"Pet Sematary" (citywide) finds Stephen King at his farthest out, never more simultaneously compelling and repelling, but there's no denying that in Mary Lambert he has a director who can go the distance and make the contradiction work. No doubt King's multitudinous fans will have flocked to the film on opening weekend, but it's going to be fascinating to see if--or how soon--backlash sets in.
There's a big difference between that which is depicted on the printed page and on the big screen, and movies--so far--haven't gotten much more gruesome or disturbing than "Pet Sematary."
The film is Americana at its most Gothic, a depiction of a normal family made vulnerable by the eternal yearning to cheat death. It cuts to the deepest human emotions, and there certainly are going to be many people who aren't going to be willing or able to take it. "Pet Sematary" is one of the most numbing mainstream American movies since "The Exorcist."
The Creeds and their new home, a warmly decorated simple Victorian in rural Maine, seem straight off the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. The father, Louis (Dale Midkiff), is a Chicago doctor who has taken a position at the nearby college. He has a devoted wife, Rachel (Denise Crosby), and the requisite two children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), still a toddler.
Their picture isn't quite magazine-perfect right from the start. Although the Creeds' house is nicely situated on a rise with a lovely lake to its back, it's awfully close to the highway, which gets a great deal of noisy and dangerous truck traffic. The Creeds' elderly neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne), who has lived his entire life in a seedy house directly across the way, tells them that the trucks have over the years exacted a terrible toll of animals, especially dogs and cats. Jud shows them a hidden, nearby burial ground, a ramshackle, slightly sinister area with homemade gravestones and crosses bearing a rickety sign reading "Pet Sematary." But what about that old Indian burial ground that lies beyond the pet cemetery?
With only one feature under her belt--and a much-maligned one at that, "Siesta"--but various commercials and key music videos behind her, Lambert goes for strong, succinct images and never stops to worry whether there's a lack of credibility or motivation.
The actors, mainly from TV and none of them possessed with a sexy, glamorous movie-star aura, couldn't be more aptly cast. As in the recent "Disorganized Crime," Gwynne is the anchoring presence as a classically dry, laconic New Englander who seems to know some terrible secret. Elliot Goldenthal has composed a helpfully ominous score, as moody as vintage Bernard Herrmann, and Peter Stein's cinematography is superbly varied, from the bright hues of a glossy magazine to the dark shadows of the charnel house. No question about it, "Pet Sematary" (rated R for extreme violence) is a handsomely produced film.
You could say facetiously the moral of the story is to avoid buying a house too close to the highway. In a very real way that is King's point, which is that all it takes is a simple misjudgment to unleash the forces of destruction.