Stephen King was in the thick of his most prolific and successful period as a writer when Doubleday published Pet Sematary—one of King’s darkest novels—in 1983. It was an old manuscript that King had started in the late ’70s and then put aside, finishing it only at his publisher’s insistence, though King has often claimed that he dropped the book because the subject matter was so depressing, and so terrifying. Riffing on W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” Pet Sematary is about a doctor who moves his family to a small town in Maine, where he learns about a mystical burial ground that brings the dead back to life—albeit profoundly changed. The doc keeps finding reasons to use the cemetery, beginning when his daughter’s cat dies. Whatever the reason that King shelved the book, he’s right that it’s a grim piece of work even by his own standards, dealing with death not as an abstract horror but as something personal, tragic, and not to be taken lightly.
Mary Lambert’s 1989 film version of Pet Sematary (from King’s own screenplay) has a difficult job to pull off, to get across the heavy emotional content of the book while telling a story that’s right out of EC Comics, with the dead shambling back. But Lambert has a couple of powerful weapons in her arsenal. She has the alternately kindly and creepy Fred Gwynne, playing a neighbor who helps the doctor (played by Dale Midkiff) understand the secret history of the place he now lives. And Lambert has Maine, a shooting location that King insisted upon when he sold the novel’s rights. The creaky houses, the cracking trees, and the busy highway—with its speeding trucks—all have an authentic quality, at once homey and potentially deadly.
Lambert, though, never was able to solve the problem of how to integrate that realism into a movie that also features walking, bright-eyed corpses. When the hero is beset by demonic creatures he helped spawn, Pet Sematary shades toward the hysterical, and becomes easier to laugh off. (A borderline-kitschy subplot concerning Midkiff’s wife, Denise Crosby, and her fear of death doesn’t help.) But Lambert does understand what’s most unsettling about King’s book and script, and doesn’t shy away from the most uncomfortable parts of the story, which deal with the ever-present nightmare of losing a loved one. In bringing Pet Sematary to life, King and Lambert rob it of some of its sting, but the central concept retains its power: this place, off the beaten path, where the most desperate wishes become horribly real.
Key features: A thoughtful Lambert commentary track, and a trio of well-put-together Laurent Bouzereau featurettes about the making of the film and what originally inspired King to write the book.