Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stephen King Month: Pet Sematary (1989)

I remember being really freaked out by Pet Sematary when I saw it as a kid, finding its combination of dead toddlers and unholy resurrection especially unsettling. So I was wondering how it would hold up all these years later, and while a lot of it is undeniably cheesy (as seems to be consistently the case with screenplays that Stephen King writes himself), plenty of it still is pretty freaky and unsettling, and it's definitely one of the darker King stories around. The lead performance from Dale Midkiff is a little weak, and he has a few moments of anguish that are laughable. But Fred Gwynne is terrific in the supporting role of the folksy neighbor with deadly secrets, and Midkiff's everyman blandness works to his advantage much of the time.

Midkiff plays big-city doctor Louis Creed, who relocates to small-town Maine (of course) with his wife and two young kids, buying a house that happens to be adjacent to the titular burial ground. When Louis' daughter's cat gets hit by a truck while she's out of town, Louis' avuncular neighbor Jud Crandall (Gwynne) shows him a special Native American cemetery (of course) just beyond the regular one for pets, which brings back to life anything buried in its soil. So the cat comes back mean and smelling bad, but that doesn't stop Louis from burying his toddler son Gage there too, when Gage also gets hit by a truck. Pet Sematary works best in the way it plays on natural feelings of parental love and protection and turns them sour, and twists the natural appeal of a cute moppet (Miko Hughes, as Gage, is plenty cute) into something sinister and evil.

The movie's climax is suitably unpleasant and bleak, but some of the steps along the way are a little silly. The ghost of a patient who warns Louis (and later Louis' wife) about the dangers of the cemetery is a lame plot device that overemphasizes what should be left to implication, and Hughes, while cute, has trouble conveying menace once Gage comes back to life (it's no coincidence that a lot of his lines are heard from offscreen). Gwynne makes up for a lot of these missteps, though, perfectly embodying the insidiousness of small-town friendliness that so often lurks beneath the surface of King's stories (he may just have the best Maine accent in any King movie). Director Mary Lambert also does a good job with some of the smaller touches, like the grotesque paintings in Louis' in-laws' house. It wasn't quite enough to freak me out again, but it did draw me in.

How far to Castle Rock: The accents are a dead giveaway that the movie takes place in Maine, although the location is never explicitly mentioned.

King cameo: He plays the minister who officiates at a funeral, and avoids overacting for once.

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