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1989 - 103m.

During the 80’s it seemed you couldn’t turn around without bumping into the latest film based on the writing of Stephen King. Being America’s most popular author at the time, King could basically scrawl his name on a napkin and a producer somewhere would find a way to make it into a movie or mini-series.

Based on his 1983 novel, Pet Sematary benefits somewhat from having King actually write the screenplay as the story within sticks fairly close to the book. The only real drawback is that, due to the condensed storytelling time, it doesn’t have as much an impact – but it’s certainly more effective than the sequel that would follow three years later that, not only, stripped the premise of any form of guilt but also took the series in a more campy direction. They’re pretty opposite each other which is a little odd considering they were both directed by the same person.

The story here, a slight variation on the classic story “The Monkey’s Paw”, introduces us to the Creed family: Louis (Dale Midkiff), Rachel (Denise Crosby), and their two young children. They’ve just moved into a country house near a small town, which is beside a highway where semi-trucks are constantly speeding by, in order for Louis to take a job as a college doctor. They soon meet their elderly neighbor across the way, the imposing yet kind Jud (Fred Gwynne) who introduces them to a pet cemetery tucked away behind their house. Little do the Creeds realize the cemetery is also close to an ancient Native burial ground with the power to bring the dead back to life.

It’s a power Louis will soon learn about first-hand when their daughter’s beloved cat is killed and he brings it back. Of course, it’s not the same feline he buried and things soon snowball from there as we head to a finale that packs in a fair number of creeps, and some bloody moments, after their toddler son Gage returns from the grave with one Hell of a mean streak not long after being hit by a truck.

“Sometimes dead is better...” – this line, uttered by Gwynne’s Jud, pretty much sums up Pet Semetery. It’s a flick that tells us you shouldn’t mess with nature (or fate, for that matter) and even though things do get pretty standard as horror movies go in the last third, King’s screenplay does have a few decent moments where Louis questions his decisions. It’s a theme that I would’ve liked explored better, and I wish that Lambert didn’t rely on lots of scare moments involving the cat, but what’s on display here is still a pretty entertaining time.

In the lead, Midkiff doesn’t do too badly but I found myself unsure of the performance turned in by Crosby as I found her more annoying than anything. As for Gwynne, having only really seen him hamming it up as Frankenstein-like matriarch Herman on the 60’s sitcom, “The Munsters”, it was almost strange seeing him play it straight here and his steady turn as Jud made me take him more seriously as an actor.

This marked the directorial debut for Lambert, a veteran of music videos at the time, and she generally handles things fine here. Which, again, makes me wonder what they were thinking with the sequel. She hasn’t really made much memorable since making a lot of television movies as well as the third Urban Legend movie and, most recently, the SyFy/Asylum creature feature Mega Python vs. Gatoroid which is mostly notable for starring former 80’s teen pop sensations Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.

As far as movies based on the works of King, Pet Sematary sits firmly in the middle. It’s not a disaster on the level of Dreamcatcher, or a triumph like Frank Darabont’s recent The Mist, but it’s still an enjoyable ride with enough of the creepiness and bloodshed you’d want. If you liked the book, you won’t be overly disappointed and should get an agreeable 103 minutes out of it. (Chris Hartley, 1/15/12)

Directed By: Mary Lambert.
Written By: Stephen King.

Starring: Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Brad Greenquist.