ON BLU-RAY AND 4K ULTRA HD: NOW, from Paramount Pictures UK HERE
RUNNING TIME: 103 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Louis and Rachel Creed, plus their children Ellie and Gage, move from Chicago to rural Ludlow, Maine, after Louis is offered a job as a doctor there. On his first day at work, Louis meets Victor Pascow, a jogger who is mortally wounded after being hit by a bus. He warns Louis about a pet cemetery before he dies, and, that night, comes to him as a ghost and leads him to the Pet Sematary, warning him not to cross the barrier because the ground beyond is “sour”. Their house is near a busy road though, and soon their cat Church is ran over and killed. Louis reluctantly takes his neighbour Jud’s advice to bury it in a mystical burial ground imbued with reanimating powers – with bad results….
I didn’t remember too much about the original Pet Sematary – I think I enjoyed but it didn’t make enough of an impression for me to buy on DVD though I did have it on video. So, with the remake soon out in cinemas, I was more then happy to revisit it courtesy of the film’s 30th Anniversary release on Blu-ray. It suffers from some problems in the script area despite being written by author of the book Mr. Stephen King himself [who cameos as a priest at a funeral], and it does have a certain lack of development, feeling like it ends with the story only around three quarters finished. But on the other hand it’s often atmospheric, creepy and even frightening, and if a horror film has these three qualities then it’s two thirds of the way there. It is rather morbid, with death featuring prominently and its shadow imbuing every scene, and I guess some may find it rather depressing in its emphasis on things like the act of telling or not telling children about death, and its exploiting of one of the deepest fears humans have: losing someone they love. However, I personally think the film, while it does have its issues, is a perfect example of something horror can do very well – confront and explore themes that are uncomfortable to even think about for many but somehow make them a bit more palatable by partly coating them in fantastical terms – and if you’ve never seen it before then you may be surprised how emotionally involving it is, ending up being quite draining – but probably in a good way.
King claimed that the only novel he wrote which really scared him was Pet Sematary, inspired by the death of his daughter’s cat, which is why he didn’t publish it for some time. Only when his wife told him to do so after finding and reading it did he take it to his publisher. He declined several offers for a film adaptation but eventually sold the rights to George Romero. However, in the end he pulled out to do Monkey Shines instead because development executive Lindsay Doran was unable to get interest in it until during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike when Paramount reconsidered because the studio was facing a possible shortage of new productions for 1989 release. Paramount executives wanted a pair of twins to play the role of Gage, like those chosen to play Ellie – which was the more cost-effective option. However, eventual director – after Tom Savini turned the job down – Mary Lambert convinced them to accept three-year old Miko Hughes, while she ended up casting Andrew Hubatsek in the role of the role of Zelda to maker her spinal meningitis sufferer more frightening. As stipulated by King when selling the rights, Pet Sematary was shot in Maine where the story was set not far from King’s house, mostly at Ellsworth and a private residence near Hancock.Orono for the exterior of the Creed house, the inside of which was constructed in a nearby warehouse. The original cut was considerably shortened, but the original ending was re-shot and extended to deliver a final shock. Despite poor reviews, Pet Sematary was a big hit at the box office.
It opens in a most creepy and sad fashion which seems entirely appropriate to me and should warn viewers of its morbid yet honest handling of its subject – and it also tells us why “Cemetery” is spelt “Sematary” in the film’s title, something that I’d forgotten about. I initially thought that the title was just an irritating forerunner to today’s infuriating fad for wrongly spelt film monikers. The camera glides around the makeshift crosses and grave stones of the cemetery while we hear the voices of children whispering some of the words that we see written. It’s so effective at setting the tone that it’s a shame that the haunting music playing over the scene contains some direct quotations from the theme music to The Amityville Horror, and composer Elliott Goldenthal does a similar thing later on too, though I guess only film score nuts like me or those who have watched the Lalo Schifrin-scored movie a lot of times would notice! And I suppose that beginning the film in this way does lessen the impact of when the family visit the cemetery several scenes later, but even the early portion of the film carefully signals the possible presence of death several times, from Ellie falling off a tire swing to Gage saved from being ran over by the family’s new neighbour Jud. In fact nearly every early scene seems to foreshadow stuff that goes on later. One does of course wonder why this family decided to take this particular house considering that it’s right by a busy highway, while I wondered if it was a mistake to have Church the cat looking as menacing as he does even when he’s alive. Still, I was impressed by the mood and the foreshadowing going on, and the slight humorous element contributed by two characters without seeming out of place or crass. There’s Jud who clearly knows a lot of secrets, played by Herman Munster himself Fred Gwynne who has such a way with lines like “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. Because what you buy is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you”. And there’s weird local Missy Dandridge who does their washing telling Ellie that Church is going to have his nuts cut off. When confronted by Louis, her reply is “Don’t mention it”.
We soon get a nice jolt when a man Louis thinks is dead is actually alive and grabs him, then comes to him as a ghost in the night. Church is soon ran over but Louis buries him at an ancient Micmac Indian burial ground, the “real cemetery”, where he can be reanimated with the best of intentions. Ellie, who still thinks that he’s alive, totally loves the ugly mitt you see, and will find his death incredibly hard. We sympathise greatly with Louis, and are asked if we would consider doing the same if we were in such a situation, though of course most of us will have seen far too many horror movies to know that having the dead return from the grave is never going to end well. And yes, Church returns but he’s now not very nicely behaved at all and even stinks of death. The bright yellow eyes he has now didn’t even look very good back in 1989, though the cat then takes a back seat as more elements are brought into play. It seems that Rachel was left with her insane and very ill sister when she was a very young child with tragic results and harbours great guilt, something shown in a flashback scene with some quite disturbing makeup. This ties in with not just Louis’s guilt over first losing Victor and then doing other things which don’t end up with positive results, but Jud’s involvement in an unsavoury past event too. Other deaths begin to occur, but one feels them more than you do in some horror films because of the prevailing mood. But this doesn’t mean that parts aren’t scary. I had remembered the return of one undead character shown mostly in shadow as being incredibly creepy, and what with the sounds accompanying it it still worked very well indeed for me, it truly is splendidly shivery stuff in the classic tradition.
Mary Lambert can do frights pretty well and seems to enjoy exploiting really primal fears like “what’s under the bed”. And of course there’s some gore too, not loads of it, but effective when it comes – particularly one fairly grisly murder that includes an ankle slashing which seems to be in the remake but is carried out by another character. Unfortunately the later and often supposedly funny An American Werewolf In London – style appearances by Victor’s helpful ghost just irritate despite the great ghoulish makeup. These may have worked in the book, but on film the device just seems a desperate attempt by the studio to lighten the mood. Meanwhile the underlying idea seems to be that when people are brought back from the dead, they have all their brains but no souls, though this is never explicitly mentioned. Much else is left vague, but considering that I haven’t long seen a certain new horror film at the cinema where the explanation for what was going on was quite frankly a load of nonsense, maybe that was a good choice, though surely King could have given us a little bit more than the ground being “sour”. One or two happenings can possibly be attributed to the Wendigo demon that’s in the novel but not the film, though there is some pure illogicality though, such as one zombie staggering around in typical fashion while another one seems really smart and is even able to operate a telephone.
But Lambert, who never really did anything else of much worth except for some music videos, does utilise the main house setting rather well, it eventually becoming a real place of fear even though in this film it’s a cemetery that’s haunted not a house, and Boy did the Gothic horror lover in me almost cheer when said cemetery gets shrouded in fog! There are also some odd camera angles that add unease, while the score, often rather modern-sounding in the way that it makes odd sonorities from familiar instruments and is often ambient in style, really helps to make the climactic scenes work the way they do. Dale Midkiff provides a nicely shaded performance as the guy who seems doomed to doing something us humans seem prone to doing – repeating the same darn mistakes over and over again – though Denise Crosby doesn’t quite do well enough with her part, and it’s really the two child performers Miko Hughes [three years old!] and Blaze Berdahl who may impress most – they’re so natural. There are perhaps enough flaws with Pet Sematary to make the idea of a remake not entirely pointless, and I really hope that they omit the cheap comic scare that closes this version – it seems crass to me though many seem to like it. However, this small-scale, surprisingly emotionally intense original certainly has considerable qualities of its own, particularly a gloomy but compelling resonance and even honesty as it delves into its unhappy subject matter, something which probably goes a long way to explaining its perennial popularity.
Having only ever seen Pet Sematary before on video, I can’t compare Paramount’s new Region ‘B’ Blu-ray and 4k Ultra HD release with previous digital releases, nor was I able to view the Ultra HD disc, but the Blu-ray looks pretty stunning and I would imagine easily outdoes the earlier Blu-ray release. Even though the film unsurprisingly emphasises darkness and muted colours, there’s still a ton of detail to pick up on and the few bright and sunny scenes really look stunning yet also totally natural. I noticed two very minor blemishes on the print which probably couldn’t be fixed, but otherwise this must be as good as it can get for a moderately budgeted film from 1989 where much of the action takes place amidst browns and blacks – and I didn’t notice any black crush either.
We get the special features from the earlier release alongside some new extras only previously seen on the DVD and the Region ‘A’ version of this release which came out a bit earlier. The 2014 audio commentary with Lambert is most certainly worth a listen, though Lambert pauses frequently and has such a calming voice and manner that it may put you to sleep. I began to listen to it quite late and it wasn’t holding my attention, but it well worth the effort the next morning. She talks about most aspects of the production and is really clued in on the film’s themes and seems to have a real affinity for the material. Listen out for a different theory on what inspired the book. The commentary is subtitled in various languages, a really good touch that very few discs provide.
The new features begin with Pet Sematary: Fear and Remembrance, where, after the trailer for the remake, we hear from its cast and crew as they reminisce about seeing the original and express their affection for it. This is all nice to hear, but I can never understand why anyone could be involved in a remake of a film you love. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Anyway, this is followed by Pet Sematary: Revisitation, with Lambert basically repeating some of the commentary material. Nice, but a little pointless. After some very interesting storyboards and stills are the 2006 special features, grouped separately. These three featurettes, which look like they contain some interview footage from 1989, together make a decent ‘making of. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: Stephen King Territory has a lot of King himself talking about the story and walking in the woods and a pet cemetery like the ones in the film. Most cast members, Lambert and producer Richard P. Rubinstein chip in also. Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: The Characters covers, as you might expect, the characters, and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: Filming the Horror goes into the shooting. We hear a few new tidbits and everybody seems pleased to have been involved with the movie, though there’s quite a bit of repeating of information here from the commentary – or should that be vice versa. I do wonder if a single, longer featurette edited from all these smaller ones would have been preferable, but they’re all nice to watch.
Though not anywhere near perfect, Pet Sematary does certainly work in the way it was intended, and definitely has some morbid strength and relatability to it, while it will probably never look as good as it does on this 30th Anniversary release. Recommended.
4K ULTRA HD/BLU-RAY COMBO PACK SPECIAL FEATURES
*4K transfer supervised by director Mary Lambert.
*code for a digital HD copy
*Audio Commentary with director Mary Lambert
*Pet Sematary: Fear and Remembrance” featurette [7:14]
*Pet Sematary: Revisitation” featurette [9:38]
– Storyboards Introduction by director Mary Lambert) [1:00]
– Storyboards 16 images
– Behind the Scenes [44 stills]
Original Special Features
– “Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: Stephen King Territory” featurette [13:10]
– “Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: The Characters” featurette [12:52]
– “Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: Filming the Horror” featurette [10:29]