Killtoberfest 1 – #12: Pet Sematary

In All, Movies by Kyu

Killtoberfest #12 was Pet Sematary. I watched it because I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it before or if I’d only seen pieces. Honestly, I still can’t remember. Either way, it’s mostly a pretty bad movie.


The story should be familiar to anyone who’s read the book; and if you haven’t read the book, you should, it’s loads better. So nuts to plot summaries.

Pet Sematary the movie is bad for a whole host of reasons: it’s overwrought, most of the acting is bad (with the exception of Fred Gwynne as Jud), and a lot of the dialogue is straight out of the book–dialogue is never King’s strong suit, and even then it plays better on the page than it does on the screen.

It’s also bad, I think, for the reason that a lot of Stephen King adaptations are bad: they’re produced for the horror. King’s good at horror, but he’s great overall because of how good he is at everything that isn’t horror. It’s why some of his best books feature long, slow set-ups about interiority and character relationships and themes before he finally lets the monsters out.

Pet Sematary the book is exactly like this. The dominant emotion of the novel isn’t terror, it’s dread: you know more or less exactly where the story is going, and that is down a dark road with no turning. It’s on a track, just like the path Louis returns to again and again. The concept is zombies and Indians and evil spirits and all the rest of the hugger-mugger, but the story is really about watching a happy, rational man destroy everything he has step by horrible step. King accomplishes this not with the dour histrionics of the film, but with the details and rhythms of family life, a simple refrain against which discordant notes are gradually, inexorably introduced.

But it’s obvious the filmmakers of Pet Sematary looked at the book and said, “Here is a zombie movie with a scary climax, and a placidly happy family that Bad Shit happens to, let’s get from the latter to the former as quick as we can.” Terrified of letting the audience go ten minutes without something spooky happening on-screen, they cram in every moment of supernatural phenomena they could find. But it all has the opposite effect of defusing the tension over and over again, and King’s carefully built series of foreshadowings and signals, originally meant to clue you into the story’s destination so you could anticipate its dreadful approach… it all becomes plodding reminders of the story’s rote predictability. Instead of inevitable, it feels screenwritten.

I say it was produced for the horror because those are the only parts in which the movie even kind of works. It’s a lower level than what King is doing in the book; but it’s effective, nonetheless, just as that sequence in Don’t Go in the House was crudely but powerfully effective despite the rest of the film around it.

Here what works is everything to do with Gage at the end. First the scene where he’s killed by the truck, every parent’s nightmare and effectively filmed. But it’s once he comes back that the movie really shines (the only other time that it does)–through a combination of filming trickery and good old fashioned voice-over, they manage to cobble together a performance using a real small child hunting and killing the people who loved him. It’s shocking and creepy in the best way. And when Louis is forced to kill him again, they know to make it easy for him, far too easy.

In that moment the movie’s dead heart begins to beat, and we feel the immense weight of guilt, terror, disgust, love, and terrible obligation that brought Louis to this point and through it to madness on the other side.

It’s not a long moment. But it’s good while it lasts.