“I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary, don’t wanna live my life again.”
In my humble opinion, Pet Sematary may very well be Stephen King’s magnum opus. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion, wrenching and horrible and alluring all at once. Even as you watch the hero make all the wrong decisions, it’s impossible to know if you’d handle things any better.
When Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) moves his family to a small New England town, it looks as though they will have an idyllic future filled with happy times. There’s plenty of room for his small children, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes), to run and play, and their new house is huge. The only glitch is that a truck route runs right past the house, so semis come roaring through at all random times. This is especially worrisome because Ellie has a cat, Winston Churchill. What will she do if he winds up squashed on the road?
Sure enough, Church meets his end over Thanksgiving weekend. Luckily, his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) has taken the kids to her parents’ house, but what will Louis tell Ellie when she calls? Even if he stalls until she gets back, he knows that losing the cat will break his daughter’s heart. As it turns out, the kindly old neighbor man, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), just might have an answer.
He leads Louis deep into the forest, past the quaint “Pet Sematary” created by local kids, over a scary heap of snags and brambles, and up to the old Micmac burying ground. Jud watches as Louis buries his daughter’s cat in the hard ground, saying only that this is important for Ellie.
By midnight, Church is staring up at Louis with glow-in-the-dark eyes, hissing in a distinctly unfriendly way, but alive nonetheless. Though Ellie is spared the death of her cat, Church is certainly not his old self these days. He smells funny, moves clumsily, and seems to have developed a mean streak. Mr. Crandall explains that the Indians stopped using the cemetery when the ground went sour, but that hasn’t stopped a few broken-hearted souls from trying to bring back their loved ones. Shoot, he even tried it on his dog when he was a young man. It didn’t go well, but there’s always next time, right?
Life purrs along nicely for a brief while, and then one horrible day Gage runs out in front of a truck. Gage is only the cutest toddler ever captured on film, and the thought of his death is almost as wrenching for the audience as it is for his family. How can anyone that tiny and innocent and adorable die? It’s wrong! It goes against nature! Oh my God!
We watch as Stephen King presides over the little boy’s funeral and his heartbroken family lowers him into the ground. It seems as though life will never be the same for any of them ever again, and Louis feels his wife and daughter slipping though his fingers. How can they possibly go on without Gage? When they go to visit Rachel’s parents this time around, a more ominous thought springs to mind. What if he took Gage to the Pet Sematary? Maybe things would be different this time….
Needless to say, the movie takes one tragic turn after another from here. No good can come from playing God, but even a man of science is helpless to resist. Our impulse is to preserve and prolong the lives of the ones we love, but at what point do we admit that we’re playing with fire? As someone who’s read the book twice, watched the movie twice, and now fallen in love with The Ramones song, only one thing is clear, “I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary, don’t wanna live my life again.”