Pet Sematary might be the first horror movie I ever watched. I remember the ghost of Victor Pascow so vividly that it just pops up in my head from time to time. I had never seen anything that gory or shocking, so it naturally just stuck with me ever since. I had revisited the movie a few times when I was a bit older, but always when it was on TV and edited down significantly. With all the buzz around the Muschietti siblings' comments about it being their dream project, I decided to revisit this 1989 King classic, and see what new things I could pull from it now that I can better understand its themes.
Stephen King has no fear of killing children in his material. I think that is one of the strongest scares that he presents to an adult audience. For me, it is the perfect way to say that the world is not fair, and sometimes bad things befall the most innocent lives. In Pet Sematary, the conversations between Louis and his daughter, Ellie, as well as the one between Ellie and Jud, the lonely neighbor who introduces Louis to the burial ground, are key points in how we either fear death, or embrace it as part of life. In the actual cemetery, Jud tells Ellie that it is a place where the dead speak. The headstones and crosses that bear loving messages about the deceased pets are symbols of closure and remembrance, and also present the idea that the death of a pet is a child’s first interaction with the topic.
“How else are they going to learn about it?” Jud tells Rachel, Louis’ wife. The next conversation about death occurs between Louis and Ellie. This time, they are discussing the inevitable death of Church, Ellie’s cat. Louis tells Ellie that Church might still be alive when she is a teenager and that she still has a lot of time with him. Ellie says that it doesn’t feel like a long time, exposing one of the things that we always take for granted; the amount of time we have here on earth. Ellie also lashes out at God, saying that, “he can get his own cat. Church is my cat.” In the context of the events that follow, Louis and Jud rob Ellie of being able to cope with the death of her younger brother, Gage, by resurrecting Church after he is hit by a truck. After Gage’s death, Ellie comes downstairs and says that she has to keep Gage’s things ready for when he comes back. She says that if God can take him away, he can certainly bring him back. To me, this is the biggest moment in the movie because Jud’s response is that it simply doesn’t work that way, yet these two men have wrongly brought things back from the dead themselves.
The concept of how we fear death is presented in two different scenes. After the suicide of their housekeeper, Ellie asks Louis if the woman went to heaven. Louis says that he has faith that we all go on, and as he says this, the resurrected Church sits off in the corner, staring at him. Louis’ actions present the worst that can happen when we do not accept death as a part of life. He says he believes that we move on, that there is nothing to worry about when it comes to death, yet he cannot let go of the loved ones that he loses. He foolishly attempts to bring back his son and wife, both at horrible costs to himself and others. “Sometimes, dead is better.” Jud tells Louis before he decides to dig up Gage’s corpse. Trying to cling to the dead is not natural, and refusing to move on only stunts, or worse, destroys life. The other fear of death comes from Rachel. Her recollection of caring for her dying sister is horrifying. So much that as she remembers it, she believes that her sister’s death gave her joy. No longer having to listen to her suffering was a great release for her, not in the hopes of mercy, but in Rachel’s selfishness. This horrible experience makes the mention of death make her very uncomfortable, and her refusal to engage her children in the conversation only goes to show how terrified she is.
Aside from the thematic elements, the movie kind of sits in a rut throughout most of its mid section, and that is entirely because of its main character. Louis is played as though he doesn’t know what emotions he should be feeling in certain moments. During a scene where he is following Victor’s ghost into the woods, he plods along behind this horribly disfigured ghost with a goofy smile on his face. If the character is supposed to be slowly losing his mind, it doesn’t really happen in the performance. Fred Gwynne is definitely the saving grace of the entire movie. The way he portrays Jud as this kind old man trying to do the right thing, almost has a sinister undertone at first. He also serves as a foil for Louis, as a man who repeats the same mistakes hoping to find a different outcome. The moment where he confesses that he might be responsible for Gage’s death is great, except Louis is sitting there next to him not quite sure what his face should be doing.
Finally, when Gage gets hit by that semi, it’s devastating. The foreshadowing is incredibly heavy handed, and there’s really no other way to do it, I suppose, but the visual representation of his death is one of the greatest things about the movie. Rather than showing us his mangled body for shock value, we instead see family photos that chronicle his short life, completely out of the realm of realism, placed out on the pavement. It’s an emotional tool that works incredibly well because we do not need to see the aftermath of his death physically. There would be no emotional connection. Instead, seeing photos of this happy boy while his family screams in horror in the background is so much more affecting, because it’s all they have left of him.
Overall, Pet Sematary is too blandly acted to ever really succeed. Its creepy and gory moments do incredibly well at first, but at some points become far too campy to be taken seriously. Does it deserve a remake? Probably. I feel like the bones of this version would have been dark and meaningful enough to work had it not been for the campiness that is woven into the fabric as well. The thematic elements of the story are universal, and wrapped in wonderfully demented story that deserves better justice than it is given here, thought that is not to say that it is a horrible movie. It works on its own merits and is definitely a horror classic.