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Stream to Scream: “PET SEMATARY”

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“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” These words are intoned by both Jud Crandall and the helpful spectre Pascow at different points in the classic Stephen King novel/film PET SEMATARY. It’s a sentiment that can easily be applied to King’s adapted filmography, which is a quarry pit filled with diamonds and rocks. The aforementioned 1989 film, directed by Mary Lambert (whose other genre credits include PET SEMATARY II, URBAN LEGEND: BLOODY MARY, and the classic TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “Collection Completed”) and scripted by King himself (who also enjoys a brief cameo as a minister during a funeral scene) undoubtedly stands out as one of the diamonds. Nearly thirty years after its release, PET SEMATARY still has that kind of scary sheen that supernatural films try but often fail to emulate.

For the horror fans who, for some ridiculous reason, still haven’t treated themselves to this particular tale of parental terror, allow me to give you a quick rundown of the plot: Louis Crane (Dale Midkiff) moves his wife and two kids from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine to take a job as an M.D. at the University of Maine. He quickly befriends his next door neighbor Jud (played by Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne), whose folksy blue collar ways and thick Maine accent act as a thin veil for the dark knowledge he carries in his heart. Jud wastes no time in informing Louis and his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) about the dangers of road outside their house, which has trucks coming and going at all hours day and night, and has claimed the lives of more than a few family pets. He also takes them on a trip down a nearby path to show them the titular cemetery (the misspelling comes from a handwritten sign hanging above the entrance), a resting place built by child owners of these fallen animals.

While Louis’s baby boy Gage (Miko Hughes, seen also in WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE) is too young to be affected by the sight of the tombstones, his daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) becomes distraught by the thought of losing her cat Church, exacerbating Rachel’s pre-existing sensitivity to the mere mention of death (due to a severe childhood trauma involving a disabled sibling), and Louis finds himself consumed by the inevitability of death and coping with it.

And then the corpses start piling up. First, a jogger by the name of Pascow is rushed into the emergency room with a gaping head wound, and try as he might, Louis just can’t save him. It will not be the last time we see him try and fail to preserve a life. That night, Pascow appears to Louis and leads him down to the cemetery, warning him to never travel beyond it. Simple advice, but when Church loses a fight with a truck, Jud shows Louis exactly what lies beyond all those dog and cat bones: an Indian burial ground that has the power to resurrect whatever creature is buried within its soil.

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The first long shot of the burial ground is truly breathtaking, with Louis and Jud looking like two dots moving along the massive, stony patch of land and the ancient markings strewn about it. If there’s a better visual representation of a man messing with something far bigger than himself, I can’t think of it.

Church eventually comes back, but the newfound glow in his eyes suggests that he hasn’t come back the same, a hunch his increased aggression backs up. If that wasn’t bad enough, when Gage tragically dies in an accident (a masterfully edited sequence that makes good use of the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach”), Louis ignores Jud’s stern warning of “Dead is Better” and buries his son in the sour soil. The monster that emerges might bear his son’s face, but it has abandoned his soul.

Along with the chilling images of the resurrected Gage, Lambert also dedicates several scenes to Rachel’s flashbacks of her deformed sister, who suffered from spinal meningitis and ultimately died in her care. Rachel’s guilt over her sister’s death (and the fact that she had always been praying for it) cause her to see her sister talking to her, taunting her from her bed, with her sickly greenish skin and dulled red hair. Lambert places the camera in Rachel’s point of view for one of these visions, and when dear old demented Zelda rushes towards the lens, screaming at her sister, the audience can directly feel her fear and disgust.

PET SEMATARY is a not only a film about death’s brutality and finality, but on the lasting impact it has on the living, and how those who cannot accept it can be driven mad by grief and denial. If you’re new to to the works of Stephen King, both literary and cinematic, this is a great place to start; it is easily one of his scariest stories to ever be brought to the screen, a legacy supported by the fact that SOUTH PARK fans will instantly recognize Jud Crandall as the inspiration for the “You don’t wanna go down that Roahd…” guy, and that The Ramones’ song, titled after the film and written specifically for it, was one of their biggest hits on the American rock charts. We can’t escape death, and perhaps the only silver lining of that dark, universal truth is that it can inspire some great art.

PET SEMATARY is currently streaming on Netflix.

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About the author
Christopher La Vigna
Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna
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