Pet Sematary (1989)Overview -
Behind a young family's home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
In the years since its release, and after God-only-knows how many viewings at home, 'Pet Sematary' seems to have lost a bit of its impact and scare factor. That doesn't necessarily mean it has lost any of its entertainment value or nostalgia. The movie still ranks as one of the better adaptations of Stephen King's literary works (though not nearly as good as 'Shawshank,' 'Misery,' or 'The Shining'). And I can still sit through it, enjoying every minute of its creepy tale about an ancient Indian burial ground. It holds up rather nicely for a twenty-three year old flick, while the performance of then five-year-old Miko Hughes as Gage remains shockingly impressive. In fact, I think the image of the toddler holding a scalpel, with a sinister smile on his face, is reason enough for fans to keep coming back.
What I'm actually taking issue with is Mary Lambert's workmanlike direction, something I started to take more notice of some time ago when some of the film's nostalgia also started to wane. The years leading up to this production, she had garnered respectable attention because of her work on several memorable music videos, particularly those with Madonna, such as "Like a Prayer" and "La Isla Bonita." Between that MTV video era and her controversial feature-length debut but now largely forgotten erotic drama 'Siesta' with Ellen Barkin and Jodie Foster, Lambert somehow misplaced that stylish visual creativity and went with a more straightforward approach in 'Pet Sematary.' To be sure, the film does have pockets of creepy inventiveness — again, those scenes with zombified-evil Gage and his toy scalpel — but a large portion of this dark fairytale is also deadened by ghostly apparitions that only burden the narrative — how convenient Pascow (Brad Greenquist) must go away when his Jiminy Cricket guidance is needed most.
Lambert's rather dull but mostly efficient directing certainly doesn't make for a bad movie. Once again, the little killer toddler telling his father in a menacing voice that he wants to play with him sends some chills up my spine. The scenes with the malevolent Gage remain hauntingly effective and entertaining as ever. The story of a close-knit family dealing with grief and the loss of a child is the other aspect of the film which still works. Stephen King wrote the screenplay and ensured this emotional center of his novel would be a significant feature of the adaptation. Of the other scripts he personally wrote, I would argue this to be his best, with 'Creepshow' following close behind and the worst being 'Sleepwalkers.' And of course, the actors did a terrific job in bringing it all to life.
Starting with the death of the family pet, Church, we see the slow decline of Dr. Louise Creed (Dale Midkiff), from intelligent caring father to an obsessively deranged individual. So, while the film does what it must at generating a creepy atmosphere and scaring audiences, we also get this intriguing aspect to the plot about confronting death and how such unfortunate tragedies can seriously alter a person. It's a horrible nightmare, worse than the creatures that return from the sour burial ground. A more shocking and better performance comes from the wonderful Fred Gwynne as the gravely somber, occasionally cheerful neighbor Jud. It's a terrifically unexpected turn for the actor best remembered as Herman Munster of the short-lived cult TV show, impressively displaying some admirable dramatic chops. Denise Crosby and Blaze Berdahl round out the small cast as mother and daughter respectively, but they don't do much beyond providing the necessary support.
Being a big Stephen King fan and loving the novel prior to the film's release, I recall thoroughly enjoying the movie at theaters, which shortly thereafter became a traditional Halloween watch in my household. The book, itself, is a personal favorite, close to my heart for playing an integral role in helping me improve my English skills when I was younger. (The Shining and Carrie also assisted me in that respect.) The original novel still delivers the goods and hasn't faded in the slightest. But sadly, the adaptation doesn't appear to be aging all that well, although it isn't any worse for wear either. I can't help but feel that Mary Lambert's approach to the material is largely responsible, a missed opportunity to demonstrate the creative mind promised by her work in the music video business. There are a few good moments of spookiness which are fun, but 'Pet Sematary' is ultimately not the fright-fest it once was.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment offers 'Stephen King's Pet Sematary' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue eco-cutout keepcase. The package comes with a lenticular slipcover and at startup, goes straight to a static, silent menu window with the usual options.
'Pet Sematary' rises from the old Indian burial ground with what appears to be the same master used for the Special Collector's Edition DVD. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode shows some fairly good detailing around the surrounding foliage and on clothing with clean visible lines in the background. Daylight exteriors tend to look best, but the video does waver noticeably, almost to the extent of being a distraction. Resolution dips significantly with several blurry sequences, and flesh tones look pale and flushed for a majority of the time.
Presented in a 1.78:1 picture frame, the image also displays a boosted contrast level. Although whites are stable and there's no detectable clipping, the slight boost causes a bit of ringing around the edges of certain scenes and exaggerates the film's natural grain structure, making it thicker and clumpier than normal. Blacks are decently strong and true for the most part, but some spots in the shadows show a bit of crush with minor low-level noise. Primaries are accurately rendered most of the time, but they're not very consistent and the rest of the palette seems pretty dull.
It's a watchable presentation of a Stephen King favorite but not all that satisfying.
In the audio department, the supernatural horror flick fares a bit better with an entertaining DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that has its moments of generating a frightful atmosphere. The surround speakers are not always active, which is sometimes noticeable during the many outdoor sequences, but they are nicely employed at just the right moments to give listeners the creeps. Most notably when little Gage returns and pays Jud a visit, delivering discrete effects, like the patter of tiny footsteps running across the room, with smooth panning and directionality.
In the front soundstage, the same effect is used to broaden the soundfield and create a wide sense of space. Movement between the three channels is rather fluid and convincing, especially when the large trucks come charging through the small country road. Dynamic range maintains excellent clarity and sharp definition during these very loud segments, even though the upper levels are never pushed very far. Low bass is surprisingly responsive and healthy, providing an appreciable punch to the action. Through all this, dialogue reproduction remains clear and intelligible in the center, making for an amusing lossless listen.
Same set of features are recycled over from the Special Collector's Edition DVD.
- Audio Commentary — Director Mary Lambert provides a decent if only mildly stimulating discussion where she explains her involvement and interest in the horror genre. She also offers good anecdotes and technical details on the production, such as adapting the novel, the cast and creative motivations. Of greater interest are her thoughts on the plot's underlying themes and shooting certain scenes.
- Stephen King Territory (SD, 13 min) — Arguably the best piece of the package, the short collection of interviews with the famed author, critic, and biographer Douglas E. Winter and producer Richard P. Rubinstein discusses the inspiration behind the original novel.
- The Characters (SD, 13 min) — Actors Dale Midkiff and Brad Greenquist, along with the director, talk about the characters as they relate to the novel, bringing them to life on the screen and the movie's legacy.
- Filming the Horror (SD, 10 min) — More interviews with cast & crew on shooting the scarier aspects, the make-up effects and the performances in general in scenes involving little Miko Hughes.
Better appreciated as a creative music video director, Mary Lambert made her second full-length feature with 'Stephen King's Pet Sematary,' a creepy tale of bringing back the dead thanks to an ancient Indian burial ground. In book form, King's darkly frightening fairytale remains scarily effective, but the film adaptation is starting to lose some of its steam outside of nostalgia and is best enjoyed for its study of family grief as well as for the the performances. The Blu-ray appears to be a recycle of the 2006 DVD master, and it doesn't strike me as a substantial improvement. The lossless audio is stronger, and the supplements are also carried over from the Special Collector's Edition, making this package one for the fans.
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