Mind you, this article comes twenty years late; that is the time when I saw ‘Pet Sematary’ first time. Not in theatre but cosy sofa. And though I’ve always liked writing, somehow the whole idea of writing down my sentiments felt distant. One reason might have been previous night’s ramblings with old friends so I was a little bit heavy-minded, which actually sunk the atmosphere to perfection along the demise of family Creed. Heckuva loss of opportunity.
Still this article is very bound to cultural atmosphere of the time movie was released so younger audience(ok it’s not like 100yrs ago…) must understand the concepts that were not quite everyday in movies or television; most important being that the ‘Scream’ generation movies were yet only to come.
I’m not going to describe the plot per micrometer, not that there would be much to spoil anymore. Also, as with every movie these wonderful days of World Wide Web, there is tons of peripheral details into which I refer only if context requires. I read The Book but do not remember so I mostly leave it alone. So take it from another spectator, not a scientist nor blood aficionado.
One thing; this movie is directed by a woman. It could not be directed anyone else but a woman. And it is(/was?) total horror movie for any woman. I’m sure about that.
Pet Sematary(Director Mary Lambert/Paramount Pictures 1989, written by Stephen King)
Rite of Passage
The ‘misspelled’ title becomes apparent during the opening scene. The first imagery in the woods, panning from fish bowl into the rudimentary crosses and moving epitaphs along the dog collars and ancient eerie birdcage, gives more sepulchral sadness than any opening to nightly human cemetery, which indeed would only cause a bit smile today. Children’s voices spell out their obituaries. The careful Zarathustra Boys Chorus vocal with instrumental majoring and minoring in the background ensures that this is not your monthly 70’s-’80s prom vengeance and screaming gore ration. Also it tells you this is not another arty weird horror piece from between ‘Shining’ and Cronenberg. The camera reveals expanding grave circles and moves to rudimentary gate where the title comes from, and zooms towards the barrier of fallen trees and bushes in the back of cemetery. The sudden blue shining from the pile might look exaggerated today but tells a lot. Then you(audience) are overrun by a monster trailer truck.
Another ‘slight’ hint that ‘Christine‘s huge human driven cousin may cause a lot of harm later. The continuous roaring traffic from nearby refinery is made clear as your standard family station wagon(today’s shiny SUV’s are just abomination?) pulls into the yard of nice house still having the ‘on sale’ road sign. Your harmless family of Creeds disembarks and for a moment it is the start of TV series of frontier doctor. But there is no sugar. Not that much. That is one of the best in the whole thing, the sugar is not overdosed. You can spoil a horror movie by making audience wish all the possible harm to overinnocent main characters. Creeds are a family used to each other, the novelty and freshness already gone but family routines rule. Father Louis(Dale Midkiff, deserves all the glory and honor), carrying his family to Maine town sidetracks(England and Europe may have the ghosts but Massachusetts, Maine and New England make the autumnal horror flavor), mother Rachel(Denise Crosby; from hereon forgiven the clumsy security chief of USS Enterprise), daughter Ellie(Blaze Berdahl; end credits mention also Ellie II?) and little Gage(Miko Hughes). The pet, cat named Winston Churchill, or Church, is not to be forgotten in the plot.
The children’s acting would deserve some psychological chatter but they do amazingly, and frightfully, good work.
As so many times before when taking a new look into movies past, a new glimpse makes one to sigh about horrible acting job. My fear was eminent when they started talking but I felt a relief: If there was any insecurity in dialogue, it is the clumsy essence of suburban family gone to strange countryside. As the children check the environment, background music switches nicely to mixed minor and Ellie sees the Path. Forgotten aside, Gage forewarns by taking steps towards the monsterway but is saved in the nick of time by old pappy from across the road, Jud Crandall(Fred Gwynne; father of Munsters moved to countryside and turned serious) whose deep voiced widower grandpa character does nothing less to keep the movie enjoyable.
And frightening. Rachel inquires Jud about the Path getting the answer:
‘Yeah, that’s a good story, and a good walk’
A trip is made to Pet Sematary and Jud teases Ellie with questions about graves. Rachel shows her vulnerability for the issue by reprimanding Jud.
Later, in the darkness, mist and moist the Path is very visible, thanks to stones around it. Louis has a nice beer moment with Jud who tells his background, the civilized part at least. Next bright moment is day routines and Missy Dandridge(Susan Blommaert), domestic helper leaving with laundry. She is old maid and having stomach pains and for audience she smells of little town bitter-but-not-nasty midwife and old maid. Appearing not too often, she carries one of movies important themes with her. That theme starts with Creeds’ kitchen argument about death, for Ellie has asked if Church can die during the neutering. From this on, the Death is present and audience has a dilemma if their kids would be asking constantly about Death instead of constantly asking about Sex. From now on, each time Ellie asks about the Death, the situation has worsened and good answers have gone scarce.
Louis takes cat to vet and proceeds to his new physician job in college. The cut is powerful; there is no soap music, no typical Mozart of education, no ‘Glee’ group nor athletes in football field. Instead we cut into panic and cry and a horribly head wounded boy carried to Louis. I lost the notion if boy was hit by a truck but there is nothing to be done and as Louis has his wondering dialogue with the corpse; the latter is suddenly very alive and stutters ‘The soil of a man’s heart is stonier…Louis’. Good doctor is shocked but clearly thinks about medical explanation until clumsily realizes how Victor Pascow(Brad Greenquist) knows his name but then dead is again dead. For a while. Dead Victor Pascow has earned the dubious role of guardian angel from hereon. He appears to Louis during the night, and latter in a dream world follows the boy into Pet Sematary and gets the warning of crossing the pile barrier:’The ground beyond is sour’. While Louis prays to wake up, I cannot say which category, funny or scary, the ascending ghost of Pascow goes.
I select scary, that’s good ghost horror: The zombie looking boy hovers up and away old school style as Louis wakes up in the bed and sees his feet actually are muddy. Another warning has been given(whoa! Does he not already deserve everything he’s gonna get?).
‘What did we do tonight, Jud?’
Louis does not have very good relationship with his parents-in-law so Rachel and children leave for Chigago to spend Thanksgiving there and Louis is left into new solitude, except for the cat. We don’t play for time so there must be a disaster: In the morning Louis answers phone and ‘something looking like Ellie’s cat’ is on Jud’s lawn and dead. As Louis goes to cross the road, another metal monster roars past; mind you, you don’t see the road much without imminent danger. This point another thing; when Louis leaves his house, it looks sunny with green grass, like summer; but Jud’s house is ghastly and yard green-gray and lifeless as is the air; excellent contrast. The camera zooms to Jud, who at mid-range is a reminiscent of Reaper himself with his anorak hood on.
One must take note how Louis handles the dead cat, it’s neck loose and it must be torn off the frozen lawn. Ellie’s cat is cold, Ellie’s cat is dead. Do you hear the macabrest ghost train clanking into rails already? Do you smell and see the North-East autumn of King’s books and adaptations? It’s here now.
Through the Pet Sematary Jud takes Louis. Louis fails faith upon the barrier and falls but gets again into speed. Strange sounds are heard across the forest but Jud says ‘a loon’. The top, the Micmac indian cemetery is reached, expanding circles with piles of rocks and patterns. Jud hands over the tools to Louis and says ‘Each buries his own’; another strong thesis present in the movie.
Afterwards back at home Jud adjures Louis not to tell what they have done. Jud shocks Louis by repeating dead student’s words: ‘The soil of a man’s heart, Louis, is stonier’. Louis calls Chigago and has to face the white lie to Ellie about Church.
The cat returns in a nice surprise effect: Louis wonders about the dirty pet with neck intact. The cat is somewhat aggressive but agrees to food. Later, Louis is trying to relax when Church throws a cat’s gift into the bath. The cat is alive, or, what actually is alive?
The Legend of Zelda
Family returns and Ellie tells about her dream at airport, about Church being hit by truck and dead. One more proof that girl may have some external receiving powers, work of the Place?
Missy Dandridge at her home leaves a message about unbearable pains and hangs herself, escalating the Death issue. In the funeral, cameo Stephen King himself as a minister is checking the reign he created and is blessing Missy into the ground. Otherwise homely life goes on until Ellie starts about Church ‘smelling bad’ and questions more about losing the pet to God, a thought she wont let go.
Rachel hears this and later in bedroom opens herself about her sister Zelda(Andrew Hubatsek), who had horrible spine meningitis and was ‘like a dirty secret in back room’; this is the trauma Rachel has carried as a burden and makes question of death so hard to face. Note that when Rachel arrives, Louis is reading a book of E. Nesbit; might be Edith Nesbit(1858-1924). Something has been cleared and audience may feel a bit relaxed.
The thought is quickly washed of as another semi-trailer launches from refinery and driver is happily listening to Ramones. The meticulousness of unknown threat getting an everyday face is a unmistakable sign of the core disaster; a rock hitting thin crackling ice, a stone dropped into water. Things starts to escalate outwards like those circles in cemeteries, but not all in visible world.
Before that we have a cosy and ideal take from a pastoral picnic in middle of the field. The family and Jud, summer and lake; and kite. Everyone has fun. Whoopsie, meantime the Ramones truck has its fun approaching with huge speed, huge mass and audience sees the momentum wont be stopped by sudden red light nor a little human.
Sooner or later Gage is again forgotten when Louis looks elsewhere. The cute ‘uh-oh’ chasing the kite to eternity is the testament for disaster ending the theory or dream of happy family ever after. Decades of carefully formed mainstream image of perfect television family breaks apart: The little bloody shoe on the asphalt, the fallen monster on the ditch and the slow-motion shrieking denial of Louis are only side effects for the cute ‘uh-oh’ that still rings in the ears of shocked audience who, aided by myriad signs, thought itself to be ready for anything.
Like I said, directed by woman and -though not the depth of Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’ or Ken Russell’s ‘Gothic’- a horror to any woman. And uncle Stephen’s and aunt Mary’s evening tale is only beginning.
‘Then I’ll just put him back to sleep’
As Rachel is medicated to sleep, Louis and Jud play wordless dialogue in the kitchen. There not much to translate as Ellie tells his father she want’s ‘God to give him back’ and Jud looks nervous but Louis continues to watch into eternity. It’s time for truths and Jud confesses about one ‘human that was buried there, Timmy Baterman’; died tragically in aftermaths of WW2. The flashback tells audience which horrors await with any human taken to Micmac cemetery. Jud also tries to relate the Place causing Gage’s death due Jud introducing ‘the Power’ to the father.
I lost the whole idea of funeral reception fight between enraged grandpa and Louis, except being another shock and add upon family purgatory.
At the airport family is once again leaving Louis and Ellie tells her grandpa of dream about ‘Daddy and Gage and Pax-cow’. The little girl has now turned to information relay between frontiers of living and dead but is not able to define it. Louis’ movement is if at dreaming, his goal seems clear. Without any hesitation he gathers tools and drives back to cemetery to unearth his son. Not everyman’s Burke and Hare, Louis spends time after unearthing and contemplates with the body of the son and Pascow appears: ‘Remember Doc, the barrier was not meant be crossed.’ Louis replies simply ‘If it does not work…Then I’ll just put him back to sleep.’
‘Pax-cow’ moves to Ellie’s dreams for more distant early warnings:’He’s a good ghost’ she exclaims.
Pascow manages to relay Ellie’s idea to Rachel who tries to reach Louis but none answers; Jud gets a call he did not want and tries to tell Rachel not to return, to no avail. Rachel takes a flight back and in narrow margin timing Pascow actually manages to keep doors open for her to get through as well as with rental car. Pascow’s aiding gestures lighten up a bit the overall feel of doom but audience knows the total tragedy may still occur. During the flight Rachel dreams of sister Zelda: ‘Me and Gage will get you!’
At home, Jud mutters himself: ”You’ve done it old man, now you gotta undo it.’
‘Play dead…Be dead!’
Louis is up to speed, crossing the Pet Sematary barrier this time without problems. Odd sounds are heard and trees fall but Louis continues with his macabre load, Gage. Louis reaches the Micmac cemetery and experiences some angry spirit’s face; one of the points that may put a smile on today’s yawning audience. Or not. Nevertheless it’s final warning but does not stop grieving father.
Rachel gets flat tire on her rental car and ditches; Pascow declares to her subconscious ‘It’s trying to stop you!’ In an ironic or deliberate twist she hitches a ride in one of refinery semi-trailers.
Louis has returned home and fallen to bed asleep; what ensues meantime is quite different but expected.
At the Micmac cemetery, something awakens; and soon little muddy footprints have visited house and taken a tool from doctor’s bag.
Jud awakens at his porch to sounds of door, and in a macbre hide-and-go-seek play the sour cemetery ground starts exacting the toll.
Rachel reaches home and Pascow declares he cannot come further. Hearing her name from Jud’s house she enters carefully. Spines of audience freeze of the inevitable because the whole essence of the movie is about not being prime time family adventure. Rachel hears a familiar ghastly voice and finds her mad and strangely short sister from Jud’s bedroom; only a stain of blood in the carpet can be seen of previous scenes; sister turns into Gage in outfit in the painting made of him with top hat, and the scalpel: ‘I brought you something, Mommy!’
Louis awakens in daylight and has hopeful face about the muddy small muddy footprints until he sees his doctor bag and the empty scalpel box. Hope changes to terror. Father-in-law, Irwin, calls and ask for Rachel because Ellie had a dream her mother was dead. Sudden next call is from Gage who had ‘awful good time with Jud and Mommy.’
Louis prepares injection and tests it to Church who submits ‘Play dead…Be dead!’ Then he proceed’s to Jud’s house and finds its interiors strangely decayed but that is only an illusion but it feels a snap shot from original script. Illusion vanishes; Louis proceeds upstairs; the inevitable follows with most peculiar and macabre fight; ‘It’s not fair’ underlines one of most atrocitious fights ever occurred in horro movies. By now Louis is beyond any reason. He spills volatile fluid around and burns down Jud’s house of horror. At this point I remember having recorded VHS which ended abruptly into this point. Only after re-watch from DVD I realized I had forgotten the whole length of horror: Pascow appears once again to warn Louis who’s leaving the inferno carrying Rachel’s sheet covered body but no avail.
Pascow is left screaming despair when Louis continues his resolute walk towards Micmac cemetery: ‘Perhaps I waited too long for Gage, Rachel has just died.’
As nostalgic bow to silver screen horror it thunders in darkness upon Micmac cemetery. Louis returns home alone and sits down on the kitchen floor for casual solitaire. When church clock dimes midnight Louis smiles, awaiting until door goes and happy reunion occurs in all of it’s grimness. Transition into final black occurs before the knife thrusts and Louis shrieks.
Then comes the Bomb.
‘Uh-oh, it’s not fair…’
The Bomb is, you know…A sitcom where semi-genius whispers to other’s ear ‘buzz..buzz’ and latter asks ‘why are you saying “buzz…buzz?” to my ear?’ Or, ‘Guess I’m old-fashioned…’, ‘Old-fashioned? Hey I take one!’ That’s a bomb; not purposed laughable effect but pathetic failure. An attempt to impress audience falling deep into gutters.
Ramones did soundtrack which still frequents the FM everywhere. Ramones is rock’n’roll, Ramones was a milestone and a landmark in history of rock and whole pop culture. It’s exactly the kind of horror movie soundtrack nowadays where blooded and wounded teen survivors gather relaxed or get the sudden blow from threat that was thought dead and then starts the rock’n’roll and credits.
Ok, I’m old-fashioned: I’m the conservative reeking of the sour ground of grave of everything that is traditional all the way from stone age. I’m that angry muttering pappy from neighbourhood who thinks modern youth is evil plot from Mars. Ok. Ok. Perhaps it’s just director Lambert’s background with music videos but:
Why, why in the name of Nibia’s moons and Antares Maelstroms a nerve-wrecking, lovable-family-soap-decimating, child-and-mother-killing, definitely-not-teenage-horror and one-of-all-time-most-melancholic-and-best-horror-pieces must end with sudden Ramones rock’n’roll, murdering the melancholic take we have witnessed and enjoyed for the length without deliberately admiring the blood spilled?
Is it just aimed to be an echo from the killing semi-trailers? Still, ‘Pet Sematary’ is not ‘Mad Max’. It is a saddest and twisted swan song; it is a reminder for times changing, ‘Bill Cosby Show’ beaten to death by ‘Married with Children’; it is Vincent Price meets Hannibal Lecter.
Alright, not worth that much tears but annoys more than my own nagging. Given a decent critic article I would still give 5/5. That’s because like all that is gone, after all the time I remember the good; the movie, the plot, the characters; not the finishing soundtrack. It tells something.
Next I hope to return into stuff closer to me and create takes on at least two short stories by Charles Dickens and Montague Rhodes James. In the meantime I wish to leave Scyllaclough cobwebs for a while and climb a bit north to see old friends for ranting about movies at the pints.