Color, 1989, 103m. / Directed by Mary Lambert / Starring Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby / Paramount (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

When Stephen King first hit paydirt as the world's leading horror writer in the early '80s, he often referred to the unpublished Pet Sematary as the scariest thing he'd ever written, something so disturbing that it might never even reach the general public. As we all know, King's gruesome twist on that old chestnut "The Monkey's Paw" finally did see the light of day, and while it's one of his most morbid creations, the hype far outweighed the final product. Still holding this tale close to his heart, King insisted on writing the screenplay for Pet Sematary and controlling many aspects of the production, which was helmed by music video director Mary Lambert.

Dr. Louis Creed (Midkiff) and his wife, Rachel (Crosby), relocate to the Maine countryside along with their two children. Their house lies along a treacherous road for speeding semis, while their eccentric neighbor, Jud Crandall (the late Fred Gwynne), points out another sinister location: a pet cemetery located deep within the woods. Louis takes his place as the head college physician, where he soon loses one young man, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), during a grisly operating room procedure. Rachel and the kids take off for one weekend to visit family members, leaving Louis to tend to the beloved family cat, Church. Naturally the kitty wanders into the road and falls under the speeding wheels of a truck. Jud reluctantly offers a solution to Louis' problem: the pet cemetery can restore life to dead animals, but at a high price. As Jud cautions, "Sometimes dead is better." Louis decides to do it anyway, but the zombified Church which returns doesn't seem quite the same. After tragedy strikes again, Louis is confronted with an even more horrific possibility... what would happen if you buried a person in the pet cemetery?

During its release Pet Sematary became one of the highest grossing King adaptations and, despite the jeers of critics, went over well with audiences looking for pure, stripped down scares. It's not a good movie by a long shot, but for a cheap and nasty party movie, this does the trick well enough. The final third is particularly unsettling, with some gruesome latex and mutilation effects that can still provoke a decent shudder or two, despite the occasionally exploitative and pandering approach of Lambert's direction. (Amazingly, she returned to direct the worthless Pet Sematary 2, starring a pre-ER Anthony Edwards.) The acting here ranges from atrocious (namely Crosby, whose brittle and flat delivery may account for her stalling career since Star Trek: The Next Generation) to the amusing hambone antics of Gwynne, best known to the world as Herman Munster. TV actor Midkiff is actually fine in a difficult role, and he manages to wring some emotion from some potentially silly scenes. Had King's screenplay pared the story down simply to the Creed's plight, this could have been a devastating and haunting film; unfortunately he carried over some hoary devices from his book, such as having Pascow's ghost constantly pop up at inane moments to warn the family about impending danger. This recurring irritation offers some easy laughs and nasty gooey brain-spilling effects, but nothing else. On the other hand King made a good call by carrying out his final scene beyond the cryptic fade-out of his novel, which wouldn't have translated to film at all. Elliot Goldenthal turns in one of his earliest mainstream music scores, which manages to provoke chills despite a few jarring quotations from Lalo Schifrin's The Amityville Horror. In short, be in a lenient mood when you see this one, or you could be very disappointed. Paramount's DVD amazingly offers no extra material of any kind, but at least the transfer blows away those pale laserdiscs, most of which have apparently rotted by now anyway. This marks its first availability in a letterboxed presentation, and the quality mirrors the theatrical appearance very well. Lambert's flat, static visual style doesn't offer many punchy visuals, with a drab color scheme that translates here about as well as possible. The 5.1 remix fares better, with those deafening trucks offering plenty of jolting opportunities to pan very loud sounds from left to right in the rear speakers. And hey, you get to hear that great Ramones theme song in roaring 5.1, so that's almost worth the price tag alone.

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