Pet Sematary










Hi.  I’m Victor, and I’m here to fill a plothole.

I remember liking the novel Pet Sematary when it came out.  It was twisted, sick and very, very disturbing.  By the time came around to make a movie of the novel, Stephen King had acquired enough clout to write his own adaptation.

Big mistake.

Let’s go back to basics: who is the protagonist and what does he want?

The protagonist of Pet Sematary is Louis, played by Keanu-voiced actor Dale Midkiff.  What does Louis want?  Well, Louis’s toddler son Gage is dead and Louis would prefer that Gage not be dead.  Great, no problem, excellent motivation.  I want little Gage to not be dead too.

Problem is, little Gage doesn’t die until about halfway through the movie.  The narrative just kills time up to that point, it paces back and forth, throws at us whatever it can come up with to try to keep us in a state of unease.  Loud noises, mysterious lights, ominous music, a grotesque ghost, a suicidal housekeeper, a zombie cat, irrelevent dream-visions, pictures hung crooked, falling trees, a terminally ill sister, a psychic child, Herman Munster, the script just keeps chucking stuff at us, marking time until we’re practically screaming for the little kid to get creamed by the truck.  Which he finally does.

Louis has moved his family to this small town in Maine.  His neighbor from across the way is Herman Munster and large trucks barrel along the road at regular intervals.

That night, Louis is visited by Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound.  After spouting some opaque folk wisdom, Victor takes Louis to a mysterious burial ground and forbids him to ever set foot there.  Good plan, Victor.  Take a guy to a place he’s never been and forbid him to go there.  That’s bound to stick.  Hey, what are you doing in this movie, anyway?  You don’t have any connection to this story.  What are you, some kind of plot contrivance?  Oh, you are?  Oh well.

Louis’s daughter’s cat dies.  Herman Munster says “Hey, you know what?  I can take you to a mysterious ancient sacred burial ground and we can bury the cat there.”  Louis says okay.  Hey, is it the same mysterious ancient burial ground Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound forbade me to set foot on?  Because that would be totally cool.  Let’s go.

Later, the cat comes back and is really pissed off (the cat remains so through the rest of the movie; I hate to think what they did to the poor cat to make it be pissed-off on cue).  Herman Munster comes by and says “Oh yeah, well that’s what happens to animals when you bury them at the mysterious ancient burial ground.  I should know, same thing happened to my dog.”  Oh.  Good.  Hey Herman, if the same thing happened to your dog, why did you decide to tell Louis to bury his cat there?  Perhaps it slipped your mind.

Anyway, Gage finally gets creamed by the truck and we’re supposed to care.  I’m not sure why; I think we’re supposed to be concerned that this family has been torn asunder, but the fact is the actors don’t look like a family at all.  There’s no sense that there is any love or tenderness or caring in this family.  They look like they haven’t met each other before walking onto the set.

Herman Munster pulls Louis aside and says “I know what you’re thinking, young man.  You’re thinking of taking your dead son to that mysterious ancient burial ground.  Well let me tell you, that’s a bad idea.  Guy tried that a while back and his son turned into a murderous zombie.”  Okay, so you’ve had a reminder about the place since your dog died, tell me again why you suggested Louis bury his cat there?  Who are you, anyway?  Has anyone ever told you you’re a stupid old man?  Because you are.  You should just shut up and go inside and sit down and watch The Price is Right.

Anyway, Louis is not one to listen to reason, so when his wife and daughter leave town he goes and digs up his dead son and buries him again at the mysterious ancient burial ground.  And at this point, I’m sorry, I have to ask: what, exactly, is Louis’s plan?  I mean, let’s say everything goes according to plan and, all evidence to the contrary, little Gage bounds out of the grave fresh-faced and giggling.  Then what?  What are you going to do with your fresh-faced zombie son?  How exactly are you going to explain to people that your dead son, who they saw you bury, is not, in fact, dead any longer?  How do you suppose they are going to react to this news?  And it’s not like Louis has no time to consider any of this.  I mean, it takes a long time to dig up a grave, haul out the body, carry it across town, haul it across a wide expanse of countryside and bury it again.  There’s plenty of time in there to think about exactly how this is all going to play out.

Meanwhile, Herman Munster muses on his front porch.  He knows he’s done wrong, he’s a foolish old man and it’s time to face facts.  “You did this, Herman Munster,” he says, “And now you’ve got to undo it.”  Filled with raging fires of resolve, he promptly falls asleep.

Louis knows how he feels.  After digging up his son, carting him across hill and dale and burying him again, he goes home, plops down on the bed and also falls asleep.  Because you know?  After you’ve buried your son for the second time in a week and you know he’s going to show up in the morning as a zombie toddler, you know the best idea is to catch some z’s because the morning might be a little crazy.

Anyway, while Louis is burying the kid his daughter in Chicago has a dream, because any time Stephen King needs a plot fixed he tosses in a kid with psychic powers, and the wife is sent back home to try to stop Louis in his madness, and Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound carefully, patiently guides the wife back to the house so she can, after much effort, get killed by little zombie Gage, just like Scatman Crothers in The Shining.  Thanks for showing up Vic, big help, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

The acting is awful, the production design is somehow simultaneously both cheap and overwrought, there is no visual scheme to speak of and no genuine scares.  The zombie toddler, who is apparently capable of hauling dead bodies up steep staircases, fails to haunt one’s dreams.
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43 Responses to “Pet Sematary”
  1. black13 says:

    Sounds to me as if the movie is a straight adaptaion of the novel. And your snark covers all the things I disliked about the novel.

    For me, the novel’s problem was its eminent predictability. The only horror was that you knew exactly what Louis would do, what would result from that, that he knew pretty much what would become of it, and that he was stupid enough to actually do it.

    • Todd says:

      I think it’s a good example of the limitations of adapting literature to film. What is vivid and nightmarish in literature often looks stupid and flat-footed on film. That’s why King should be kept away from adaptations of his novels.

  2. popebuck1 says:

    The thing is, most of the novel isn’t a “horror” story at all, it’s an intense psychological portrait of a grieving parent. In the book, the let’s-bury-Gage plot doesn’t kick in for the longest time because we wait around inside his father’s head, watching the pain and guilt get worse and worse, until “let’s bury Gage and bring him back!” becomes horrifyingly inevitable.

    My question is, why was Stephen King so great at expressing this in prose, and so clunky and awful at putting the same story onto film?

    See also “Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers,” one of my most-hated movies of all time. Rarely have I wanted more to throw something through the screen.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Are you related to Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound? Because now I kind of want to see Sleepwalkers.

      Come to think of it, I wonder if Victor the Friendly Ghost With the Massive Head Wound is related to Cassandra — “this is a bad idea!” “OK, I’m sold — let’s do it!” Maybe that’s his curse.

      • popebuck1 says:

        Do it if you feel like it – just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

        “Sleepwalkers” is like rummaging through Stephen King’s attic, full of cast-off plot contrivances and weird little useless items from a hundred other books and movies. It’s just King throwing a hundred different things at the story to see if anything works. None of it does. None of it makes a lick of sense, or is compelling in any way, or is even much fun to watch except on the worst kind of train-wreck level.

        Or it’s like a story written by a 10-year-old who’s bored in class. It’ll have WEREWOLVES in it – cool! Except they’re not wolves, they’re CATS! And they drive cool cars and they can TRANSFORM their cars! And there are cool deaths, like stabbing someone in the eye with – what? I know, corn on the cob! That’d be COOL! And they’re cat people, but they’re AFRAID of cats, see, because cats can scratch them to death! And they have to drink young girls’ BLOOD to survive! And, and, and…

        • black13 says:

          “And they drive cool cars and they can TRANSFORM their cars!”

          Joe Lansdale once wrote a Batman novel, “Captured By the Engines,” in which Batman fights a were-car.

        • craigjclark says:

          I remember the big deal about Sleepwalkers was that it was the first film based on an original screenplay by Stephen King, not one that had been adapted from any of his existing short stories or books. I remember watching the first half of it with a growing sense of disappointment in the pit of my stomach. I remember not caring whether I watched the second half or not.

          Man, that was one putrid movie.

          • popebuck1 says:

            And I remember that around the same time, King sued to have his name taken OFF of “Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man,” even though it was (very loosely) adapted from one of his short stories.

            I remember thinking at the time, MAN, his lawyers took his name off of the wrong one!

    • kornleaf says:

      well the same thing goes with vonnegut, I mean, his prose is excellent and pulls you in but the film adaptations, i mean, breakfast of champions sucked so damn bad.

      • popebuck1 says:

        At least he doesn’t try to adapt his own stuff…

      • Todd says:

        I think Vonnegut suffers a similar fate with his work, in that things that seem dry, evident and logical on his pages are always, always played as zany, broad and insane on the screen. I couldn’t get past the poster for Breakfast of Champions.

        • kornleaf says:

          SERIOUSLY, that is what i mean, the universe that is set up in his books, because of the narrative, is logical and makes sense in the books. But on the screen it just becomes some sort of mad-cap zany idiocy.

          • greyaenigma says:

            I’ve read a lot of Vonnegut books, and I don’t remember them making sense, particularly. But it does seem like the crazy, zany stuff is easier to compartmentalize in a book, letting you focus on the plot. Whereas in a movie, the visual stuff will tend to overwhelm what’s going on, particularly if the director thinks the visuals are most important.

            • Todd says:

              Vonnegut’s surrealism is all conceptual. The characters’ actions are always very sober and clear-eyed. But put it in a movie and it becomes a cartoon about actors bugging their eyes and flapping their arms around.

      • craigjclark says:

        And Slaughterhouse Five is nearly incomprehensible if you didn’t read the book first.

        That said, I thought that Mother Night wasn’t all that bad. As Vonnegut adaptations go, it did the job and succeeded in not being too off-putting.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    Resurrection #9

    The end of the movie has it all wrong. Louis should resurrect Fred Gwynne so that he can kick his ass for being such a bad neighbor.

    And, hey — I’ve just had a thought. What if this technology was responsible for all famous resurrections? Some Mary or another carries her favorite martyr up to that hill (the one the older tribes would only whisper about) and buries him under a rock. A few days later, magical murderous messiah comes back, and this time his own people have to take care of him. Not wanting to look like fools, they explain that his father taken him to heaven, and that’s why we won’t be seeing any more of him.

    If I get lynched for this idea, you know what to do.

    • ghostgecko says:

      Re: Resurrection #9

      >>And, hey — I’ve just had a thought.
      Sweet zombie Jesus!

      As for making the cat pissed off, I’ve been told you use a device called a “hamster on a stick” or “cat on a stick”. It’s basically a big fake snarling cat head you wave at the cat to freak it out on cue. Cats aren’t union, y’see. I have a fur-covered fake black cat (a halloween decoration) with an open hissing mouth and huge glass eyes that has the same effect on every cat I’ve ever shown it to, except Oscar, who’s too smart to be fooled by it.

  4. craigjclark says:

    A brief history of Stephen King’s flirtation with the silver screen

    By the time came around to make a movie of the novel, Stephen King had acquired enough clout to write his own adaptation.

    King had been itching to adapt one of his own novels for the silver screen for ages, too. Back when he penned the script for Creepshow, which was based on some of his short stories, that was actually a substitute for the project he and George Romero really wanted to do — a film version of The Stand. King even made a few passes at a shooting script before it was determined that the project would be too expensive for their first collaboration. Creepshow was reasonably successful, but not enough to get The Stand financed.

    A few years later, two more Stephen King screenplays made it to the cineplex: Cat’s Eye, which was once again based on some of his short stories, and Silver Bullet, which was based on one of his novellas. The former was reasonably entertaining, but the latter was one of the sorriest werewolf movies ever made. The following year brought us Maximum Overdrive, the film that should have convinced King to give up his Hollywood aspirations and go home to Maine.

    Words cannot describe just how incompetent Maximum Overdrive is in practically every department — the writing (granted, stretching a five-page short story to feature length can be a challenge), the acting (which is terrible on all counts), the directing. The thing is, King used to be able to say that his movies didn’t turn out well because the director botched the job. In the case of Maximum Overdrive, however, the botcher was he. Later on he tried to give the impression that he had meant to make a cheesy B-movie all along, but that doesn’t explain the commercials that preceded the film’s release, in which King said to the camera, in all seriousness, “I’m going to scare the hell out of you!”

    Lesson unlearned, a few years later, he got his wish and turned out the screenplay for Pet Sematary, which you have ably dissected. From that point on (with the notable exception Sleepwalkers, his only completely original screenplay), King has stuck to writing things for the small screen — including The Stand, the one that started it all.

    • Todd says:

      Re: A brief history of Stephen King’s flirtation with the silver screen

      It’s a measure of how tone-deaf King is about the nature of film that he is unhappy with the DePalma and Kubrick adaptations of his novels. What a maroon.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        Re: A brief history of Stephen King’s flirtation with the silver screen

        You know, he doesn’t ask for much, he just wants to be scared, “Texas chainsaw massacre”-style. He’s not enough of an intellectual to be spooked while watching a visually subtle work like Kubrick’s “Shining” and to enjoy that kind of rich spookiness, but you can’t fault him for that. I wish for him that one day one of his short stories will connect with a suitably gory (yet able) Spanish director and a producer willing to fund a film that will never get rated (and probably make the art house circuit) because of the excessive bloodiness. I wonder how he reacted to “Pan’s Labyrinth”.

        • Todd says:

          Re: A brief history of Stephen King’s flirtation with the silver screen

          It’s funny you bring up Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an example of what King wants out of horror movie, because it has a similar structure to Pet Sematary.

          Act 1: Nothing happens.
          Act 2: It’s starting to look like something might happen.
          Act 3: Something happens.

          The difference with Pet Sematary is that there’s all this stupid crappy hugger-mugger and shenanigans for more than half the movie before any semblance of plot kicks in.

  5. toku666 says:

    Well, somehow I was the first to get around to it, but let’s not forget that horrendous Ramones song at the end.

    • Todd says:

      That’s kind of the ultimate example of King’s clout at the time — he could get his favorite band to record a lame song for the closing credits of his movie.

      I don’t blame the Ramones for the artistic failures of this movie, I blame King. Mary Lambert, who has no visible style or evident skill with actors, must share part of the blame, but if she had been shooting a decent script it would still be a watchable movie. As it is, it’s an adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw, which would have been acceptable for about 23 minutes (ie an episode of Tales from the Dark Side) stretched out over 2 hours.

      • craigjclark says:

        If you want a good adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw, you should check out 1972’s Deathdream, which was directed by none other than Bob (A Christmas Story/Porky’s/Baby Geniuses) Clark.

        • Todd says:

          Baby Geniuses is only one of the many films in which the actor playing Gage later appears in (see below).

          Wheels within wheels, people!

    • dougo says:

      I for one don’t think it’s horrendous. But I’ll admit that I more often listen to the cover version by the Groovie Ghoulies.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Ah, you beat me to it. I heard the Ghoulies version before the original. It took me a while before I realized it was a cover (and for a movie) – I thought it was just an unusually obtuse song.

  6. kornleaf says:

    i saw this first when i was a little kid in the theaters (thanks babysitter, way to make me hate native americans and zombies) but i don’t remember, do they actually show the tottler? I thought they just show like the hand getting a knife. I mean, think about it, a small tottler gets hit by a truck, going freeking fast down a highway. What was left of the kid? I mean, look at ANY road kill, they explode. And I totally agree with you about the pyschic kid, i mean, it isn’t even deus ex machina, it is just freeking cheap. And WHY the hell did they make a second one?