Or a short piece on why you shouldn’t watch this film alone.
Pet Semetary is one of the defining examples of source material rearing up into (after)life when transitioning from the curled up, well thumbed pages in your hand to the silver screen. Although followed by a less accomplished sequel in 1992, this film is chock full of the kind of images that will seep into your mind the next time you enter a dark room.
Our journey into this story of death, loss, resurrection and… death again, opens ominously. The camera tracks languidly over a cemetery (or semetary, as we are informed by the misspelled, hand made sign) for children’s much loved pets. Left behind collars sway in the breeze, hung from crudely erected markers and each stone carries with it messages of love from the child owners. At this point, you may be forgiven for nudging your neighbour and hissing “there ain’t nothing scarier than a graveyard montage respite with children’s grieving voice overs and a child choir!”. And there is nothing.scarier… Well, until we get moving through the film and find out that those angelic mournful voices are really the least of potential nightmare fuel.
The film follows Louis Creed, his highly strung wife Rachel and their two young children Ellie and Gage. Louis, a GP, and the family have moved to Maine (that mainstay location of King narratives) in order for him to accept a post at the local high school. Their nice house comes with two nice potential threats, the busy road, separating the Creed residence from that of their closest neighbour, Jud Crandall (an excellent and understated play by Fred Gwynne, yes, that Fred Gwynne) which is frequently used by enormous and speedy trucks and the eerily stone marked path that leads to the eponymous Pet Semetary.
While Ellie is the archetypical ‘annoying young child’ (although allegedly based partially on King’s own daughter… Sorry, Steve) in her screeching and precocious questioning, Gage is all blue eyes, blond hair and giggles, saved from being squished into Gage-jam (or child chutney, if you will) by a hurtling truck in the first ten minutes by none other than HERMAN MUNSTER. Yes, I know, awesome.
Jud takes the family to the Pet Semetary, as you do, and assures little Ellie Creed that it is not a scary place (Psssh, behave!) and merely a place where the dead can still speak, by way of their gravestones. This sentiment is reiterated by the ghost of Victor Pascow, a victim of a road traffic accident, who ominously informs Louis “This is the place where the dead talk, do not, however much you feel you have to, go on to the place where the dead talk”.
Pet Semetary does indeed contain an Indian burial ground, a now derided horror trope, but given that this film was made before ‘Indian burial ground’ became a cliche, it can be excused for this. Likewise the threatening music when Louis first spots the path leading to the cemetery. When watching the film, it is alarmingly easy to forget how we now make fun of these conventions and remember how damn scary they can be.
For me, the piece de resistance of terror in this film is the presence of Rachel’s sister Zelda, whose body is twisted and ravaged by spinal meningitis. The parts where Zelda appears, dying, dead or as an apparition are truly terrifying. The noises, voice and creeping terror of these scenes fuel nightmares for weeks, if not months. You know that feeling when you are sitting in a dark room by yourself, something moves out the corner of your eye and you really, realllllly don’t want to look at it? That.
Apparently a great deal of the story is based on real events from Stephen King’s life, and as is typical of Stephen King tales, the heart of the horror is rooted in the plausible. Interview’s with King detail the time he caught his toddler son just before he was made into brat splat (sorry… kiddie custard?) by a truck when he too lived near a busy highway. Also, Ellie’s rant about the possibility of her beloved cat Church being killed in the road is taken verbatim from a similar conversation King had with his daughter.
A Father finds a way to resurrect his daughters much loved cat and spare his little girl’s heartache. As sceptical as Louis is that it will actually work, wouldn’t you toy with the idea of doing the same? However the overarching message of the film is if a man who is wearing his brain sans it’s skull cover tells you not to do something, do try to take his plea on board!