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Feature


Louis (Dale Midkiff) and Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) move into a new home in a small New England town with their children Ellie (Blaze and Beau Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes). Upon arriving they meet their charming new neighbour, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), and realize their house borders an extremely busy road, teeming with speeding truckers separates their houses. Jud explains that the careless drivers regularly kill local pets and warns them to keep their cat Church at bay. One night, while his family is away, Louis discovers Church has, indeed, been hit by a truck and fears Ellie won’t be able to handle the shock. Jud hesitantly leads Louis to an ancient Micmac Indian burial ground beyond the neighbourhood’s pet cemetery and instructs him to bury Church’s remains. The next morning, Church has seemingly returned from the dead, but celebrations are cut short when the once friendly cat begins behaving erratically.

Pet Sematary
Pet Sematary doesn’t compare to something like Brian DePalma’s Carrie, but it often feels like one of best representations of writer Stephen King’s specific storytelling style. It is unique among King adaptations because it’s constantly both massively stupid and teeth-itchingly melodramatic, but still manages to connect with the audience’s deepest set phobias at every turn. Most of the greatest King films work because they largely reframe his basic ideas in more evenhanded terms. Even the bad movies based on his work tend to cut the episodic nature of his mammoth novels for the sake of time. One only need see any of the miniseries adaptations to understand how badly his books translate to even an elongated medium (including the best of them, Salem’s Lot, which is intermittently boring). Music video director turned blockbuster filmmaker Mary Lambert remains mostly true to King’s episodic, heavy-handed, utterly trashy screenplay (one of only two times he adapted his own book for the big screen). This should’ve been a problem, but is, in the end, the thing that really sets Pet Sematary apart from a sea of questionable King adaptations. The proof of a lack of problem is that it’s hard to remember the film’s scattershot plotting, yet very easy to remember the film’s most unneeded subplot – that of Rachel’s dead, spinal meningitis suffering sister Zelda. Zelda has absolutely zero bearing on the story and even fractures Lambert’s momentum, but aside from perhaps Gage clipping Jud’s Achilles tendon, her scenes remain among the film’s most indelible (though I find the impact has dulled exponentially over the years). The line was, however, apparently drawn at including an entirely superfluous Wendigo creature. I personally would’ve welcomed the addition of more bizarre chaos in the mix – imagine a Wendigo vs. zombie kid climax.

The film’s nasty side, which was very unpopular among critics and parent groups when the film was released, is also incredibly important to achieving King’s unique writing style. The most successful King adaptations tend to eschew the more vulgar qualities of his mind-blowingly sleazy novels (sometimes for the sake of television censorship), but Lambert doesn’t treat her zombie kid with zombie kid gloves, which was a huge point of contention when the film was first released. I’d like to point the people that found this uncouth towards the part in King’s hugely popular novel It, where the main characters participate in an underaged gangbang. Bleak endings and zombie kids seem downright quaint in comparison. Lambert tends to excel in purely technical terms and leans on her music video roots to put a modern spin (in ‘80s terms) on gothic sensibilities. The consistent sense of danger permeates the entire film and I assume this would be dulled by a lesser execution. Revisiting it I realize that Pet Sematary is probably the most viscerally frightening of all of the Stephen King movies ( Carrie, The Dead Zone, and The Mist are all mostly terrifying for their scenes of emotional violence). Lambert achieves some occasional atmospheric achievements throughout, but is largely dealing in punchy shocks and more fundamental, instinctual fears. I even recall thinking it was shocking that Pet Sematary got away with an R-rating during the comparatively unpermissive late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but revisiting the film I realize that the bulk of the violence is actually implied. This is a surely an additional sign that Lambert did something right.

Pet Sematary
In defense of the super-sappy treatment of the family elements (King is no stranger to sap), I get the feeling that Lambert is actually being a bit campy here. The subtext seems to state that the new town is affecting the family’s unrealistically nostalgic Americana. There’s definitely a goofy contrast set between the doe-eyed picnic/kite flying and little Gage’s untimely death, one I’d like to assume was meant as a bit of a joke. The follow-up scenes of mourning characters (most of whom we’ve never met) shouting ‘No!’ and punching each other is downright hilarious. And even if it isn’t meant to be funny, it’s still in keeping with King’s no-middle-ground sense of storytelling. The only thing that goes unequivocally wrong here is the cast. I’m not sure whose fault the nearly uniformly bad acting is. We’ve definitely seen better from Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, and plenty of other capable actors have managed to make do within the confines of King’s work, so perhaps it’s a case of Lambert letting the heavy-handed qualities get away from her. It’s also possible that she just wasn’t used to working with actors yet. She certainly didn’t know how to cast little girls. None of this applies, of course, to Fred Gwynne or Brad Greenquist, both of whom consistently sell the arch qualities of their characters. These two supporting characters also happen to represent King’s favourite type, so he tends to help matters with better, or at least more speakable, dialogue as well.

Pet Sematary

Video


This new 1080p Blu-ray actually represents the first time I’ve ever seen Pet Sematary in its intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Every other time I’ve either watched a VHS copy or seen it on television (never HD television). This transfer looks as expected, based on the age and general visual qualities of the source material. Things here look grainy and natural for 35mm film, with no obvious signs of DNR enhancement or other digital tinkering. The image is at its best during the overcast daylight hours, especially images of the title cemetery early in the film. Here, the quantity of sharp details is very impressive, the rich greens are vibrant without blooming, and the fine quality of the grain doesn’t damage the overall clarity. The grain does increase a bit in darkness and specifically during optical effects shots, where it tends to stop moving as well. The darkest night shots are dim enough that the HD enhancement doesn’t make too big of a difference. I suspect, without directly comparing anything, that this transfer features a generally lighter and higher contrast mix. This helps reveal a bit of pin-light detail in the darkness and unveil some perfectly deep blacks. The bulk of the film doesn’t feature a whole lot of vibrant colour aside from the aforementioned greens and occasional red wardrobe pieces, but the more subtle hues remain well enough separated.  The hideous, late ‘80s fashion features some ugly patterns that feature some shimmering and moiré effects and some of the sharper edges show minor edge enhancement, but otherwise compression effects are practically absent.

Audio


I’ve never actually watched Pet Sematary in anything but stereo sound, so any kind of 5.1 upgrade would probably be a surprise to me. The original material was presented in stereo surround, which was the norm at the time. Generally speaking, this new, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix follows the lead set by a mostly frontal stereo surround mix, which is really what we should expect from the material. The majority of the oomph in this mix revolves around high dynamic ranges, so there’s not a whole lot of ambience during the quieter sequences. The idea is to either make the audience jump or to freak them out with a steady build-up of noise. There’s a slightly flat quality to some of the dialogue, but mostly the softer, centered effects and vocals are clear. At worst, some of these are haphazardly tossed into the other channels without achieving the desired movement effect. The sound design occasionally mixes stylistic echo effects into the track that are meant to evoke a sense of spookiness. These don’t really get too far into the surround channels, though, and aren’t even that sharply separated through the stereo speakers. The bulk of the directional enhancement is applied to the constant threat of speeding trucks, but there are other directional tidbits throughout, including the sound of fire, off-screen nature effects (usually evil-sounding bugs), and a weird nightmare wind during the climax. Elliot Goldenthal’s musical score is brisk and loud without any noticeable high-end distortion. The stereo qualities of the track are widely spread as well. The occasional Ramones tune has never sounded better.

Pet Sematary

Extras


The extras on this Blu-ray release match those of the collector’s edition DVD, starting with a commentary from director Mary Lambert. Lambert’s track is plenty informative, but her tone is terrifyingly over-serious. She gently rambles off ridiculously humourless praise of King and her cast, and spends an awful lot of time discussing the most obvious aspects of the story’s themes. When not acting as an unneeded narrator or sharing her Hallmark card sentiments, however, she does have some good behind the scenes anecdotes to share. I also have to admit that this is a very consistent track with little in the way of blank space.

Next up is Stephen King Territory (13:00, SD), an interview with King, Lambert, critic/biographer Douglas E. Winter, producer Richard P. Rubinstein, and actors Denise Crosby, Dale Midkiff, and Brad Greenquist concerning the elements of Pet Sematary that mirrored his real life, shooting in Maine, and the book’s parallels with the traditional story of The Monkey’s Paw. The Characters (12:40, SD) features the same folks, plus Fred Gwynne and cinematographer Peter Stein, discussing the characterizations in the book and the cast’s work. Filming the Horror (10:20, SD) closes things out with a look at the process of hiring Lambert, King’s cameo, filming, sets, and other technical stuff.

Pet Sematary

Overall


Pet Sematary is still a sizable technical achievement and a visceral film, but it doesn’t live up to genuinely terrifying ‘tweenage memories. It’s often the film’s most blatant shortcomings that make it so interesting and so very Stephen King-ian, perhaps more Stephen King-ian than any other King film adaptation. This Blu-ray release meets expectations in terms of video and audio quality (which is to say they’re just fine, not outstanding), and features all the original DVD’s extras, including Mary Lambert’s informative, but sentimental commentary track.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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