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‘Pet Sematary’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 22, 1989

With the exception of "Carrie" and "The Shining," the novels of Stephen King have not made the transition to film particularly well, so it should be little surprise that "Pet Sematary" is another DOA -- Dog on Arrival. For the most part it's on a par with "Salem's Lot" and "Firestarter" -- bland, cliche'd, cheap -- but in the last 15 minutes it turns very ugly indeed, coming close to celluloid child abuse.

Since the book was a humongous bestseller, "Pet Sematary's" plot is hardly the world's best-kept secret: A nice clean nuclear family plus precious cat move to an apparently idyllic but long-abandoned ultrarural house with a flinty neighbor who initiates them into the lore of an ancient dead-pet preserve in their backyard. After the cat gets run over -- huge diesel trucks are constantly racing by a grave's length from the house -- said neighbor (engagingly codgerly Fred Gwynne) initiates Dad (vapid Dale Midkiff) into the mysterious rejuvenating powers of the soil in a secret Indian burial ground, less conveniently nearby. Whaddaya know, the cat comes back (they thought he was a goner), except he's a bit crotchety even with an eight-life credit.

Next down is 19-month-old Gage, a precious little boy who spends the first hour warming viewers' hearts and then breaking them when he, too, steps in front of a speeding tractor-trailer. Devastated, the father visits the burial ground again, and it's at this point that the plot sickens. Up to now, "Pet Sematary" has been decidedly mundane, with director Mary Lambert resorting to everything from a trilling chorus and noodling Satie-ish piano to portentous dialogue, sleight-of-camera and jump cuts (Lambert cuts, you jump). King's book was long, convoluted and complicated, and after the disasters of previous adaptations there was hope when King decided to write the script himself (a first). Unfortunately, he chose to do it in crayon, and whenever they need to advance the story, King and Lambert simply resort to anecdote, flashback and dream sequence.

The going gets rough when little Gage comes back. Two-year-old actor Miko Hughes is a classic cute little boy (he's been in Charmin commercials), but some of the things he's asked to do, and to suffer, in the film's finale are disturbing, and would be disturbing enough for a midget, much less a tyke. Give him a surgeon's scalpel and a literal thirst for blood, and the Big Screen suddenly becomes the Big Squeam.

And it's an ugly payoff to an inept setup. Lambert, who did death much better in the obtuse "Siesta" and whose filmmaking skills are much more evident in her controversial video for Madonna's "Like a Prayer," shows precious little control here. The acting is wretched as well. When King films attract good directors and actors, as in "Carrie," "The Shining" and "Stand by Me," they always rise to his occasion -- otherwise, they sink.

It doesn't help that several other plot threads run bare through "Pet Sematary," actually cluttering things up. The worst is the specter of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a dead one-man Greek chorus who looks as if someone threw a pizza at his head -- the kind of cheap effect that dominates "Pet Sematary" until Lambert, King and company go for the jugulars at the end. One of the key lines in both film and book is "Sometimes dead is better." Sometimes, though, read is a whole lot better.

"Pet Sematary" is rated R and contains several gory special effects.

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