Thank God MARY LAMBERT directed STEPHEN KING's PET SEMATARY. I don't think anybody could understand the material as well as she does. Certain parts (especially particular lines of dialogue) may come off as clunky, but her ability to blur the lines between a believable reality and an obtuse spiritual world is what makes the film so powerful (check out her earlier film SIESTA for even more evidence of this talent). Scripted by KING himself, this update of the MONKEY'S PAW was never in line to be your typical slash-and-boo show, but LAMBERT's personal touches somehow make the film's taboo busting creep-outs all the more universal.
The story centers around a young family so optimistic and unstained that they might have been plucked from a department store catalogue. DALE MIDKIFF as father Louis is a dedicated physician who is rugged yet soft as suede, and mother Rachel DENISE CROSBY has a habit of jutting her jaw-line like she's contemplating war bonds. They have 2.5 children (Smokey-blue cat "Church" being the .5). Daughter Ellie (BLAZE BERDAHL….GHOSTWRITER!) has a knack for asking all the big questions and is as equally whiney as she is psychically inclined. Our perfect family is completed by rugrat Gage MIKO HUGHES who begins the story looking like a Christmas tree ornament and ends it looking like the non-tranny version of SEED OF CHUCKY.
The cast is rounded off by what LAMBERT refers to in her DVD commentary as the "good" and "bad" angels. "Good" being BRAD GREENQUIST as the recently dead and nearly translucent Pascow, a tsk-tsking Cassandra prophet in jogging shorts. "Bad" being a scene stealing FRED GWYNN as the history-hoarding neighbor Jud, who is also the king of bad ideas and an unknowing underminer. If he is not exactly consciously "bad" he is at least toxically passive aggressive. Advice like, "Sometimes dead is better" would be a little more effective without the "Sometimes" part. A small amount of redemption is found as Jud realizes his blunder, but let his folly be a lesson to us all: "Sometimes keeping your pie-hole shut is better."
When the industrial (urban) world of metal and steal barrels through this Maine rustic mirage of safety in the form of a giant truck with RAMONES music blasting it snatches away a dream. The nightmare of not only every parent but also anyone who ever loved anyone is revealed to be always just a stone's throw away. This is a tale of profound loss and the unhealthy lengths one might go to in an effort to resist moving forward; LAMBERT creates a child's drawing of a happy family and then lights it a flame. Ironically it's rare that real death is presented in a horror film, but SEMATARY's fascination echoes a child's determination to turn over road kill with a stick just to see what's on the other side.
Many of our first encounters with the subject of death are through that of storytelling by those who walk before us in life. KING's tale provides several flashback inserts that operate the same way. LAMBERT relishes these scenes and the eerie quality she provides them with would probably have been lost on a less earnest director. Rather than concentrate on the flight or fight response that dominates most modern horror, we have here a meditation on a certain horror that is steady and unavoidable. Various characters actions may speed the process along but the inevitability of all our outcomes hangs just below the surface like a carpet of fog. It's not without its humorous moments, but any chuckles you might be able to produce are akin to whistling past the graveyard. In this world, as in our own, there are only two types of people, those who have suffered a great loss and those who WILL suffer a great loss.
Critical response to the film might have been lukewarm, but audiences gravitated in droves. If there is an innate desire to work through death issues by attending a horror film PET delivers in spades. (In fact it's sort of like dumping a loaf of bread on a pigeon that is anticipating a crumb). Although the film is far from seamless, its determination to move past assembly line murder and glare at the after effects of tragic death rings a too seldom heard bell. Ultimately horror films are naturally critic proof, alphabet grades are about as durable as autumn leaves when a film successfully touches a nerve as this one does. PET SEMATARY's success proves that empathy and character identification can trump gore and visceral thrills when given the correct amount of attention. Die hard fans of the original novel might be less convinced but as a film PET SEMATARY left an imprint all it's own.
As far as Traumafessions go, PET SEMATARY is one of the most prolific providers. Besides the several found on these pages a thread on Imdb concerning the effects of encountering the character of Rachel's sickly sister Zelda is currently up to 130 responses. There's no denying the film scared the bejesus out of many. MARY LAMBERT, whose directorial output never again reached this particular zenith, took what many would have made a glorified zombie flick and gave it a vulnerable bloody heart; a heart whose rhythmic beating reminded audiences of their own.