Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a Stephen King double bill on the big screen. First up was The Dead Zone which is an old favourite. It's Cronenberg, directing Christopher Walken in a Stephen King movie produced by Debra Hill. There's no bad there.
It's also a film where you can see where the idea comes from. In fact it's even stated out loud by Walken to Herbert Lom -
"If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, would you kill Hitler?"
It's an oldie but a goodie. Everyone has had the "would you kill baby Hitler?" conversation, it's an interesting moral dilemma.
The genius of King is the way he takes this old chestnut and then works backwards from it and weaves in, not only supernatural elements but the fabric of politics and Americana. It is substantive, character and ideas driven horror that also comments on the country in which it's set. I like to think it's why we're drawn to good horror and why so many of the people to have written horror or made horror films are, generally, intelligent, thoughtful and interesting people. That is, until the Eli Roth generation.
If I am 100% honest I was less familiar with Pet Sematary, the second film on the bill. I was aware I had seen it before but it wasn't a film that had, necessarily, stuck with me. Which, having watched it again, seems weird because there's so much in it that should stick with you. i suspect, maybe, on my first watch, I did not finish it. The first act of the film is a bit of a slog to get through.
So, first, let me list the problems with the movie. The biggest issue is the acting. Dale Midkiff, as Louis Creed, is beyond wooden. It's sort of weirdly hypnotic just how bad an actor he is. Also he has absolutely no chemistry with Denise Crosby as his wife. I am willing to throw a little of the blame for this at the feet of King's screenplay, which does little to no work establishing the family dynamic or fleshing out their backstory.
The only real problem with all of this is that it can make a lot of the first half of the film drag.
You see, at its core, the film has a wonderful premise that, not unlike the "would you kill baby Hitler?" question from The Dead Zone, seems such a wonderfully obvious origin for a story once you realise what it is. Pet Sematary is one of the few "zombie" films that actually deals with how we as humans fear and/or deal with death and what is one of the things people say about kids and pets? they help kids learn about and deal with death - hence, Pet Sematary. It's kind of brilliant and open to all sorts of rumination on the subject from religion to biology and from the nature of grief and mourning to not being able to let go.
The trouble is the film doesn't do the greatest job of really touching on all the possible subject matter that could spring from the premise. There are little bits scattered throughout, Louis Creed's basic and confused discussion of 'heaven, hell and reincarnation' with his daughter for example and, in a bizarre twist, Crosby's out-of-nowhere reveal of her physically deformed sister's existence and death. This doesn't clearly go anywhere in the movie, apart from an excellent and skin crawly device to haunt Denise Crosby's Rachel Creed with the malevolent spectre of her dead sister.
I presume her story is one of fear, guilt and the relief that can sometimes be felt in death but, in the movie at least, the story comes out of nowhere and seems quite bizarre.
Towards the end of the film it appears that the doctor, Louis Creed has the most issue facing death or letting go of his tragically killed family members but this hasn't really been explored up until then. As a doctor there were perfect opportunities for this to be addressed but it wasn't.
There is a lot in the movie - Indian burial grounds, ghosts, zombie cats, zombie kids, evil parents, strained relationships, mad but kindly old men next door, a weird sister back story, a washer woman who hangs herself, truck routes and flashbacks. I know what King and director Mary Lambert are getting at with each one but it can feel, at times, like these elements are thrown into the pot, stirred around, removed and arranged in no particular order on the table.
All that being said, Pet Sematary, the second half in particular, is a great horror film. It has creepy, weird, gory, startling, mad and surprising effects and elements. It has an interesting and thoughtful undercurrent running through it about the nature of death, loss and grief. It has the usual supernatural in a rural Americana-steeped setting that is King's delightful stock-in-trade. It looks beautiful and is directed with confidence and a playful understanding of humour and horror conventions by Mary Lambert.
It's interesting that so much of this film, from the handling of the animals to the death, resurrection and immolation of a child, probably wouldn't appear in a film today. People have become overly sensitive and incapable of telling fact from fiction. Even in films like The Conjuring 2 or, more recently, IT where children are involved, it all feels watered down, only vaguely perilous and lacks the brazen and surprising moments in something like a Pet Sematary. Also the pay offs to the build ups and moments of tension, in the ending sequence especially, are so much more genuinely terrifying and mischievous. I may be an old bastard but films from the 70s & 80s were just better. Sorry.
While I may have commented on the acting of the adult leads earlier, the kids, on the other hand, act the adults off the screen and the little boy (Miko Hughes), especially, seems to relish in all the macabre and, by today's standards, troubling stuff he gets to do.
Also, I can't applaud the make up effects by David LeRoy Anderson and Lance Anderson enough - Unnervingly realistic while also being pleasingly creative and gory. The addition of things like the utterly unpleasant gloop and ooze that spills from Crosby's eye socket at the end, for example, adds both a realism and a joyous ick factor to the whole proceedings. It's a little touch that ends up being everything and sells the make-up effect while superbly unnerving the viewer.
The whole film, actually, seems to delight in the lunacy of the story and finds humour in the mischievous and grotesque. I rather appreciated that. I like my horror with a little humour sprinkled on it somewhere and as the ridiculous climax of the film builds, with the unthinkable having been done, the decision of the filmmakers to just go with the roller-coaster of it all is the right one and gave me a film that I will, this time round, not forget.
I am sure, for the many people who grew up with this film, and for whom it was a formative experience, you knew a lot of what I was going to say before I said it and you may, even, have disagreed with a lot of the negative comments I had. That's ok, I understand and, in retrospect, I wish I had given this film more of a chance when I first watched it or had it as one of my formative horror watching experiences. I envy those of you who do.
I am glad I was given this second chance to find the film and live it almost as new. While I was skeptical at first, by the end of the film, the experience had been excellent and enjoyable. Definitely one that goes on my list for several more viewings.