means breaking the cemetery’s one rule and inviting even more heartbreak and terror into his family’s lives.
The movie is very well made and is one of the better King adaptations of the period. The film is well-lensed by Lambert and cinematographers Bill Pope and Peter Stein, features a note-perfect score by Elliot Goldenthal, and showcases some truly harrowing sequences littered throughout. In addition, the film’s focus on the destructive nature of anguish gives the film a depth one wouldn’t expect from a gut-churner of the late 80s. “Sometimes dead is better,” indeed.
The actors mostly do a fine job, though each of the leads has the occasional wooden moment. Still, when the movie is clicking, the performances can be heartbreaking. I’m thinking of star Midkiff during a funeral sequence or actress Crosby as she tells of her poor sister’s demise (shudder). Fred Gwynne is the standout, though. As Crandall, Gwynne brings a humanity and charm to a character we might otherwise jeer (he is, after all, kinda responsible for the horrible things that happen in the film’s final act). And in one of his first roles, child actor Hughes is alternately cute and terrifying as the youngest Creed.
Paramount has done well by this film when it comes to its presentation. The image is sharp, with beautiful colors and natural flesh tones. The DTS-HD Master Audio is great, wonderfully reproducing the film’s aggressive sound design. Seriously, the semi-trucks that haunt the country road in the film will sound as though they’re barreling through your living room at times.
The bonus features, though, are just so-so. There is a nice enough commentary with director Mary Lambert, which is a holdover from the previous 2006 DVD release. Also ported over are three featurettes, each presented in 4:3 standard def. They are: “Stephen King Territory,” a thirteen-minute walkthrough of the film’s locations with Stephen King as he discusses the film’s inspirations; “The Characters,” a thirteen-minute look at the people populating King’s tale, featuring director Lambert and others; and “Filming the Horror,” a ten-minute behind-the-scenes peek at the production with the cast and crew.
If you’re a fan of the film, it’ll be worth it to you for the upgrade in picture and audio quality. For those who have never before experienced the film, the Blu’s price is right to give this film a look. Just be sure to keep a pillow or blanket handy to hide behind for whenever Zelda makes an appearance.
3 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5