By Joan Amenn
In the book The World According to Garp, John Irving explores the theme of parental fear of being unable to protect one’s children from harm. “Pet Semetary” (1989) shares this theme as only Stephen King could interpret it, with a screenplay written by him based on his book with the same title. Directed by Mary Lambert, it is a twisted tale of grief and what horrors can be unleashed by those suffering from a loss that is too much to bear.
The Creed family relocate to a rural New England town where father Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) will be the new resident doctor for the local college. With two young children in tow, their beautiful new farmhouse comes with a troubling location right next to a busy highway that is frequented by speeding semi-trailers. A grand tour of a pet cemetery located behind the house is conducted by their new neighbor, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne). Apparently, the highway has claimed many pets in town and all have been buried coincidently and conveniently near the Creed’s new home.
At this point, the audience should have no doubt that young Ellie Creed’s (Blaze Berdahl) beloved cat Church does not have long for this world. But no worries, there is a secret about the pet cemetery, or “semetary” as the children spell it, that neighbor Jud helpfully lets Louis in on. It seems that dead pets buried in an area farther off from the cemetery, which was once a Native American graveyard, has the power to restore them to life. Like any good dad wanting to spare his little girl from grief, Louis buries the cat in the graveyard while his daughter, baby son and wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) are away with family at Thanksgiving. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is tempted to visit the Native American graveyard again with horrific results.
“Directed by Mary Lambert, it is a twisted tale of grief and what horrors can be unleashed by those suffering from loss that is too much to bear.”
When an author adapts their own work for the screen, it is reasonable to expect that the plot will be translated with the same if not more emotional resonance. In this version, however, that is not the case. The plot falls flat with minor characters introduced perfunctorily to bolster the lack of frights Mr. King is known for.
However, there are some genuinely creepy moments. Rachel is wracked with guilt because she feels she could have done more to help her chronically ill sister when she was young. We are not sure if her visions of her sister are resurfacing memories due to stress or maybe a disturbed ghost returning for vengeance for her negligence.
“This was only director Lambert’s second feature film…Mary Lambert had great potential with this film that was not completely successful in execution. However, she has gone on to direct other films and for television.”
A college student named Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is also chilling as a mournful ghost trying to warn the Creed family of impending danger after he is cut down by a speeding driver. A missed opportunity was underutilizing Ellie Creed’s apparent clairvoyance to build suspense, much like little Danny Torrance in “The Shining” (1980) Louis Creed should be distraught to the point of near insanity with guilt to even consider revisiting the cursed graveyard again, especially after being warned against it by neighbor Crandell.
Instead, he is seen casually digging up his deceased loved one while calmly rationalizing to himself that he has the option of killing them again if they return with the same anger management problems as the undead family pet. Midkiff never gives a believable performance as a father who is so torn up inside, he would risk bringing back the dead and consequences be damned.
This was only director Lambert’s second feature film and, in her defense, she is responsible for the film’s high point of casting Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandell. He is excellent playing the old, lonely porch sitter who knows too much but doesn’t want to scare his new friends away by spilling it all. She also cast young Miko Hughes as Gage Creed who is completely charming as the apple of his parent’s eyes, sometimes to the chagrin of his older sister. He isn’t as convincing as a force of evil but there are a few jump scares toward the end of the film as he plays a deadly game of hide and seek.
Mary Lambert had great potential with this film that was not completely successful in execution. However, she has gone on to direct other films and for television. She is chiefly known for her series of music videos featuring Madonna. As a matter of fact, it was due to her connections in the music world that the Ramones were included in the soundtrack for “Pet Semetary” with a song over the closing credits. Any film that includes the Ramones can’t be all bad.