MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Brad Greenquist, Michael Lombard, Susan Blommaert, Mary Louise Wilson/ Runtime: 103 minutes
If you ever want to adapt a book into a movie then I feel that the first thing you should rarely if ever consider doing is a straight page-for-page adaptation. The reason for this being that whenever we as people sit down and read a literary work we already have a unique “mental motion picture” of sorts playing in our heads. Thus since everyone’s “mental motion picture” is different, whenever a “real” adaptation is released you will often find a group of people who’re always upset that what is on celluloid doesn’t match with what they were expecting. Therefore I really do feel that all a filmmaking crew can really hope to accomplish in the process of adaptation is to get their own version out into the world, and just hope it matches as many people’s vision as possible.
Indeed if there was ever an author who managed to encapsulate this philosophy to a t, I feel Stephen King’s name should either be near the top or headlining that list. I say this because when someone attempts to capture at least the essence of a Stephen King story on film the results can actually be quite good (Carrie ’76, Misery, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption.) On the other hand however, if they don’t even care, just attempt to cobble something together, and then slap “Based on the story by Stephen King” on it, what you get ranges from anger fury to hilarious disbelief at how bad the final product is (The Langoliers, The Tommyknockers, and sigh The Dark Tower from 2017.)
All of which today dear reader brings us to the 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and surprisingly it’s not that bad. I mean is this movie a perfect Stephen King adaptation? No of course not. Very few of the adaptations of his work to be fair truly are. Yet thanks in no small part to a game cast, a script actually written by King himself, a good effort from music video- turned- film director Mary Lambert, and just enough magical moments of abyss-level unease that seem to have seeped from the book onto the big screen, you might just find yourself enjoying this movie enough that you will be willing to overlook most of the other shortcomings on display throughout the 103 minute runtime.
The plot is as follows: A doctor by the name of Louis Creed has just decided to move his family out to the perfect house in the country side near a small town in Maine. Well I take that back; it’s almost perfect. It would be perfect except for 2 things: the creepy cemetery where kids have been burying their pets directly for decades behind their house and the dangerously busy stretch of interstate that is directly in front of it. It isn’t until after a tragedy however, followed by the kindly intervention of their next door neighbor Jud however that the Creeds will discover their almost-paradise quickly turning into a horrifying nightmare and learn the terrible yet equally as terrifying truth that sometimes dead truly IS better…..
Now the thing that sets this Stephen King adaption apart from so many others is that with so many others you just want to get to the end as quickly as possible. Believe me I can’t say I blame you on that. They really can get pretty bad. With this one however, there are quite a few spooky moments along the way to enjoy that you can’t help, but find yourselves going along for the ride. Indeed from Rachel Creed’s terrifying reminiscence of her time around her terminally ill, crippled sister, Louis’s supernatural encounters with a mortally injured jogger named Victor Pascow, the bone chilling trip into the “other” cemetery beyond the pet cemetery, and a third act that if it doesn’t give you a nightmare or 2 you really should question if you have a soul let alone a pulse this is definitely a movie that is more about the journey rather than the destination. Honestly though I think that is a brilliant decision on the part of King and the director. I say that because although this is a chilling story about how grief in the face of devastating loss can make people do really stupid things, it is also a slow-burn to some extent. Thus if you try and rush things along, you really put yourself at risk to lose what makes this story so effective in the first place. Thankfully Miss Lambert manages to keep things going at just the right pace that’s quick enough to get through this in one sitting, yet doesn’t forsake any of the effectiveness that the big moments need to have in order to work properly.
Now the cast in this movie is….interesting to say the least. I say that because whereas Dale Midkiff is good as Louis, Brad Greenquist proving to be creepily effective as a harbinger of doom, and Denise Crosby as Rachel is alright, I definitely feel that the child actress playing Ellie was not as effective as she could’ve been. That being said, there are a couple of casting standouts. The first of these has to be Miko Hughes as Gage. Now to be fair, I have been told on more than one occasion that this can’t be because he’s “too cute to be scary”. However, I must say that I politely disagree. I say this because not only does Hughes do an effective job of channeling a child-like mischievous menace in this film’s 3rd act, but also because when he does some of the truly monstrous things he does in this film, you do find a slight shiver or 2 going down your spine. This film’s perfect casting award however has to go to Fred Gwynne of The Munsters fame as Jud Crandall. Indeed it may be a supporting role, but at the very least it is a well-written supporting role and Gwynne manages to do a remarkable job of playing this old, yet wry and full of secrets, man with just the right strokes of both under-playing and a sense of doom and melancholy in his tone.
Now the director of this film may have only done music videos, Madonna’s Material Girl among them, before this, but I feel she still does a decent job making the transition. This is in no small part due to the fact that Lambert wisely recognizing that if you take out the supernatural elements, you are left with a very human story about the consequences that blind grief can have on people’s lives. Thus having recognized that, Lambert makes the smart choice to let the actors dictate the plot and carry the story rather than the plot and story dictate to the actors and it is a choice that works beautifully. Not to mention, but Lambert also does a wonderful job of shooting this movie with a sense of curiosity and wonder in the first half, and then after everything starts going to Hell, actually managing to ratchet up the tension fairly well for a feature film director only on her first big studio film.
All in all Pet Sematary “89” may not be a perfect adaptation of King’s literary work, but that doesn’t make this a bad movie. In fact, Pet Sematary “89” is actually a solid little midnight movie that if you want to see a good Stephen King adaptation from an era of film where there were a LOT of them, most of which meh at best, then this is definitely the one for you. Now as for the 1991 sequel and the 2019 remake? Well one of those is a proverbial “another story”, but the other? Well I think Jud said it best: “sometimes dead IS better”. As for which is which I guess you’ll just have to wait and see, but you better be careful because after all: what you own…will always come home to you. On a scale of 1-5 I give Pet Sematary “89” a 3 out of 5.