Sunday, June 17, 2012

RUTZ Classic Movies: Pet Sematary

Directed by Mary Lambert    

Line that stays with me:  “No fair, no fair”

Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together. 

The first time I watched “Pet Sematary” I was seven years old. I will never forget it. It gave me nightmares for 3 or 4 years. The blood-ridden face of Victor Pascow appearing in my mind every time I closed my eyes and the terrible vicious sound of those roaring trucks racing down “that road” as the most famous character from the film Jud Crandall put it. I believe this is a very special film. It is by far my favorite American horror film of 80’s or the 90’s. (Pet Sematary was released in 1989) Today it is a very hit or miss film with audiences. Like me some viewers saw the film at a very young age and it probably put the fear of death into them like nothing they have ever experienced before.  “Pet Sematary” is one of those films that you truly enjoy when you get on the film’s wave length. Meaning, the mind set you have in the sense of life and death before viewing the film will either allow you to take this tragic reality in emotionally and get caught up in the horror, or merely view the film as boring melodrama.  I’ve heard that comment from teenagers these days who have watched the film, “It’s boring” “It’s slow”.  There is defiantly a wide generational gap when it comes to horror films. Now it’s all about the frenzy, the Rob Zombie horror films, which are great in their own right. But there’s something special about a horror film that creeps up on you. It is very essential for a horror film to have great pacing, to deliver some sort of spookiness without really showing us anything at all. Horror films are supposed to mess with our heads, not just our stomachs.  “Pet Sematary” achieves this level of spookiness and so much more. It is a special film for many people for reasons better left unsaid. 

The writing of the film is the first thing I have to get into. As a young person watching the devastating scenes of honest horrible deaths in this film, and not knowing anything about the horrors of REAL life truly shakes you up the first time. The deaths you were watching were very possible; anybody can get hit by a truck. Stephen King loves to create horror stories that disrupt your sleep. This day and age a cynical young viewer watches that scene of the baby getting crushed by a truck and might not even wince. Ten years later that same person has children, will catch the film again and have trouble sleeping at night. The story of “Pet Sematary” will never get old, it is perfect. A horror story built to allow so many grand ideas of death and the horror genre itself. From beginning to end Stephen King’s story engulfs you in with the always reliable fear of death. The film opens with those perfectly unsettling shots of Pet Sematary, and Elliot Goldenthal’s creepy score settling us into the film’s very calm eeriness. The story begins with images of death and sends us into a new beginning for a nice looking family. That combination really makes you worry about that nice looking family. Throughout the film you are bombarded with some depressing truths about death. If you are emotionally in tuned with the film there are many times the film will remind you of your scars. The loss of your favorite pet or, watching your own son die; I can only imagine how horrible it would feel if I lost my son in a similar way and later watched this film. A person could really breakdown watching some of the moments in this film. It also reminds us that sometimes in life things get so nasty; we want death to happen, very terrible truths confronting you for the first half of the film and then it turns into a nightmare. 

The film gets to strike at you with the everyday real life horrors of losing a child like the classic film “M”, but when it all goes crazy; the supernatural aspect of the story takes hold showing us how hard it is for us as human beings to accept death. Early in the film Rachael Creed is scared to speak about death with her daughter, the film’s main concern is death and coming to terms with it. In the beginning of the story the parents treat death as a taboo subject but behave as they have death “under control”. Of course soon as they are confronted by death everything changes. The mother goes to pieces and the father cannot accept it. He goes insane when he loses son. Can you really blame him after what he witnessed? Watching your child get destroyed right before your eyes is the sort of event that can alter your personal ideology of right and wrong. Fairness is thrown right out the window as you become a mirror of the hell living within yourself. Watching this poor father crumble is very horrifying for we know there is no real solution to his problems. That’s why I love that scene near the end after Cage Creed gets his DEATH SHOT and starts saying “no fair, no fair”. Sometimes that’s all that can be said when death makes an appearance in our life. “That wasn’t fair” we will say but there is nothing we can do about it. The empathy this story makes us feel for its lead character Dr. Louis Creed is sad, but it also helps you take it all in. It involves you in a way that’s truly personal as you got to know the doctor before he went insane. He went insane for something that could happen to anyone of us. That’s why I think for some people this film exists as an important milestone in their horror film viewing history. It was the horror film that forced you to come face to face with death and not just cover your eyes.

Pet Sematary’s story and themes can be broken down in several ways and I am sure someone can write a great thesis on the story of the film alone.  What makes this film special is that the story is great and the filmmakers paid a great deal of attention to other areas most films just slightly care about. Now the film is not perfect, for one thing Blaze Berdahl as Ellie Creed is the only sore thumb in an otherwise perfectly casted movie. I mean there are scenes when Miko Hughes, the two year old playing Gage outshines her. There are also some improbable death scenes, which are the only real flaws I found but, the film’s energy is too strong for those small blemishes to wither this film’s overall effect. One area I think director Mary Lambert put a lot of thought into is the film’s pacing. The pacing of a film can make it or break it. It is a very delicate thing, depending on the story you are telling and the length of time available to tell that story. Like a great song a film has to get you on a steady tempo and once you get used to that tempo, it gives the director options on how to pleasantly surprise you by switching the tempo. “Pet Sematary” has a really slow pace in the sense of shots. It is slowing everything down so you can take in the reality. Perfect example, is in the beginning of the film when the Creed family arrives to their new home. The sweeping creepy score that makes you feel like you are watching someone’s twisted version of a Hallmark movie. The shots of the family getting out of their station wagon feels like someone’s photo album came to life. Big smiles of happiness and the cat in her plastic cage in the trunk, on a beautiful sunny day somewhere in Maine and baby Gage wondering about it. The filmmakers are making sure they slow you down and bring you into Louis Creed’s reality of having a family, of having  a beautiful life, so when it comes crashing down you are right there suffering with him. This slow pacing technique gives the filmmakers more room to excite us or surprise us with quick cuts or intense sequences due to the fact that you get use to the slow steady pace. When the director decides to turn things up to INTENSE MODE, as a viewer you don’t know what to do with yourself. Perfect example of this is the scene where Dr. Louis Creed fails to stop his son from getting on the road. 

One of my favorite things about this movie is Fred Gwynne’s performance of Jud Crandall. Sometimes when I watch it, it is my favorite thing. The film wouldn’t be special without Fred Gwynne’s performance. It is now a very famous performance; it has been parodied on “South Park” and other places. I think the reason people remember this performance is because it is not something we can calculate. The performance is perfect to me and I do not care to know why. I just know I think it is amazing. The way he delivers the lines, his tone of voice, his facial expressions, his body language, it is a performance of the perfect actor for the part creating classic moments and not even knowing it. Some moments make me smile like a little kid at the pleasure of watching an actor deliver a line that just sounds perfect coming out of his mouth. Fred Gwynne saying “It was the ragman that told me about the place” can put me in a hysterics of joy, I love that moment in the film, and Fred Gwynne’s grand delivery very much in the style of classic horror films, sets us up perfectly for the back story of the cursed Indian Burial ground.  Fred Gwynne saying “that road” is special, there is no other performance like it and his performance grounds the film in a very important way.  After all Jud Crandall is the lead character’s only neighbor and the man that leads Louis Creed to his doom.  It is a legendary performance. 

 The neighbor aspect is also very important to the story’s overall effect. The friendly neighbor is not supposed to tell you how to bring your daughter’s dead cat back to life. The way Louis Creed blindly follows Jud’s advice is a constant reminder to me of how easy it is for us human beings to be lead astray especially in moments of grief. I think the film is talking about something else altogether in that regard. It is talking about, the dark places we can allow to take ourselves if life only gives us a push. When Jud tells Louis Creed that a man’s heart is stonier, he is exposing Louis to a very dark side of human nature, a foul darkness that will hide the truth and lead a good man to disaster. Dale Midkiff’s performance as Dr. Louis Creed is great and at times stunning. I love how the filmmakers decided to give Rachael Creed a short haircut as it projects the image of a MOTHER very quickly to the audience. If the mother would’ve looked like a Hollywood model, it would have been way too distracting. Denise Crosby delivers a simple strong performance and I think the filmmakers casted her for that reason. You care about her as a person, and she is not eye candy but a mother who we feel terrible for. “Pet Sematary” also delivers the horror goods as it should. You get ghosts, foggy nights, great make-up effects, jolting moments involving a once dead cat, a dead rat covered in blood near Louis Creed’s feet and other moments that in real life would make you scream at the top of your lungs. I will never  forget how I felt when I first saw that devastating scene where Louis Creed loses his son, till then I never saw any film where a child was killed in that manner.  I think all those elements will give “Pet Sematary” a long shelf life. The film’s unblinking insight of what could happen if the most important person in your life is taken away and the brutal fact that there’s nothing you can do about it. It is such a natural fear. I think this film truly understood that fear at the core of the story which deals with the inevitability of death and the lack of comprehension any human being can have when death does arrive.

ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers



  1. You captured everything I feel each time I watch this movie! Doesn't matter how many times I've seen it, the scene when Creed dies grabs your heart and tears it out. Not to mention the following scene when Louis and Rachel's dad fight, knocking down the casket!

    You are right about horror movies these days, its all about turning your stomach not your mind - VERY WELL PUT!!

  2. Read the book. Miles better.