When Movies Don’t Change, But You Do: Pet Sematary (1989) [SPOILERS]

On April 21st, 1989, at this then-newly-upgraded multiplex in–

Rainbow Cinemas

–I watched director Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary twice on its opening weekend.

Not having read the book yet, I was thoroughly chilled and thrilled by the film. As a Horror fan who’d grown weary of the post-Freddy Krueger, jokey Horror trend, I loved the fact that this was a straightforward Horror picture. And that it wasn’t pulling any punches.

Only one part of the movie bothered me: At the end of the film, when the murderous, re-animated toddler casually remarks “no fair” in response to his father having just plunged a syringe needle of poison into his little neck.

What the hell was that doing there?

Talk about a jarring insertion of an awkward laugh-line, completely at odds with the grim, suspenseful, and, ultimately, tragic tone of the scene. Did some nervous studio exec order that line looped in during post-production for a bit of comic relief, or did we have Stephen King’s screenplay to blame?

I later discovered the line was King’s.

Negative Pet Sematary script excerpt

Reading that section of the script, I thought that moment read better on the page. It was less the line itself that irritated me than its nonchalant presentation in the finished film).

Viewing Pet Sematary at the age of nineteen, that’s what stood out for me. My only qualm with it. A throwaway line of dialogue. The darker aspect of the film, involving the loss of a child to senseless tragedy and how the parents choose to cope in the aftermath, that was of lesser concern to me.

For years, I could watch the movie and view the sequence depicting the toddler’s death with a certain analytical detachment. Shocking and tragic, certainly, with nothing fun or entertaining about it. But it was just a functional plot component, necessary to get us on to the spooky supernatural stuff, which, come on, that’s what brought us into the theater in the first place.

Seven years ago, I became a father. Having spent much of my life watching all sorts of movies, my skin was pretty thick. It took a lot for a movie to shock and disturb me. I never imagined I’d become one of those parents who get squeamish at films depicting violence, or threats of violence, against young children, i.e. Jaws, Assault On Precinct 13, Poltergeist, Jaws 2, The Omen, Prophecy, Humanoids From The Deep, etc.

And, if I’m to be completely honest, regarding the above-mentioned films, I’m not all that squeamish. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen these movies too many times and, as a result, they’re unable to hit me on an emotional, gut level.

But…since sometime after 2012…as one of those parents…when it comes to Pet Sematary, I just haven’t been able to get through it. The anguish in the story is just too overwhelming.

What may have seemed overwrought and slightly campy when I was nineteen (the hysterical accusations and violent behavior of the father-in-law/grandfather at Gage’s funeral, for example) now, thirty years later, just puts a knot in my stomach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived long enough to have witnessed real people vent their grief in similar ways after losing a child or grandchild.

When I see these raw emotions on display in Pet Sematary, I no longer see plot components for a spooky story. I see unthinkably grim possibilities. It always ends up being too much for me take and I wind up shutting the movie off.

I bought the Pet Sematary DVD years ago, but it’s spent much of that time gathering dust in a storage bin I keep in my basement.

Pet Sematary 1989 DVD collageWM
Just one of a few DVDs I’ve either upgraded or grown tired of.

It’s by no means what I’d call a bad movie. It’s simply too effective at what it sets out to do.

The 1989 adaptation has its merits. Fred Gwynne’s performance is stunning. The score and the cinematography succeed in capturing an atmosphere that’s wonderfully eerie and imaginative. The Zelda sequences never cease to unnerve me.

Needless to say, I won’t be checking out the remake opening wide in theaters this weekend.

Oddly enough, Pet Sematary was not only my late mother’s favorite favorite Stephen King novels, but the 1989 adaptation was one of her favorite movies. I remember buying it for her on VHS for Christmas back in the mid-Nineties. She told me it was one of those movies she tended to watch on a frequent basis. Make of that what you will.