I read Stephen King’s Pet Semetary in middle school and thought at the time it was the scariest book I’d ever read. I’m not sure how the book would hold up for me as an adult, but this movie surely did not. Quite a disappointment, and a trial to get through.
Louis Creed is a doctor who is relocating with his family from Chicago to a hospital in a small Maine town. He and his wife, Rachel, have a five-year-old daughter, Ellie, a toddler son, Gage, and a cat named Church. Their new house is in an idyllic rural setting, except for one thing: the tanker trucks going by on the state highway all day and night. Their new neighbor, Jud (played by Fred Gwynne–i.e. Herman Munster on The Munsters!), a native Mainer with a strong New England accent, comes to meet them and recommends they get Church fixed so he doesn’t wander and get hit by a truck.
In his first day on the job, Louis has to handle a teen-ager who’s been hit by a truck and dies on the operating table. Later, the teen’s ghost appears to Louis in a dream, except when he wakes up in the morning, his feet are muddy. That weekend, Jud leads them along the path behind their house to the local “pet semetary,” where neighborhood kids bury their pets, often after they’ve been hit on the highway.
Sure enough, it’s not long until Church is hit by a truck. Ellie would be despondent if she found out, but Jud has an idea. He leads Louis to an old Indian cemetery accessible by a hidden path beyond the pet semetary and has Louis bury the cat there. The next day, Church shows up at the house again, only his personality is not the same. He’s meaner, attacks people without warning, is uninterested in affection, and he smells terrible.
You can probably see where this is going. At a picnic with Jud at the park down the road, Louis and Rachel leave Gage unattended for just a moment, but it’s long enough for him to wander in the road, where he’s hit by an eighteen-wheeler. Louis isn’t really thinking of burying Gage in the Indian cemetery, is he? “Sometimes dead is better,” Jud tells him, and even the dead teen comes back to warn Louis against it. Still, his and Rachel’s grief is overwhelming, and if they have a chance to bring Gage back, how can they not take it…?
Pet Semetary (1989)
Story/Plot/Characters— The plot is solid enough, and I think a good movie potentially could be made with it, but this was not that movie. The script was poor, the actors wooden, the direction indifferent. It moved from one plot point to the next with no sense of pacing or style. Still, it was coherent, which is more than I can say for some B-movies I’ve seen. An extra half point for Fred Gwynne as the old New England neighbor, the only bright spot. (1.5 points)
Special Effects–A fair amount of special effects, and I think some money went into them, but they were poorly used. My daughter pointed out how fake-looking the injuries on the teen-age ghost were, and other scenes with gore came across as silly. The special effects on the walk to the Indian cemetery were cliched (lightning and thunder and some fog machine mist). (.5 points)
Scariness— Any potential scares in this movie were undermined by bad timing. In particular, the scene were Gage is hit by a truck was laughable when it should have been harrowing, due to cuts between Gage, Louis, and the oncoming truck that gave the impression that Louis was intentionally not turning around as Gage ran into the road, despite the huge roar of the truck on the soundtrack. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— Considering the long walks to long-abandoned Indian cemeteries in rural Maine, you’d think there’d be more atmosphere, but everything feels overlit and sound-stagey. The final scene when a homicidal re-animated toddler is wandering around an old New England house with a scalpel from his dad’s medical kit is pretty freaky, though. (.5 points)
Total=2.5 points (Avoid)
I’m a bit mystified as to how this turned out so badly. Other Stephen King movies have done well, and I think this is generally considered one of his better books. Why didn’t the studio pay for name actors or an A-list director? Did they not want to try for another Carrie or The Shining? Whatever the reason, this movie was disappointing and should be avoided.