**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist
screenplay by Stephen King, based on his novel
directed by Mary Lambert
"Machado would have traded every word, every poem, every verse he ever wrote for one more hour with his beloved. And that is because when it comes to grief, the normal rules of exchange do not apply, because grief transcends value. A man would give entire nations to lift grief off his heart, and yet you cannot buy anything with grief. Because grief is worthless."
-Jefe (Rubén Blades), The Counselor
by Bill Chambers A VICE UK review of the recent Happy Death Day 2U came in for a shellacking on social media because of a click-baity tweet suggesting it was the "first" slasher movie about grief, a claim that only demonstrated a lack of expertise while making a sacrificial lamb of Happy Death Day 2U (which scarcely benefited from the bad-faith attention). Neither the headline nor the subheader of the review itself is as boldly specious, but there in the body of the piece is this: "Christopher Landon's latest, Happy Death Day 2U[,] might be the first slasher that actually centers on dealing with grief." (The headline--"'Happy Death Day 2U' Is More About Grief Than Horror"--nevertheless bothers me, too, incidentally: grief is horror.) So often accused of cynicism because they're formulated to maximize a body count, slashers are engineered to comment on the capricious nature of existence, and the best ones seize on this to acknowledge the toll of loss on the survivors (Black Christmas (1974), Rob Zombie's Halloween II)--while even the most mediocre ones tend to have a killer motivated by a deep and incurable sorrow (see: The Toolbox Murders (1978), the first Friday the 13th).
That's not to say that adolescent viewers don't thrill to the blood and tits or take dark pleasure in the ritualized murders of people who could be their peers, but those who carry these films into adulthood with them cherish the pathos at their core. They evolve into hang-out movies with a funereal bent, facilitating a vicarious response to the tragedies one accumulates in life. They're about endless death; grief would be a difficult subject to avoid! If we sometimes find ourselves imposing it on the text, well, that still says something significant about the genre. Even giving the writer of that review, George Griffiths, the benefit of the doubt by making "actually centers on" the crux of his argument, 1989's Pet Sematary decisively refutes it. Indeed, what makes Pet Sematary unique among slashers is that grief itself is the villain. Once the hero learns of a cursed place that can resurrect the dead, grief does nothing less than taunt him.
Now comes the semantic debate about the term "slasher," I suppose, but when a movie's players queue up to meet untimely ends, sometimes at the edge of a surgical blade, it' s a slasher by any other name. Granted, Pet Sematary is short on that sense of commiseration I spoke of, and this is doubly true of Stephen King's novel, the utter nihilism of which came as a shock to its own author, who tried to, well, bury it, until contractual obligations forced his hand. King had written it to exorcise his fears of being unable to keep his children out of harm's way, but all he really did is sharpen them to high-definition. Child death following animal death is a lot to unload on the human psyche, and if you're masochistic enough to be revisiting the material, whether in book or movie form, you're going into it with a feeling of low-key dread that never abates.
The film, though (that is to say, the 1989 film, directed by music-video auteur Mary Lambert), doesn't leave the grungy psychic residue the book does, in spite of having been adapted by King himself. Or maybe because it was adapted by King himself, whose film and TV career has largely proved that screenwriting and prose are different disciplines. King inevitably streamlines the material, and some of his alterations are savvy in principle but have their own unforeseen side effects. When I finally got around to reading Pet Sematary a few years ago, I found King the screenwriter's decision to jettison Norma Crandall from the narrative to be a wise one: her husband, Jud, is more intriguing as a mischievous loner. That being said, because King gives Norma's conversation-spurring death to the Creeds' new housekeeper (Susan Blommaert), Creed matriarch Rachel's no-show at the funeral looks even wimpier than when she demurred from paying her last respects to a maternal figure and elderly neighbour with whom she'd grown quite close. I'm not sure the character ever recovers, especially since, as embodied by Denise Crosby, she seems to have few winning qualities besides, and remembers laughing hysterically after her meningitis-afflicted sister Zelda choked to death while Rachel was feeding her. Ah, Zelda--now there's something that should have been left on the page. King is not great with disability (although the hero of his Silver Bullet, tearin' shit up in a gas-powered wheelchair, buys him a lot of credit with me), but at least when you read about one of his freaks of nature it's usually through the abstraction of another character's perspective. On screen, subjectivity vanishes, and a Zelda, or a Moonlight Man from Gerald's Game, becomes an ableist sideshow. To make matters worse, to maximize her uncanniness a man (actor Andrew Hubatsek) played Zelda, adding a soupçon of transphobia to an already fetid stew.
Then there's the character of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), an accident victim who tries to help the protagonists from the Great Beyond in gratitude for Dr. Louis Creed's alleged efforts to save his life--which are so truncated in the film (and apparently in the current remake) that Pascow's motives become inscrutable, if not suspect. Indeed, he sort of leads Rachel to her doom, though in her Pet Sematary audio commentary Lambert says she sees him as the "good" angel to Jud's "bad." (Why are they both angels?) Mostly, he feels like a supernatural hat on a supernatural hat. As with Zelda, King probably clung to this rhetorical device of an all-seeing ghost for its visceral qualities. (Pascow's a rotting corpse with an exposed brain.) Not all his literary conceits are so fortunate, but one that he drops--the constant quoting of "Hey ho, let's go!" from The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" as Louis really begins to lose it--Lambert fascinatingly picked up, hiring The Ramones, who were friends of hers (allegedly vouching for Lambert in the eyes of King, who had director-approval and was a big fan of the band), to write and perform the movie's closing theme, preserving their role as the patron saints of Pet Sematary. Instantly iconic in that Ramones way, the song's underlying genius is that it identifies with the deceased. While most of the lyrics are of the "Monster Mash," Halloween-jam variety ("Ancient goblins and warlords/come out of the ground, not making a sound"), the chorus--"I don't want to be buried/in a pet sematary/I don't want to live my life/again"--can keep you up at night with the starkness of its pessimism. Exactly like King's book. The Ramones get Pet Sematary.
Lambert, who replaced George Romero (no stranger to the undead, he) after a production delay, gets Pet Sematary, too. She made the Ramones connection. She insisted on casting Fred Gwynne as Jud in what is merely a perfect marriage of actor and role, and her faith that toddler Miko Hughes would have some savant-like ability to play out the arc of young, doomed, and eventually demonic Gage Creed was entirely justified. She captures the autumnal chill that seeps out of the pages of the novel and into the reader's skin. Alas, Lambert's up against not just a notoriously tin-eared screenwriter who's fearful, nay, contemptuous of his own material, but also the crass commercialism of a studio regime that put out a Friday the 13th sequel every year and changed the ending of Fatal Attraction to turn Glenn Close into a garden-variety psychopath. And, I think, she's up against her own inexperience (she'd made only one feature before this, the bizarre, kinky Siesta)--she doesn't have the tools to rescue a truly wretched lead performance from itself, nor the film from it. The mind's-eye vision of Louis Creed does resemble actor Dale Midkiff, to be fair; if this were one of Lambert's wordless music videos, his generic-everyman aesthetics would more than suffice. Unfortunately, Midkiff has to talk, and an actor with the emotional range of celery is tasked with portraying the many shades of fatherhood and matrimony, from joy to bemusement to, of course, aching despair.
I struggle to imagine The Ramones playing in Midkiff's head during the homestretch like the book's hero. There's no rock-'n'-roll in him, certainly no punk. Midkiff's line-readings are impossibly synthetic, practically disembodied. On those rare occasions he turns up the volume, like when he transforms tossing-and-turning into an Olympic sport, it's bewildering. (Lambert, again in her yak-track, notes that this scene, of all scenes, nearly spelled curtains for Midkiff.) One of the dominant themes of the book--introduced in its opening lines, as Walter Chaw noted in his review of Pet Sematary 2019--is that Louis "never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened" the instant he met Jud. Midkiff is either uninterested in or incapable of playing this card, and in fact his stiff, stilted manner effectively rebuffs Gwynne's paternal overtures, introducing a sour note into this adaptation as Jud is denied a reciprocal surrogate son. Still, their scenes together are the movie's best. Crosby, who did decent work in 48Hrs. and Miracle Mile, seems to be doing what women have done since time immemorial, i.e., lowering herself to a man's standards to minimize his embarrassment, whereas Gwynne neutralizes all his co-stars' shortcomings with his generosity of spirit. Drawing on hand-rolled cigarettes in blue overalls (a sartorial echo of little Gage's yellow ones, yoking the two in an unspoken way as only cinema could), pouring his buttery baritone on King's corn pone dialogue in a pitch-perfect Maine accent, Gwynne is Jud incarnate, though this isn't glorified cosplay. The part fit him like a glove--or, as he told Lambert, like a pair of overalls, possibly because he identified with Jud's deceptive intelligence as a man of letters better known to the world as Herman Munster. Too, they share a folksy charm of the sort that got Gwynne hired as an Arby's pitchman in the mid-'80s.
But Gwynne was a consummate performer, and there's a regionality to the character that rings true, sometimes painfully so, regardless of whether it had any personal resonance for Gwynne. I love that Louis is always trailing behind Jud on their perilous hike to the burial ground, barely able to keep pace with that famous New England gait of the older man. I love the slight stoop of his head, as if the weight of the community's sordid past is draped across his neck like an animal carcass. I love his ghoulishness--you see it in a lot of lifelong residents of a place who enjoy the novelty of exploring metaphysical planes. Mostly, however, I love Gwynne's majestic face, those soulful baby blues and those deep-groove smile lines; when Lambert cuts to a closeup of anyone else, it's as though she's working around some flaw, but when she cuts to a closeup of Gwynne, it's to drink in his integrity and gravitas. (He's the subject of her lone Spielbergian push-in.) While I used to believe that Midkiff was a good reason to remake Pet Sematary, I've come around to the idea that Gwynne was a better reason to leave it alone. There's a moment that is excerpted and discussed in one of the Pet Sematary Blu-ray's special features--the tragic irony of Louis having to murder his own son after wishing him back to life--that is very powerful in isolation (even Midkiff nails it), yet the reductiveness of King's script and the cumulative weightlessness of Midkiff's characterization trivialize this bleak crescendo in context. Instead, it's the premature loss of Gwynne that inspires the cathartic response one seeks, perhaps unfairly, from a Pet Sematary movie, and its intensity is not to be underestimated.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Paramount brings the 1989 Pet Sematary to 4K UHD disc in Dolby Vision and HDR10, ostensibly in honour of the picture's 30th anniversary but also, naturally, to capitalize on the current remake's theatrical release. (At present, I'm only equipped to view the film in HDR10.) Lambert oversaw the DI of a fresh 4K scan of the original negative along with an unlikely digital recompositing of the optical effects, calling the end product a restoration in "HDR format" in a supplemental talking-head. For the standard Blu-ray included with this edition, Paramount saw fit to replace their previous HD transfer with this upgrade--minus the addition of HDR, of course. Still, whether in HDR or SDR, this remaster massively improves on what came before. Start with the 1.78:1, 2160p presentation, which immediately impresses with its tactile cemetery setting and the utter crispness of the opening titles. The transition from this virtually black-and-white sequence to a cornflower-blue sky, verdant hillsides, and the candy-red cab of an Orinco truck is suitably striking, and the image maintains its fine-tuned clarity throughout, with hair, clothing, and pet fur all gaining textural interest. Though whites suddenly gleam, HDR highlights are few and far between--but there's one at the 30:39 mark, when Jud lights a cigarette at the end of a long day, that is among the most effective I've encountered, as it transforms the evening sun into a brilliant pinhole of orange light against a purple sky. I've seen a lot of sunsets in movies; now I've felt one. Night scenes offer deeper blacks at a broader range (Lambert says the shadows are softer now, as intended), while the mild show of grain testifies to the OCN source rather than noise-reduction this time around. The accompanying BD is, for what it's worth, considerably brighter than the 4K version during exterior daylight scenes. I'm surprised that more wasn't done to equalize the light levels between the two, but maybe the exposure was dialled back to keep the colours from becoming overwhelmingly bright and harsh in HDR. As it stands, the Blu-ray is comparatively oversaturated and lacks the moodiness that Pet Sematary has in UHD, despite looking very good in its own right.
Dating back to 2000, the film's tasteful 5.1 remix is offered in DTS-HD Master Audio. A decent low end is reserved for the trucks and there are some standout panning effects, both left-to-right and front-to-back, involving same. The rear soundstage is consistently busy with ambience or pieces of Elliot Goldenthal's score. For all that, I was most impressed by the resonance of Gwynne's voice. (The Ramones' title track doesn't sound too shabby, either.) I've already mentioned Lambert's yakker, recorded in 2012, as well as her interview segment, "Pet Sematary: Revisitation" (10 mins.); each is worth a listen. The 4K platter additionally contains "Pet Sematary: Fear and Remembrance" (7 mins.), in which the makers of Pet Sematary 2019 pay tribute to Lambert's predecessor. It's a puff piece but I enjoyed Amy Seimetz's tale of erecting a pet cemetery in her family's backyard. She seems to have gone through an alarming number of animals over the course of her childhood. And here's something you haven't seen in a while: still galleries! Specifically, a step-frame gallery of Andrea Dietrich's storyboards for the film--complete with a video introduction from Lambert--and another labelled "Marketing" that features promotional artwork curiously narrowed to Pet Sematary's VHS release. I wish these were bigger on the screen although they're technically in 4K, since they're integrated with the main menu.
These extras resurface on the Blu-ray Disc, where they join a trio of Laurent Bouzereau featurettes dating back to the 2006 DVD. "Stephen King's Pet Sematary: Stephen King Territory" (13 mins., 480p) finds King--in video shot on set in the manner of Hitchcock's famous Psycho trailer--and biographer Douglas E. Winter recounting key events in the novel's gestation. Eventually the focus shifts to the movie and soundbites start flowing in from the filmmakers; although there's nothing here that will surprise fans, it's a decent primer. In "Stephen King's Pet Sematary: The Characters" (13 mins., 480p), Midkiff speculates that he booked the part based on his work in the previous year's Elvis and Me. (The thought of Midkiff as Elvis...) Lambert talks about the behavioural differences between the Berdahl twins, only one of whom, Blaze, was credited for playing Ellie Creed. Despite their burning ears the Berdahls themselves and Miko Hughes sit out this retrospective, but Gwynne appears in archival footage. He's typically erudite and of course fondly remembered by the others. Lastly, "Stephen King's Pet Sematary: Filming the Horror" (10 mins., 480p) is worth watching as a concise summary of how they did the Gage stuff, even though Lambert's anecdotes are starting to cause déjà vu by this point.
A digital copy of the film is bundled with the discs, at least in Canada.
102 minutes; R; UHD: 1.78:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 1.78:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English DVS 5.1, French DD 2.0 (Stereo), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono), Portuguese DD 2.0 (Mono); BD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English DD 5.1, French DD 2.0 (Stereo), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono), Portuguese DD 2.0 (Mono), Italian DD 2.0 (Mono), German DD 2.0 (Mono), Japanese DD 2.0 (Mono); UHD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles; BD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free; Paramount