31 (More) Days of Fright: Silver Bullet

Look out! It’s a cross-eyed werewolf!

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the Corey Haim / Gary Busey werewolf joint, Silver Bullet (1985), directed by Daniel Attias, who worked almost entirely in TV after this film. This film was not selected by any donors; rather it was an attempt to throw the werewolf genre a bone (get it?).

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Suicide.

Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (as that’s how the movie is billed) opens on a full moon. Set in the small town of Tarker’s Mills in 1976, the story chronicles a period when our teen narrator, Janey Coslaw (Anne of Green Gables herself, Megan Follows), tells us the town lived in terror. After the opening scene, viewers quickly realize why. Train worker, Ernie works late (and seemingly drunk on Rheingold beer). As he activates a railway switch, something unseen stalks him, Michael-Myers-like, from the bushes. Ernie just has time to see a large, claw-like footprint in the ground before his head is cut clean off by a werewolf.

When townspeople find Ernie’s severed head the next morning, no one suspects foul play: Ernie was known as a chronic drunk, and where his head and body fell make it appear as if he passed out with his neck upon the train track. Janey, in her voice-over, introduces us to her idyllic small town, where bake sales happen almost every weekend, and everyone in town attends church. Pillars of the community, Sheriff Joe Haller (Terry O’Quinn) and Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) make some speeches at a spring fair, while Janey goes in search of her pesky younger brother, Marty. But before she finds him, she finds a garter snake hanging from a tree branch (yikes!). The snake prank was orchestrated by local pest Brady Kincaid (Joe Wright) and his friend / Janey’s brother, Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim). Marty is paralyzed from the waist down, and uses a wheelchair dubbed “the silver bullet” to get around. Backing away from the snake, Jenny falls into a mud puddle and ruins her nice clothes.

Janey runs away from Marty and Brady crying, and accidentally stumbles upon a domestic dispute: Stella Randolph (Wendy Walker) is pleading with her boyfriend, who refuses to admit the unborn child she’s carrying is his. Janey scurries back to her family. On their ride back home, the Coslaw parents (Robin Groves and Leon Russom) try to get their kids to make up, but Janey isn’t having it; she feels her parents favour Marty: “You always take his side because he’s crippled!” To irritate Marty, Janey tells him his favourite relative, Uncle Red, is an alcoholic who just got divorced for the third time (!). That evening, Marty, feeling shame over his stupid serpent-based prank, wheels into Janey’s room and leaves a pile of money on her nightstand so that she can buy replacement pantyhose for her now-mud-stained ones. Janey, who appreciates the gesture, gives him most of the money back, saying she’ll just buy L’Eggs.

It’s Anne of Green Gables, not Anne of Tarker’s Mills!

Across town at Stella Randolph’s house, her mother is running scales on the electric organ. Stella herself is upstairs, about to swallow a plate full of sleeping pills. “Suicides go to hell,” she muses, “especially if pregnant.” However, Stella never has the opportunity if that Catholic superstition is true, as a werewolf smashes through her bedroom window and begins to shred her up like pulled pork. (Gross!) Mother, hearing the commotion, grabs a pistol and moves to the bedroom, but she’s too late: Stella has been murdered and the killer has absconded before she arrives.

At the local watering hole, the townsfolk are riled up about Stella’s murder. Andy Fairton (Bill Smitrovich) thinks Sheriff Haller is incompetent, and many of the bar patrons agree. (Considering Stella was killed earlier that night, it’s unclear (a) how the entire bar knows about it, and (b) what they think the Sheriff should have accomplished by now.) The next day, Marty accompanies his (maybe) girlfriend Tammy Sturmfuller (Heather Simmons) home and they pass the crime scene at the Randolph’s. Once they arrive at the Sturmfuller residence, Tammy mentions she heard weird growling noises from their back shed the other night. Her prize of a dad, Milt (James A. Baffico), already drunk mid-afternoon, shouts at Tammy to come inside, just before grumbling to himself that people in wheelchairs should all be electrocuted (!).

That night, the Coslaws get a visit from Uncle Red (Gary Busey), who plays poker with Marty and tells him ribald jokes. Mrs. Coslaw is exhausted by her brother, who she feels shows up (like most uncles) to tell jokes and have fun, but is never there to do the heavy lifting. When Marty goes to bed, she warns Red she doesn’t want him drinking around Marty. She worries that Marty will turn to drinking later in life, given the difficulties of his paralysis, but Red argues Marty doesn’t have any limitations.

The World Series of Poker looked very different in 1985.

Back at the Sturmfullers’, Milt’s night of watching professional wrestling is interrupted by a ruckus in his shed. He takes his shotgun and goes to investigate who’s messing with his ceramic pots. The pots have all been smashed to bits, but there’s no sign of an intruder otherwise. That’s because the werewolf has hidden under the shed’s floorboards. He pops up, dragging Milt down below the shed and impaling him on a splintered 2×4 as he does.

Dread stalks the town. The Mayor demands results from Sheriff Haller. Shotgun sales are up. Andy continues to trash talk the Sheriff around town. Brady and Marty spend a very wholesome afternoon flying kites. Marty uses his massive upper-body strength to climb a tree that’s snagged his kite. Janey arrives in the park to inform him he’s late for dinner, so he hops down from the tree and the two leave Brady to continue flying his kite, though Marty seems concerned to leave his friend alone. He was right to be concerned: that night, Herb Kincaid (Kent Broadhurst) walks into the bar looking for his missing son, Brady.

Sheriff Haller finds a bloody kite and – in a nearby gazebo – the body of Brady Kincaid. Herb arrives at the park and the police aren’t able to restrain him before he gets a close look at his son and lets out an anguished cry. A funeral for the boy follows, with Reverend Lowe offering comforting words to the entire town. Uncle Red drives Marty home from the funeral. Marty wonders aloud if the killer isn’t a person; what if it’s a monster, like a werewolf? Red just laughs and assures his nephew he’s just a run-of-the-mill serial killer.

Not so much a werewolf bar mitzvah as a werewolf baptism.

Andy, however, is not content to laugh. Instead, he rustles up a camo-styled militia at the local bar. Sheriff Haller gets wind of this and tries to break up the posse, not being too keen on the notion of “private justice.” But then Herb Kincaid arrives and raves about how his son was torn to pieces. He likes the idea of “private justice.” So, it’s on: the men and women race to their pick-up trucks. The Reverend arrives at the bar and tries to prevent them from doing something foolish, but his protests go unheeded. They dive headlong into the local forest, with guns, flash lights, hounds, and – in the case of one overly confident soul – a baseball bat.

One man is soon painfully caught by a bear trap. Andy takes a small squad and forms a “skirmish line” (whatever that is) to enter an area of dense fog. But they find out too late that the werewolf has been hiding under the fog. The monster drags one man under, tears off half of another’s face. Mr. Knopfler attacks with his baseball bat, but the werewolf soon turns it against him. The next day, the funeral hosts three funerals in one.

Reverend Lowe again tries to provide some solace to his scared and angry flock. But the town residents are especially agitated. They begin to snarl and slowly transform into werewolves – all of them! Even his organ player! Lightning crashes outside the church and the Reverend awakes with a start: it was just a nightmare.

The killings are affecting social activities in Tarker’s Mills. The fireworks display has been cancelled, much to Marty’s chagrin, but at least Uncle Red is visiting for a family barbecue. He shows Marty something he’s been working on: the Silver Bullet, a souped-up wheelchair scooter that looks like a Rascal crossed with a Rat Fink illustration. “It’s an ass-kicker, ain’t it?” he asks, rhetorically, I assume. Marty gives the new chair a spin on the country road and it really rips, passing even cars. When he returns, Red warns him not to tell his mother how fast it goes.

Easy Rider for Kids!

Following a very pleasant barbecue, Uncle Red secretly passes Marty one additional gift: a bag full of contraband fireworks. He asks Marty to promise to only use them close to the house, but literally that night, Marty breaks his promise, driving the Silver Bullet to a wooden bridge somewhere in the woods to light the fireworks far from the prying eyes of his parents. Of course, all these Roman candles and the like attract the werewolf, who finds Marty blissfully being a pyro in the middle of nowhere.

The werewolf approaches and Marty frantically lights a large bottle rocket, managing to fire it directly into the monster’s eye. The werewolf howls in pain at the gory injury. While it recovers, Marty races back and arrives safely at home, though extremely scared. Uncle Red is woken early the next morning by a phone call. Marty tells him all about his werewolf encounter, and Uncle Red doesn’t believe a word. Luckily, his sister Janey has a more open mind. Seeing Marty withdrawn, she asks what’s the matter and hears his werewolf anecdote. She realizes how strongly her brother believes it, and constructs a plan.

Janey regularly collects bottles and cans to generate money for the church. So she goes door-to-door, asking for bottles and paying close attention to how many eyes everyone has. (If the werewolf was shot in the eye, the human version should, theoretically, have some sort of eye injury.) Janey goes above and beyond the call of duty, even pulling hot towels off men’s faces at the barber shop. But no one in town seems to be a missing eye. She brings the bottles and cans to the church garage for storage, which is when she spies Mr. Knopfler’s bat (“The Peace Maker”) among the cans. When she turns to leave, the Reverend – who has a fresh bandage over his left eye – asks if everything is all right. Trembling, Janey leaves as soon as possible. (Her poker face could really use some work.)

Oh, my eye? Just a sty. They come about from stress.

Marty and Janey begin to mail ransom-like letters to the Reverend, saying they know who he is, which – from the looks of the Reverend’s face – doesn’t make him overly happy. When Uncle Red learns about their letter campaign, he insists they stop. Red agrees to stake out the church with the kids, but they don’t see anything untoward. But the Reverend later stalks Marty at a baseball game, and follows the Silver Bullet in his powder-blue Malibu. When the two hit a stretch of vacant country road, the Reverend revs his car and sideswipes Marty, nearly knocking him off the bridge. This begins an intense chase between muscle wheelchair and car. Marty, running low on gas, hides out in a condemned covered bridge, but the Reverend pursues on foot and confronts him in the dark, spooky structure.

Reverend Lowe tells Marty he should have left him alone, and that he was actually doing his victims a favour. For instance, Stella’s soul would have gone to hell if she committed suicide. He actually saved her from eternal damnation. He’s just about to kill Marty (with his very human hands) when a farmer on a tractor drives by and Marty screams for help. The Reverend scurries away, as it wouldn’t be good to be seen throttling eleven-year-olds.

Marty updates Uncle Red and Janey, and now that a human (rather than a werewolf) is threatening Marty, Red is more comfortable going to the police. Especially once he asks Janey the colour of the Reverend’s car: powder blue. The same blue that stains the scratches on Marty’s wheelchair. Red talks to Sheriff Haller, who agrees to check out the Reverend. For reasons unknown, he waits until dark to visit the church. No one answers, so the Sheriff takes a look-see in the garage and finds an almost-smoking gun: namely, Lowe’s car is damaged in the very spot that Marty and Red’s story said it would be. Reverend Lowe emerges from the shadows, spooking the Sheriff. The Sheriff draws on the preacher-man, but Lowe uses the baseball bat to knock the gun from his hand. “It’s not my fault!” Lowe screams as he begins to turn into a wolf. He smashes the Sheriff in the head with a bat, and continues to bash his head, as he turns werewolf.

Uncle Red meets Marty in a park and they talk about the Sheriff’s disappearance. Red counters that if the Reverend is a werewolf, there hasn’t been a full moon in a while. Marty and Janey reason that it might not be like the legends – maybe he’s always that way, becoming more animalistic with the full moon. Marty is convinced that the Reverend will come for him next. He gives Red his silver necklace (as does Janey) and asks him to get a silver bullet made.

A bullet the gunsmith claims is the best thing he’s ever made. Clearly he doesn’t know about festive taco wreaths.

At the local gunsmith, Uncle Red feeds the shopkeep a story about his nephew being into the Lone Ranger. He asks him to make a silver bullet out of the necklaces, and luckily, the gunsmith just happens to be “an old world craftsman.” After a cool bullet creation scene, Red has a single silver bullet. (Here’s hoping he’s a good shot.)

On Halloween, Uncle Red pretends he’s won a contest for a romantic couple’s getaway and sends the Coslaw parents on a weekend vacation, leaving him to babysit Janey and Marty. They try to stay up all night with the gun at the ready to await the werewolf. Janey sees a wolf at the window, but when Red investigates, he sees nothing. Uncle Red begins to think he’s being taken for a fool, and – for some reason – takes out the silver bullet from the chamber and starts complaining about the kids playing jokes on him.

Then the power is cut. Within seconds the werewolf smashes in the wall of the room and the silver bullet goes flying through the air and down a vent in the floor. The werewolf begins to throw Uncle Red around the room – into a picture frame, over the couch. Marty dives out of his chair and desperately tries to grab the bullet from within the vent. While Red and the werewolf are locked in an epic battle, Marty retrieves the bullet and Janey hands him the pistol. The werewolf turns to attack Marty and is shot right in his other eye!

The wolf collapses in the corner and slowly begins to turn back into human form: the now eyeless Reverend Lowe. He leaps up in a final death howl, but then collapses, completely dead. Uncle Red recovers and everything is great (except there’s a dead preacher in their living room that will prove difficult to explain). That issue is glossed over as the voice-over Janey notes she loves Marty and wishes him “goodnight” (?).

Not 100% sure this is a film still or just footage from Gary Busey’s daily life.

Takeaway points:

  • I am not the person to make this analysis, but I’d love a critique of Silver Bullet regarding disability. I assume there’s a whole genre of disability criticism of horror, given the many times use of wheelchairs, blindness, and deafness play into horror plots. Marty uses a wheelchair, but the film doesn’t really use it – as many other films do – as an added element of danger. Marty never laments his paralysis to friends or family. He even jokes about it at the very end of the film. There is nothing holding Marty back, as his Uncle Red insists. Marty can retrieve his kite from a tree, sneak out at night to light fireworks. In fact, he proves more capable than nearly everyone else in town: he first injures the werewolf, and ultimately kills it. His motorized wheelchair is, in fact, instrumental in his escape from danger. Of course there are unfortunate asides – Tammy’s dad advocating for the death of all paraplegics, a weird scene in which Marty longingly watches the legs of baseball players – and they seem out of step with the rest of the film. Obviously, it would have been preferable to feature an actor who requires a wheelchair in the role, but, as I say, I’d be more interested in hearing what someone like the very smart disability in literature critic (and horror enthusiast), Angelo Muredda thinks of Silver Bullet.
  • Silver Bullet is also of note because the werewolf doesn’t seem tormented by his transformation: the Reverend is fully aware he turns into a werewolf at night, and is just as dangerous as a human being. He claims he can’t kill himself (suicide is a sin), but surely there are other forms of werewolf restraint. (Also, I think God would smile more kindly on suicide than the murder of dozens of people.) During his bizarre monologue in the condemned bridge, the Reverend claims to be doing God’s work. He prevented Stella from killing herself. Who knows what sins Ernie or the various posse folk or the Sheriff committed, but I guess he was saving their souls, as well. Though over-the-top, Silver Bullet is a film about how often the church is not your deliverance from evil. It’s where the evil lives. The film depicts the idyllic Americana of good neighbours and decent people crumbling into alcoholic fathers, deadbeat dads, angry mobs, and duplicitous preachers. (Interestingly the film Spotlight begins with the cover-up of a priesthood molestation … in 1976.)
  • The film is also an indictment of mob justice (or “private justice,” as its called here). Andy’s posse goes out half-cocked and several of them wind up dead or murdered in their wild thirst for vengeance. As the Sheriff grimly puts it to the Reverend, “This is that community spirit you’ve been talking about.” None of the mob are half as effective as two kids and their drunk uncle. And, tellingly, our heroes first go to the police. Only when the Sheriff is killed do they take matters into their own hands, which the film seems to suggest is the “correct” order of things. (Apparently the filmmakers have a lot more faith in the institution of law then they do the church.)
  • I have to imagine that the eye patch-wearing Reverend Lowe was a visual influence on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s popular comic character, Preacher. (Even if the comic preacher never turned into a werewolf.)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Silver Bullet treads that line: it’s mostly terrible, but also too entertaining to truly dislike. The film isn’t scary – the embarrassing werewolf suit doesn’t help – though it’s surprisingly gory, given the otherwise kid-friendly story (kind of like Monster Squad, but moreso).

Corey Haim, wearing a sweet werewolf-killing sweater vest.

Best outfit: The argyle sweater vest that Marty wears when he confesses to Janey about the werewolf.

Best line: “You gonna’ make lemonade in your pants?” – one of the vigilantes, to her husband, during a scare moment

Best kill: The opening scene where a man’s head is torn clean off by one powerful swipe of a werewolf’s paw is really hard to top. (Luckily, the werewolf was pulling his punches when he fought with Red.)

Unexpected cameo: Reverend Lowe is Everett McGill, who I only knew as Big Ed (from Twin Peaks) prior. It was also nice seeing the dad from Life Goes On, Bill Smitrovich kicking around.

Unexpected lesson learned: While it may be tempting to store your ceramic pots in an outdoor shed, it does leave them susceptible to werewolf damage.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Since there’s already a Silver Bullet Band, let’s go with Skirmish Line.

Next up: The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

31 Days of Fright: Pet Sematary

This cat was robbed at the Golden Globes in 1989.

This cat was robbed at the Golden Globes in 1989.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is a movie often considered one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work, Pet Sematary (1989), directed by Mary Lambert (director of Madonna’s best music videos, like “Like a Prayer” and “Material Girl“). The film was requested by ECW Press Creative Director (and my books’ copyeditor), Crissy Calhoun. She’s also the author of numerous books on pop culture, like Love You to Death: The Unofficial Companion to The Vampire Diaries. The DVD was provided by my local video store, Queen Video.

What happens:

A young, white family drives their station wagon to their new home in the Maine countryside (this is Stephen King, after all), and we instantly know from the bumper sticker that one of them is a doctor. That doctor is Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), and he and his wife, Rachel (Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar!), daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), toddler, Gage (Miko Hughes), and the blue-gray family cat, Winston Churchill (or “Church”) have moved from Chicago so that Dr. Creed can work at the university hospital. This perfect new home is, unfortunately, right beside a very busy road frequented by many an eighteen-wheeler. “One mean road,” as a character later proclaims. In fact, toddler Gage nearly toddles right out onto the highway and it’s only new neighbour Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne – Herman Munster himself!) who prevents him from becoming road pizza.

Thankful for their helpful neighbour, Rachel asks the older man what the mysterious path behind their house leads to, and Jud, font of homespun wisdom, cryptically says, “That’s a good story. We’ll talk about it one day.” That day occurs one night soon after, when, over beers, Jud tells Louis the path leads to a pet cemetery, in which many of the four-legged residents met their dooms right on the roadway in front of his house. After the family meets their new housekeeper, Missy (Susan Blommaert), a perennially agitated woman with stomach problems who laments that she never met a doctor, they go with Jud on a field trip to the pet cemetery. Or “pet sematary,” as the sign reads. (“It’s misspelled,” Rachel says. Are we sure she’s not the doctor?)

Jud reveals his dog Spot (who died in 1924) is buried here, and this leads to a general discussion of pet mortality. One that Rachel is not prepared for her young kids to have. Jud, however, feels the need to expose the youngsters to the idea of finality, and waxes poetic on the pet cemetery, noting, “the graveyard is where the dead speak.” All the death talk affects young Ellie something fierce, and soon she’s complaining to her dad about her cat Church’s inevitable end. Louis tells his daughter that neutering Church will make him less likely to run into the road and get hit by a car. Upon Rachel’s urging, he literally promises Church won’t get run over by a truck. (Can you see where this is going?)

Cut to the university campus, where a bunch of students are hauling a gruesome car accident victim to Dr. Creed. Unfortunately, there’s nothing Louis can do for the young jogger, but after the victim flatlines, he seemingly springs momentarily to life and cryptically whispers to the doctor, “The soil of a man’s hear is stonier, Louis.” How did he know the doctor’s name? The dead jogger, Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), soon visits Louis in his sleep. Death hasn’t improved his massive head wound any, and he beckons Louis to follow him to the pet sematary. He says he wants to help Louis because Louis tried to help him. Standing in the pet graveyard, he gestures to the hill beyond and warns him not to go to “the place where the dead walk,” for the barrier was not meant to be crossed. Louis awakes in the morning, convinced it was just a vivid dream, but when he pulls his sheets back, his feet are caked in dirt!

Thanksgiving looms on the horizon. Rachel is taking the kids to her parents’ place, but Louis (who starts to look more and more like Dr. Michael Mancini from Melrose Place) won’t be joining them. (Her dad isn’t a fan of Louis joining the family, for reasons not fully explored.) Promptly after his wife and kids leave, Louis discovers the cat, Church, has been hit by a car. He goes over the Jud’s front lawn to retrieve the corpse and pulls it from the frostbitten ground. (“Like a sticky note off a letter,” Jud remarks on the sound.) Louis frets over how he’ll break the news to Ellie, but Jud tells him there may be a better way.

 

You could probably already tell, but he’s a friendly ghost. Like Casper!

Jud and Louis, dead cat in hand, hike beyond the pet sematary and up that hill the ghost warned Louis about. They clamber over dangerous bramble and hear terrifying animal sounds until they reach a series of concentric circles and stones situated on the earth. The spot is a Mik’maq burial ground, Jud informs him, and it’s where Louis should bury Ellie’s cat. When Louis asks why, Jud mysteriously says he has his reasons. The process of burial takes well into the night – Jud can’t help Louis dig, he insists – and when they return to the Creed household, Jud suggests Louis not tell his family what they did. He then quotes Pascow’s line about stonier hearts and Louis is freaked right out. So much so that when he talks to his kids on the telephone, he can’t event respond when Gage says he loves him. Daddy can’t talk right now; his heart is all stony.

Working in the garage the next day, Louis hears a monstrous yowl. Church has returned, though his glowing eyes suggest he might not be exactly the same. Louis inspects the cat more thoroughly and it seems fine. He goes to Jud, assuming they accidentally buried the cat alive, but Jud knows better. Jud describes how he first buried his Spot in that Mik’maq burial ground, but when the dog came back, he was still cut up and wasn’t the same dog at all. When Spot died a second time, they buried him in the pet sematary. Louis asks the forbidden question – “Has anyone ever buried a person up there?” – and Jud is horrified by the mere suggestion.

Later that night, Dr. Creed draws a bath and indulges in some much-needed “me” time, but before long, the undead Church tosses a dead rat into his bath and begins to hiss at him. Chuch came back not quite all right, and Ellie already suspects something half the country away in Chicago. When Louis meets his family at the airpot, Ellie can’t believe her cat is okay. She’s been having dreams that Church was hit by a truck and Jud and her dad buried the cat in the pet sematary. Ellie also notices, once she sees the cat in person, that Church has acquired an awful new stench. “Can cats have shampoo?” she asks.

Around this time, Missy, unable to take her chronic stomach pain any longer, hangs herself in her basement. The Creeds’ attendance at her funeral prompts some existential questions from Ellie about life and death and what happens after. Given recent events, Louis tells Ellie he believes there’s something after life. Rachel, overhearing the conversation, is torn. She’s proud her husband can discuss death with their daughter in such a frank, loving way, but all the death talk reminds her of her childhood. In flashback, we learn Rachel had to take care of her older sister, Zelda, who had spinal meningitis, and whom her parents kept in the back room “like a dirty secret.” Zelda looks like a twisted skeleton, driven mad by her physical infirmity, and Rachel recalls how she sometimes wished Zelda would die. (Eventually she did, obvi.)

Because basically everyone and everything in this movie gets killed by a speeding truck, Louis and Rachel’s young son becomes the next victim to the mean road outside their house. In a truly troubling scene, Gage runs out into the road during a family picnic and is hit (off-screen) by a tractor trailer. In the days that follow, Rachel becomes nearly catatonic, while Ellie maintains that God could bring Gage back if He wanted to. Jud (always offering hot takes on mortality to other people’s kids) says he doesn’t think God works that way. Or does he?!

At the funeral, Rachel’s dad violently attacks Louis, yelling, I told her something like this would happen!” The resulting scuffle causes them to knock over the miniature-sized coffin and send little Gage’s body flying out. (Just in case you were wondering if this movie was going to pull any punches.) Louis goes home, sees his demon cat lying on his distraught wife’s chest and begins to wonder. Jud, drinking downstairs, already knows what Louis is thinking and attempt to stop him. He recounts the story of Timmy Baderman, a boy killed on his way home from World War II. His parents buried him up by the Mik’maq burial ground, and he returned, but death turned him into a deranged zombie, clawing at his own flesh, stalking neighbours. Eventually, the townsfolk turned on the Baderman boy and a small mob set fire to the Baderman house with the boy inside. “Sometimes death is better,” Jud assures Louis. “The Indians knew that. They stopped using that place.”

I unearthed my dead toddler in the middle of night. What could go wrong?

I unearthed my dead toddler in the middle of night. What could go wrong?

Ellie begins to dream of someone called “Paxkow,” and Rachel decides to take Ellie with her to her parents for a few days after Louis and her dad make peace. Louis has to work and can’t join them for a few days. But when the cat is away, the mice will play. And by “play,” I mean “dig up his dead son and perform an unoly rite to bring him back to life.” Pascow visits Louis as well as his daughter, and warns him again that the ground is sour. But Louis is undeterred. He reasons if Gage comes back wrong, he can always put him “back to sleep.” I guess because killing your undead toddler is a totes easy thing to do. That night, Louis heads to the not-pet sematary and starts digging.

Back in Chicago, Ellie is again visited by a ghost she calls “Paxkow” in her sleep. She tells her mom about “Paxkow” and that he’s a good ghost, trying to watch out for her dad. The name triggers something in Rachel’s memory, and the ghost of Pascow begins to, unseen, guide her back home. Rachel calls home and no one answers. Her dreams are haunted by the terrifying spectre of her dead sister Zelda, who says she and Gage are coming for her. Rachel decides to immediately take a flight home. Every step of the way, Pascow helps her, delaying flights so Rachel can make her connection, guiding car rental agencies to suggest other cars when all options seem impossible. She is, of course, too late. By the time she gets behind the seat of her rental car, Louis has already buried Gage in the place where the dead walk. Or, rather, piled a bunch of stones on top of his corpse.

Nevertheless, Rachel speeds home, driving so quickly she surely wouldn’t be able to stop if a child were to run into the road. Her tire blows out, so Pascow uses his ghost Force to make a trucker pick her up and drive her the rest of the way. (A trucker! Like the kind who ran over her kid!) That very same night, li’l Gage returns, dressed in his Sunday best, and, first-things-first, he secretly rummages through his dad’s medical bag and extracts the scalpel.

Across the roadway, Jud has fallen asleep on his front porch. When he wakes, he’s startled by small, wet footprints that lead into his house and the distant sound of giggling. Jud follows into the house to the sounds of a child exclaiming, “Hide and go seek!” Following the sounds, he enters his bedroom and takes out his hunting knife for protection. He’s just about look under the bed when Church yowls and distracts him. Gage, hiding under the bed, takes the opportunity to cut deep into Jud’s Achilles tendon with the scalpel. He then slashes his neighbour across the mouth, and finally bites into Jud’s throat, tearing it out.

The trucker brings Rachel to her door, and Pascow, riding shotgun but invisible to both riders, informs the audience he can’t help any further. Rachel goes to check on Jud, and in his bedroom finds Zelda, who says, “I’m going to twist your back so you never get out of bed again!” (Which is not really how spinal meningitis works.) Rachel blinks and Zelda has been replaced by her son, Gage, dressed in Zelda’s old clothing. “I brought you something, Mommy,” he says. Spoiler alert: it’s a scalpel.

Louis Creed, apparently a fairly heavy sleeper, wakes up to find Gage-sized footsteps on his floor and the scalpel taken from his doctor’s bag. The telephone rings and his father-in-law asks if Rachel arrived all right. Louis, in shock that something may have happened to her, pretends Rachel arrived fine. Rachel’s dad is insistent on talking to her, as Ellie has been hysterical with nightmares that her mom has died. Louis hangs up on his father-in-law. (That’s not going to win him over.) When the phone rings almost immediately afterward, it’s not him, but Gage, who spookily says, “First I played with Jud, then Mommy came, and I played with Mommy.” The final confrontation is at hand.

Louis crosses the street to Jud’s house with a hypodermic needle in hand. Church sits outside like a gargoyle, protecting the unholy house, but Louis lures the cat into a false sense of security with a raw steak, then jabs it in the butt with his needle full of death. Inside, Jud’s house appears filled with rotting goo, but it’s just an illusion. Upstairs, Louis finds Jud’s mangled corpse, then backs into the hallway, where – horror – his wife’s body drops from the attic, hanging by a noose. From that same attic, Gage leaps on his dad from above and begins slashing him with a scalpel. After a fierce struggle, Louis gains the upper hand and slowly stabs his undead son in the neck with the hypodermic needle. Gage topples backward and dies a second time.

Gasoline jug in hand, Louis begins the task of setting Jud’s house on fire. But he doesn’t leave the burning building empty-handed; he’s brought Rachel’s body with him. Pascow’s ghost returns to dissuade him from repeating his mistakes, but Louis has rationalized it to himself. He waited too long to resurrect Gage, he says, this time he’ll bring Rachel back right away. The final scene of the film shows a rotting Rachel, one eye merely a gory socket, returning to the Creed family kitchen. Louis and the undead Rachel passionately kiss, then she reaches for the knife.

 

No matter how much you want them to grow up to be doctors, don’t let your kids play with scalpels.

Takeaway points:

  • Pet Sematary succeeded as my favourite of the horror movies I’ve watched so far, probably because it’s one that tackles a theme that interests me immensely: how we (as a society, as a culture) deal with death. The various viewpoints presented – Jud’s frank discussion of death with his neighbour’s children, Rachel’s attempt to shield the children from death, Louis’s refusal to bow to death (fitting, given his profession) – present differing ways people cope with death. What really got to me was Rachel’s story about her sister Zelda, and how her family treated her (and her slow death) as a “dirty secret.” North American culture (and WASPy North American culture, in particular) tends to treat death as a dirty secret, as something that should be kept behind closed doors. The general thesis of the film seems to be that it’s better to accept death as part of everyday life. Visually, this point is garishly made when Gage’s little corpse is knocked out of its closed casket. As Jud says to Louis (several times), “Sometimes death is better.”
  • For Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, this movie is obviously an inspiration for the episode, “Forever,” in which Dawn attempts to bring her and Buffy’s mother back from the grave. They make the same conclusion, that sometimes death is better.
  • The film also participates in that horror movie trope of “the mystical indigenous person.” “Indian” burial grounds always seem to have supernatural powers, and the Mik’maq burial ground in Pet Sematary is no different. This mystical treatment of a modern indigenous culture is a bit troubling, to say the least: as if slowly destroying indigenous society through a process of cultural genocide weren’t enough, we’re also going to make you our boogeymen. Enjoy!
  • Most of the movie I spent trying to place Jud Crandall’s accent. Apparently it’s a Maine accent, but I couldn’t help picture Jimmy Stewart who had drank one too many scotches.
  • Let us take a moment to praise the work of the cat actor who portrayed Church. I have never seen cat-acting like that featured in Pet Sematary. Church was played by seven different cats, but the scene that most impressed me was the death scene. The cat’s movements were so convincing, I was a little worried they just straight-up murdered a cat. Bravo, seven cats who played Church. Bravo!
  • In what seems like an impossible coincidence, Pet Sematary is the second horror film in two nights to feature a Ramones connection. The careless trucker who runs over Gage is blasting “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” at the moment of impact, and the end credits feature an original Ramones tune, “Pet Sematary.” To whit: “I don’t wanna’ be buried / in a Pet Sematary.” Too true, Joey Ramone.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Pet Sematary mostly lives up to the hype. Sure, there are scenes or lines of dialogue that seem a little hokey, but there are also really unsettling scenes, including the unbearable suspense leading up to Jud’s gruesome death and the truly upsetting sight of Rachel’s zombie-like sister, Zelda. Plus, the movie has a friendly ghost! One of my favourite things! But friendly ghost or not, I was still a bit creeped out.

Dazzling WASP wear and old-timey farmer togs, both appropriate outfits for a jaunt to your local pet sematary.

Dazzling WASP wear and old-timey farmer togs, both appropriate outfits for a jaunt to your local pet sematary.

Best outfit: Rachel Creed is by far the best-dressed character in Pet Sematary, but it’s hard to rank one of her outfits over any others. Perhaps her “jaunt to a cemetery” outfit – comprised of a crisp white blouse, long plaid shorts, and high socks – is the best of the bunch.

Best line: “He’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat! Let God get his own cat if he wants one!” – Ellie Creed, learning about pet mortality

Best kill: Two of the worst injuries I can imagine are having your Achilles tendon cut and having your smile widened by a knife. That Jud Crandall’s unceremonious death incorporates both at the hands of a toddler is, frankly, really impressive.

Unexpected cameo: It’s always a pleasure seeing Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) get work. And Blaze Berdahl, who plays Ellie Creed, is better known as one of the young sleuths on the 90s children’s television show, Ghostwriter. But best of all is the author of the book, Stephen King, portraying a minister at the housekeeper Missy’s funeral.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: (1) Even if you’re sleeping outside, always wear shoes without open heels. I bet Jud regretted his choice of slipper when he felt Gage’s blade cut through his ankle. (2) When you’re buying a new family home, try to visit it during a weekday so you get a sense of how busy the nearby traffic is.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Pascow’s Ghost. Or, taken from a tombstone in the pet sematary: Biffer, Biffer, a Hell of a Sniffer.

Next up: Ju-On (2002).