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Blu-ray Review: Pet Sematary (1989)

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Throughout most of that glorious decade most people refer to as the ’80s, the world of cinema was besieged by adaptations of Stephen King novels and short stories that were usually questionable at best. Nevertheless, even the worst horror film offering spawned from the pages of King’s scribbling somehow managed to make a buck or two at the box office or in the still-growing home video market — a lucrative factoid that was probably more attributable to the cursorily of tweens seeking a cheap thrill or horny teens hoping to cop a feel of someone’s privates than anything else. It certainly wasn’t about quality, that’s for sure — and the 1989 horror flick Pet Sematary proves my point admirably.

We begin with the arrival of what could possibly be the world’s most oblivious parents ever into a typical Stephen King setting: a nice slice of rural purgatory that is so far removed from any chance of anything even resembling salvation, that you instantly wish death upon these poor souls. Well, that’s just what happens here, but let’s get the characters out of the way first, shall we? There’s Louis (future Time Trax star Dale Midkiff), the MD with the perfect head of always-perfect late ’80s hair; his wife, (Denise Crosby, better known as Tasha Yar in some circles), who has positively abysmal taste in clothes, and who also has awful hair; and his two children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes).

Finally, there’s the obligatory old creepy man in this tale. Here, he is named Jud, and he is portrayed by a withered Fred Gwynne, who appears to be channeling not only his inner Leslie Nielsen the whole time, but who also took accent lessons from that guy who used to narrate those old Pepperidge Farm commercials.

So, anyway, the happy Nuclear family moves in with their cat — only to have all that happiness dissipate as soon as they open the doors of their late-model station wagon. The cat dies when Louis’ wife and kids go to visit his in-laws, which motivates Jed to take Louis on a mountain-climbing trek to an ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Naturally, the cat comes back as a zombie kitty with a very vicious mean streak (had the cat been Siamese, however, no one would have probably noticed!), and things only go from bad to worse as the clueless Louis and his equally oblivious wife lose an even bigger part of their family life: the death of their young son (who names their kid Gage, anyway?), which results in Louis once again being an idiot — despite the disastrous results he got with the resurrected feline.

Brad Greenquist plays a ghostly, brain-dripping sage whom Louis ignores, and Stephen King makes a cameo as a priest in this unintentionally hilarious horror film that probably emerged as weak as it is due to two very dangerous factors: child actors (ironically, the younger of the two kid stars was the only one who went on to do anything) and a novice director (Mary Lambert, who started her career with a Razzie-nominated debut, the aptly-titled Siesta, and who recently brought us the SyFy Channel turkey, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid!) who apparently didn’t know a single thing about building suspense or pushing her actors to do as much as act their way out of a paper bag.

Strangely enough, both George A. Romero and Tom Savini were offered the chance to direct before Lambert was chosen. Oh, well, despite being a pretty bad film made by a clearly inefficient director, the movie still managed to be a hit — making more than five times its budget, and spawning a sequel.

I regret seeing many horror movies when they first came out. This isn’t one of them. In fact, I remember deliberately avoiding Pet Sematary when it came out in ’89 (I was in eighth grade at the time) because it looked awful to my already-selective taste in film; preferring to instead enjoy the Fangoria article about it, which — I have to say — is still more entertaining than the final outcome to this day. I also vividly recall the other kids singing the film’s closing titular tune by The Ramones — who also donated their track “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” to the film’s soundtrack. Regrettably, the latter is the only good thing about the entire movie, as even the title track fails to escalate to that so-bad-it’s-good quality Alice Cooper’s “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)” reached three years before in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

Pet Sematary hits Blu-ray in a 1080p transfer that gives and takes from its audience much in the same way the forces of death do so to the characters in the movie itself. At times, this is a pretty darn good presentation, with some striking colors, detail and contrast. During other moments, however, those three elements are about as deep as the performances of the movie’s child actors; one scene in particular is so bad, that you almost can’t tell where Midkiff’s nose ends and his cheek begins. Not a great video transfer overall, kids, but at least the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack is a step up — doing a finer job of instilling a sense of dread than director Lambert manages to do.

Speaking of Mary Lambert, she lends her voice and tawdry memories of making this dud for an audio commentary, which is one of four bonus materials ported over from the old SD-DVD Special Edition for this Blu-ray issue. Lambert and or Stephen King are also on-hand for the retrospective featurettes “The Characters” (which also features interviews with select cast members), “Stephen King Territory,” and “Filming the Horror.” The grooviest part of this HD release is a slipcase containing some lenticular 3D artwork of the film’s creepy kitty. Of course, that hardly warrants a purchase in my book. If you’re a fan of the film, though, I’d recommend it.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
  • Stan

    Great review Luigi Bastardo! I did like Fred Gwynne in the film although his performance hardly redeems the overall experience.

    “Speaking of Mary Lambert, she lends her voice and tawdry memories of making this dud for an audio commentary” LOL!