This movie scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it. It had just been released on video, so I couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 at the time... and I made the mistake of watching it alone, in the dark. There were two scenes in particular that forced me to actually stop the tape and collect my thoughts before I could continue. But we’ll get to that...
Stephen King’s source novel is an elaboration on the W.W. Jacob’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw” -- fleshed out according to some of the author’s real-life experiences. When he wrote the novel, King had young children. He lived in a country house next to a busy highway. He had a nosy neighbor who told him that the highway “uses up a lot of animals.” His daughter’s cat got “used up,” and King buried it in a real pet cemetery in the woods behind his house. That’s where his overactive imagination took over. He imagined that it was one of his children who had been used up. He became so distraught over this very real possibility that he began thinking about how badly he wished he could beat death.
His mind wandered to “The Monkey’s Paw,” a story about a magical Indian relic that grants three wishes. When an elderly couple comes into possession of the relic, they jokingly make their first wish -- for money. The money arrives, but at the expense of their only son’s life. The wife then wishes for her son to “be alive again.” As the story ends, the father is scrambling to make his third wish (a negation of the second wish) while listening to the sound of some labored, shuffling zombie-like Thing pounding on the front door of his house. In his mind, the father sees the image of his mutilated son... and he knows he will go mad if he has to look on that sight in real life. King’s story charts this same path. It begins with the inability to accept the cold reality of death, and ends in madness.
WhenI saw this film for the first time, I was already thinking pretty seriously about the inevitability of death. My mother had been very ill for much of my childhood, which might explain why I had already started reading so much horror fiction. When I was reading the Pet Sematary novel, my aunt went into a coma. I can’t remember the doctor’s explanation for what brought on the coma. What I remember is that it happened without warning, and she never came out. No one ever got to say goodbye to her. We just had to wait. I remember sitting in a hospital room when she nearly choked to death on her own vomit. It happened just like the coma -- suddenly, without warning or reason. My uncle sat by his wife’s bedside, holding her hand and telling her he loved her, over and over. To this day, I can still hear the sadness and desperation in his voice. It's the kind of thing that could drive a person mad.
These are not things that anyone wants to talk about. I’m hesitant to write these words, and more hesitant to publish them on my blog. But I will, because I can’t imagine a more effective way to relate the undeniable reality that sits at the core of King’s novel: There is no escape from death. One day early in our lives we come to the realization that we are all headed to the same end, parents and children alike. The only way we can continue to live with any sense of peace is by coming to terms with that fact.
The fakir who put the curse on the monkey’s paw did it because “he wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” In that story, death and fate are interchangeable. In PET SEMATARY, written for the screen by King himself, there is something more sinister at work... a force that wants us to interfere and suffer. Worse still, it’s not a force lurking deep in the woods, but a force that lives right in the stony “soil of a man’s heart.” King’s narrative presents death as a challenge. We can respond to it by accepting our lack of control over our lives and the lives of those around us. This decision leads to sorrow and weariness. On the other hand, we can deny the power of death and try to interfere with the laws of nature in an attempt to assert control. This way leads to madness. No wonder the author became so depressed while writing this novel.
The story, however, is not without hope. On the DVD commentary, director Mary Lambert explains her own personal view of the film. She says it’s about good angels and bad angels. The nosy old man next door, played by kindly Fred Gwynne, is the unlikely bad angel. And the good angel? It’s Pascow, the sardonic ghost with the gaping head wound. To explain: “Jud is really the bad angel... He’s the one Louis shouldn’t listen to [about going to the pet cemetery]. I think this is true, that angels come to us, and spirits come to us, and sometimes they come in the form of people in our lives. And it’s very tricky to realize who the good angel is and who the bad angel is. Appearances can be very deceptive.”
Personally, I was terrified of Pascow.... maybe because he’s not trying to scare or hurt the protagonist. He’s only trying to help... but he looks like death. And he’s waiting right next to the bed when Louis wakes up in the middle of the night, smiling malevolently. Helpful or no, this angel has one seriously fucked up sense of humor. The protagonist, Louis Creed, is apparently also a little put off, because instead of heading Pascow’s warning he follows Jud’s advice to bury his cat in the the Micmac burial ground beyond the pet cemetery. (In King’s fictional universe, Micmac Indians share a similar philosophy to the Indian fakir in “The Monkey’s Paw.”) Anyone who’s ever seen a horror film -- or heard a fairy tale, for that matter -- knows that this isn’t a good decision. Even Jud re-thinks his advice after the fact, proposing that “sometimes dead is better.” By this point in the story, however, Louis is no longer playing with a full deck. He’s been driven slightly mad by his decision to try and refute the power of death, rather than to accept it and cope with it. Jud’s belated misgivings are illustrated by the other scene that scared the bejesus out of me...
Louis’s wife Rachel remembers a traumatic experience that nearly drove her insane when she was still a child. Her sister Zelda suffered from spinal meningitis, a disease that literally transformed her into a rotting skeleton. I didn’t realize it when I first saw the film, but the character of Zelda is actually played in the film by an emaciated man. That’s what gives her such an unnatural look. It’s not unlike the gimmick that William Friedkin employed in THE EXORCIST, when he used Eileen Dietz as a stand-in for certain quick shots of possessed Regan. The viewer instinctively knows that we are not seeing the same person, but we don’t realize it consciously. The effect is very unsettling... Zelda doesn’t seem androgynous. She seems inhuman. She’s not a person, but rather a personification of the outer limits of human suffering. In other words: She’s better off dead. That’s the truth that Rachel needs to accept, but can’t.
In the third act, Louis faces the same challenge after his son gets killed. We, the viewer, know that the kid is better off dead, but dad has gone around the bend. Unfortunately, the third act scare scenes don’t quite measure up to the scares in the earlier acts. The filmmakers weren’t able to make young Gage seem as frighteningly other-worldly as the “good angel” or Zelda, because they relied mostly on the acting ability of a 3-year-old, and a doll that looks like it was leftover from CHILD’S PLAY. (On the DVD commentary, director Mary Lambert says they considered using a dwarf to play the kid as a mutilated zombie. She rightly worried that the cheat could have been goofy, but it might also have been brilliant if used in small doses... the way Dietz was used in THE EXORCIST.) Regardless, the horror of the third act still resonates because the film emphasizes the inconsolable heartache of a father who has lost his child. Both Louis and Jud appear to go mad in the end, which I suppose is King’s way of saying that -- for some unlucky people -- it is downright impossible to accept the loss of a loved one and the inevitability of death.
For viewers, PET SEMATARY presents healthy ways of accepting death (Jud says, “It’s a place of rest... and speaking.”) and unhealthy ways of denying it. I think Lambert and King would both agree that the most significant scene in the film comes when young Ellie asks her parents why her cat had to die. Louis tries to be diplomatic in his answer, explaining that some people believe in Heaven, while other people believe that death snuffs us out like a candle, without rhyme or reason. Louis (no doubt echoing King) confesses his belief that, when we die, “we go on.” Louis’s wife Rachel doesn’t want to address the subject at all, and her fear eventually becomes a curse on her family. When the “good angel” tries to help her, she can’t see Pascow the way Louis did. She sees only what she wants to see... Not enough to save those she loves.
After watching PET SEMATARY again, I was left with the overwhelming belief that good horror stories serve a very practical purpose. They allow us to experience tragedy on our own terms at a time of our choosing, when we aren’t overwhelmed by real-life experience, and that experience helps us to cope when real tragedy strikes. Of course, not all horror films are effective in this regard... even when the filmmaker is smart enough to understand the goal. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan, but in my opinion his recent CABIN IN THE WOODS falls short. CABIN is a very clever treatise on the ability of horror fiction to cathartically dispel our primal fears of threatening forces... but if I want a treatise, I’ll read a book. When I watch a horror movie, I want to be scared. (The inimitable Outlaw Vern does a good job of explaining why this flick is a cop-out.) Nearly two and a half decades after it was made, however, PET SEMATARY still delivers the goods... and for one very simple reason. It takes itself seriously, while still having fun. That’s the best recommendation I can give.
Be sure to pay your respects to director Mary Lambert on this week's episode of INSIDE HORROR, Tuesday night at 7pm PST.