Saturday, October 19, 2013

Monster Serial: PET SEMATARY, 1989

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies! 


This is probably the scariest movie I've ever seen. 

When I saw it in theaters, I didn't expect much.  I was eighteen.  Pretty war weary from horror films. 
By the time the movie was at a full roar, I'm pretty certain that my feet were curled up under my seat. 
Watched it again about seven or eight years later.  Last quarter, on cable, in a well-lit room.  Knew every twist.  Made no difference.  Despite all of that, I was white-knuckling the remote. 

It just works.  If anything, it works too well.  That's its secret, and that makes it such a great Rosetta Stone for horror. 

In PET SEMATARY, a young family moves into a rural house sandwiched between a lethal highway and an Indian burial ground that has the power to resurrect anything interred there.  Of course, when the buried come back, they're quite different and quite lethal... and still retain enough of their personality to make us vulnerable to our sentiments.  As the story goes on, the hero buries and then confronts his lost cat, child, and eventually his wife, thinking that if he can just get them buried quickly enough this time, all will be well.  It's Faust and "The Monkey's Paw" and maybe even a little Tennessee Williams.

The film's immediate attack plan is to exploit very deep taboos.  Humor and horror are so similar... the same situations just have worse consequences in horror.  In both humor and horror, it is widely acknowledged that there are certain subjects you just don't touch.  That's why those jokes are often the funniest (and cry 'too soon' all you like) and why truly vicious horror wrings those same subjects with such a contempt for our comfort.

In PET SEMATARY, we're confronted with some of the most metaphysically human and personal weaknesses possible.  It begins with the strange vulnerability we have over the death of a pet, that most beloved of friends. 

You don't make horror about that. Sure, CUJO.  But that's a pet gone crazy, not us gone crazy over a pet.   

It's a bit like terminal illness. About twenty years ago, while seeking new material for a screenplay, I asked my writing partner what really scared him.  He said that it was watching his mother die.

We didn't make a horror movie about that. As Henrik Ibsen said, "Good God, people don't do such things."

But Stephen King and director Mary Lambert do.

They keep going, right on to the death of a child.  And if it is taboo to exploit our closeness with pets, then the attack on our sense of responsibility toward children is unthinkable.  So why do they think it?  What keeps it from being an emotionally sleazy, grindhouse shocker?


Love — and our vulnerability to it — is the true villain in the film.  That's what makes the movie so incredibly vindictive, and that vital conversation is what redeems it.  Every time the father buries something up there, it is out of love.  He never loses the optimism that this time, with enough love, things will be different.

Sound familiar?  For me, few rationalizations have caused more misery in my life. 

And none of it makes sense.  The film discusses that quite openly.  Fred Gwynne plays the kindly neighbor who knows just how terrible the secret cemetery is, but shows it to our hero, anyway.  He frequently opines that men can handle these things because "a man's heart is stonier," echoing the stony surface of the barren burial ground.  This is a lie.  These men are in complete denial about their capacity to manage grief or make rational decisions or tame their hearts.  Nope, they gotta fix it.

I understand that.     

The film gets a lot of mileage out of a creepy toddler, a vicious cat, the revulsion of nursing a relative with a deforming illness, and vengeful in-laws.  But those are just props.  The horror comes from the mirror it presents us.  Our greatest joys are our greatest vulnerabilities.  Our greatest peril comes from trying to fix the unfixable rather than accepting it and moving ahead.  Horror is a cherished tool for cautionary warnings.

PET SEMATARY presents us with the most uncomfortable warning possible.  It's also the most important.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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