10.03.2011

Horrorthon '11: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)

"But he's not God's cat; he's my cat. Let God get his own cat if he wants one!" This dialogue, spoken by the now-blazing Blaze Berdahl as a worried little Ellie, is likely the most chilling moment of the already antique "Pet Sematary". The central family (last name Creed, all too fittingly) lives with Christian teachings as infallibilities, and the young child's excusable selfishness regarding the life of another begins a series of similar instances resulting in greater and greater transgressions against their God's plan - challenges of both devoutness and a basal ability to cope with loss.

"Sematary" hits all the notes you could want - or, at least, expect - from a run-of-the-mill late 20th Century horror. That is to say, it is just as ham-handed and blind to detail as any number of its contemporaries in the scream business. Along with an overly deliberate tone and knack for some of the more extreme exclamations of "Nooooooo!" you're apt to hear, our lead character - a decidedly uninteresting follower - might just be the worst doctor ever, seeing as when a recently deceased patient of his reanimates before his eyes alone without immediate explanation he just sits there watching, not so much as buzzing for a nurse. This is but one example of the hilariously MST3K-able scenes, another of which features a drawling Fred Gwynne matter-of-factly stating as condolence for a dead cat - named, what else, Church, - "At least it doesn't look like he suffered," when the feline victim had obviously dragged itself from the middle of the road to the lawn on which it painfully perished.

What brings the film down more than anything is Stephen King's screenplay adaptation of his own novel. King struggles to kill his darlings, those being remnants of the literature that clearly weren't translating well to a 100-minute film. Just like the characters of the story who are selfishly kept alive beyond their time, throwaway implications of greater detail and deeper consequence and convoluting plot threads such as Ellie's subconscious premonitions hang around where they shouldn't, only making matters worse than they already are. Incidentally, the script seems to have been altered plenty on the path to production. Much of King's dialogue, presumably cleaved from its source pages, has been further dumbed to the point of becoming near parody of cinematic genericness - the sort lead actor Dale Midkiff (from countless television movies, go figure) is seasoned at working his theatrics around.

One of the reasons horror tends to merely be the little genre that could (but often doesn't) may be because it so often attempts to render more obviously scary subject matter that isn't. The theme of keeping alive what is meant to be dead for one's own reasons - subsequently creating the excess of the upsetting of a divine plan and the perverting of the demeanor of your once-lost loved one - might carry with it material worthy of a great horror entry with the understanding that "horror" does not necessarily mean "scary". The way "Sematary" is constantly reminding us we're watching a horror film by reveling in irrelevantly eerie background music and resorting to blatantly predictable, would-be jump frights cheapens it. A wise and creative director can make any subject haunting, but one cannot simply go through the motions just because one is under the King banner, particularly considering that "King" only very rarely equals "good movie".

To be fair, the film does build fair first act tension with its giant tank trucks that carelessly zoom in close proximity to the family's home, keeping fleeting mortality close at mind, and features at least two genuinely creepy moments centered on an exaggeratively depicted spinal meningitis patient who moves in unexpected fashions... only to break the mood with goofy witch cackles. Furthermore, the idea of the cemetery itself being a dark, hidden nook with quietly mystical powers does alight upon occasionally effective horror territory, yet again this is soiled by goofy effects and ridiculous histrionics.

"Pet Sematary" is far from the worst thing you'll ever see, but when I say it's a laugh, I don't mean it as a compliment, per se. If anything, it'll give you a better appreciation of a certain "South Park" episode and have you trying on a blindly persuasive Fred Gwynne impersonation for hours. "Uh-yeah... it's your cat, now, Louis. Sometimes dead is better."

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