Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary

Our journey through the screen adaptations of Stephen King's writing brings us to a trip to the Pet Sematary...

The film: Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) takes a job as a doctor at the University of Maine, moving into a new home with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and their two young children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes). Their neighbour Jud (Fred Gwynne) takes a shine to the family and Louis in particular. Jud takes them to the local ‘pet sematary’ where children bury their pets, animals killed by the trucks on the road running past the Creeds’ house. When tragedy strikes, the sinister significance of the Micmac burial ground near the cemetery becomes clear.

Pick one of the greatest novels in Stephen King’s body of work and a big key to its success will be the way in which King combines recognisable, mundane fears with a supernatural force that seeks to exploit them. It’s a tried and tested method of tapping into a reader’s psyche, of engaging them on an emotional level that chimes with their own experiences or worries. In Pet Sematary, it’s a tale of grief, specifically the grief that stems from the death of a child and the desperation that arises from trying to cope with that loss.

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Pet Sematary is one of King’s most focused and restrained novels, homing in on the Creed family and the tragic events that unfold after their move to Maine. It’s a tense build towards its horrible, shiver-inducing finale and a novel which benefits from King taking his time to get there. He adapts his own work here and sticks to that approach. Director Mary Lambert piles on the atmosphere to aid with this, peppering the film with short, sharp shocks with an eye on paving the way for that disturbing finale.

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That atmosphere is key here. From the opening scenes when the family arrive at their Maine home, death is never very far away. There’s the cemetery itself along the path leading away from the Creeds’ house and the threat of the trucks zooming up and down the road. It’s not long an actual death takes place when unfortunate jogger Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) gets on the wrong side of a truck. Some really effective make-up effects provide the audience with its first outright shock.

As a result of whatever lurks in that abandoned Micmac burial ground, the barrier between life and death is fluid. The dead can of course return to life if they have been buried in the stone circle, as we see with Church, but they can also exist in a kind of benevolent limbo, like Pascow. He can walk freely and influence events trying desperately to warn the Creeds, but the message from both Pascow and the burial ground is clear; the dead should never stick around for long. Of course, this being a Stephen King story, that temptation proves to be too much when everything goes south for the Creed family.

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King’s screenplay also brings up death as a frequent discussion point when Rachel fears the presence of the pet sematary will negatively impact on her children. Throughout, Ellie’s innocent questioning and Jud’s well-meaning discussion with her plays with the contradiction that death is both final and a journey. When Louis discovers the power of the burial ground, the question around that contradiction is brought to the fore; should people be brought back from the dead if we have the ability to do so? The answer is, of course, a big fat no. Not that that stops Louis.

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King is an author well known for his creative flair when it comes to the endings for his novels, often going into the realms of the truly outlandish, regardless of the tone present earlier in his narratives. Pet Sematary is one of his most fitting and also most brutal. Lambert rises to the challenge to match it and does so by ramping the mood she has been building throughout the film. Part-haunted house, part monster movie, Undead Gage’s scalpel-wielding reign of terror might be brief, but it’s deadly effective.

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Much of the groundwork for Gage’s reappearance is laid throughout the film; we see flashbacks to what has happened to a man resurrected before and Church’s return is characterised by his transformation from a mild-mannered house cat to a moggie from Hell. Lambert cleverly takes Hughes, who is an exceptionally cute child, and transforms him into a monster by hiding him in shadow and letting his giggles ring out through the house. Sometimes, there is nothing more sinister than a chuckle. When he finally does appear, it’s impossible to see him as anything but a devil child.

King and Lambert’s adaptation plays to the novel’s strengths in mining a tragic family situation for the natural and supernatural horror it elicits and, like the book, it’s a lean narrative. Everything included is necessary for the brilliant payoff and ensures that those final scenes stick the landing. It’s emotional, it’s violent, and it teaches us all the very valuable lesson that what is dead should probably stay that way.

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Scariest moment: Nothing can top the horror of realising what is about to happen to poor, adorable Gage, even when he returns as one of most terrifying toddlers of them all.

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Musicality: Elliot Goldenthal’s choral theme is the exact blend of innocence and macabre that the film needs and much of the score feels like a child’s music box gone horribly wrong. It’s a big factor in Pet Sematary’s unsettling atmosphere and it wouldn’t be the same film without it.

A King thing: Evil places. King often plays with the idea that a location can absorb negative energy and in turn create manifestations of that evil. The Micmac burial ground is a classic example of a place warped by something sinister. Other examples include the Overlook Hotel, the Marsten house in ‘Salem’s Lot, and pretty much the entirety of Derry, Maine.

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Join me next time, Constant Reader, for Tales From The Darkside.