Review : Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary was written by Stephen King in 1983 and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1986. The film adaptation was directed by Mary Lambert based on a script written by King himself and was released in 1989.

The Creed Family (Louis, Rachel and their two children) move from Chicago to a small town in Maine. They become friends with their neighbor, Judd, who lives across the road from the new Creed’s house. One day, Judd shows them the nearby pet cemetery (misspelled sematary by the children who created it). The legend says that beyond the pet cemetery, remains an old indian burial ground. When the deceased are buried there, they come back to life. When the daughter’s beloved cat is killed, Louis decides to bury the pet on the burial ground…soon after, the cat comes back to life but does not seem to be himself. Not long after, the Creed face the greatest tragedy of them all : their young boy, Gage, is hit by a truck and dies. Devastated, the father decides to perform the same ritual. But just like Church the cat, Gage isn’t himself anymore…and the horror ensues !

Pet Sematary deals with a heavy subject and is the saddest King adaptation I have watched thus far. Mary Lambert did an especially good job at mixing a sense of realism with fantastical elements, which blend perfectly and emphasize the story. 

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is always a difficult time. Losing a child might just be the greatest tragedy anyone could face. Wouldn’t you try bringing a loved one back if there was a slight chance it might work ? Even knowing the person wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t you still hope and try anyway ? Those are some of the questions raised by Pet Sematary. 

Though the film has great characterization and a story revolving around grief, it also gives us all that is needed to be a great horror film. For example, there is a story about the mother’s past which offers frightening scenes and haunting imagery. And let’s not forget the disfigured ghost who is haunting Louis.

Pet Sematary is well directed, the locations are great, the performances are stellar and the story is both tragic and scary. It is not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations, it is also one of the best horror film of the 80’s.


Review : Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is a short story written by Stephen King and first published in a 1970’s issue of the Cavalier magazine. In 1978, it was included in King’s collection of short stories, Night Shift. The film adaptation, directed by Ralph S. Singleton, was released in 1990.

In an old textile mill infested by rats, a worker dies during his night shift, attacked by an unknown assailant. A drifter passing through town and looking for a job is hired to replace him. The sadistic mill owner gathers a crew of workers to clean the rat-infested basement to avoid permanent closure. While there, they find a tunnel which they believe will lead them to the rats’ nest. When they go down there, they find something entirely different and far scarier than rats.

The premise of the film would let you expect an entertaining creature feature but unfortunately, the result is a disappointing and frustrating experience. Let’s get the obvious out of the way : Graveyard Shift is among the bad films based on Stephen King’s work. Its main problem resides in its characters. While the main character, his love interest and most of all the exterminator played by Brad Dourif are interesting enough to keep you watching, the rest of the characters range from stupid to incoherent.

The one (and only) memorable aspect of Graveyard Shift is its setting. Once the characters go down inside the tunnels, you are greeted by a great set. This labyrinth of tunnels with rooms filled with skeletons creates a creepy atmosphere.

The creature captures the essence of the film : disappointing and poorly made. The giant rat/bat hybrid works in earlier scenes when we only get a glimpse at the creature and I actually really liked the scene where the shape of a victim is visible through the monster’s transparent wing. However, once the creature is fully revealed, it loses its appeal and the climax falls short.

I could write more about Graveyard Shift and list all its flaws such as the worker screaming every time he uses a hose (I genuinely wanted to kill him myself) or the mill boss’s actions which made no sense. But I think you already have a general idea of the quality of this film : while not the worst movie I have seen, it is still pretty bad.

Review : Needful Things (1993)

Needful Things is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, published in 1991. It is the first novel Stephen King wrote after his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addictions. The adaptation was directed by Fraser C. Heston (the son of Charlton Heston) and stars Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris.

Leland Gaunt, having recently moved to the small town of Castle Rock, is the owner of the “Needful Things” shop. The peculiar shopkeeper seems to have anything your heart desires but the price to pay is as strange as the man selling the items : a small amount of money and a deed (more specifically, a prank to be played on other town folks). It doesn’t take long for the simple pranks to take a deadly turn as everyone in town is slowly destroying each other.

Needful Things is mostly receiving negative reviews, which I completely disagree with. While not being in the top Stephen King adaptations such as Misery or Stand By Me, it is still a very good film. Some critics disliked the film because they found it not funny, not scary and depressing. Well, I would argue that the film doesn’t try to be funny, doesn’t pretend to be scary and is intended to be a bit depressing. 

The highlight of the film is evidently Max Von Sydow as The Devil (no spoilers, it is pretty clear from the beginning who the character truly is). I especially enjoyed his performance because of his mystical aura. There is also a heavy Vincent Price vibe in his portrayal of the strange shopkeeper. Ed Harris also gives a great performance as the reluctant hero and the supporting cast helps create a good ensemble to carry the story.

Stephen King readers are familiar with the writer’s tendency to set his stories in small town. And this one takes place in the most famous one of them all, featured in numerous of King’s work : Castle Rock. Heston did a very good job at creating the small town look and feel.

One might assume that a story involving the devil should have a grand scale but the strength of the film is taking the opposite route and depicting the influence of evil on the lives of normal people. After all, Leland Gaunt never does anything directly to hurt people, he simply gives them a nudge and human nature does the rest. It truly shows how everyone has violent tendencies buried inside and sometimes, it doesn’t take much for them to come out.

Critics have argued that it seemed rather pointless for the devil to waste time in a small town when it is made clear that he was no stranger to catastrophes such as WW2. Personally, I viewed his stay in Castle Rock as a recreation for him : between two major disasters, he attempts to destroy small towns to entertain himself.

Needful Things may pale in comparison to films like The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption but it is indeed one of the better Stephen King adaptations. It is a well-crafted film with great performances and an interesting story. The two-hour runtime flies by so do yourself a favor and watch Needful Things !


Review : Misery (1990)

Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery was released in 1990 and stars Kathy Bathes and James Caan as the main characters. The novel, written by Stephen King, was published in  1987. Stephen King intended to release the novel under the Richard Bachman name but his secret identity was discovered before publication.

Paul Sheldon is the successful writer of the best-selling series, Misery. Having completed his new novel, he drives to meet with his editor. However, on the way, he gets into a severe accident. He is rescued by his self-proclaimed “number one fan”, Annie Wilkes, who nurses him back to health. Paul, unable to leave the house because of his injuries (and more injuries inflicted by the number one fan herself), is forced to write a new story while the local authorities try and find him after discovering his body is not at the scene of the car accident.

Good adaptations of Stephen King’s work are unfortunately a rare occurrence. Rob Reiner’s Misery is not among the good ones : it is among the few great ones. The film is simple and straightforward but it works impeccably. The tension is palpable and keeps increasing until the final confrontation. There are no twists or unexpected turns of events because the story doesn’t need them. 

Kathy Bathes really shines as Annie Wilkes and her Academy Award was well-deserved. Watching her go from a caring nurse to a psychopathic fanatic is scary and unsettling. It takes only one second for her to become enraged. James Can, however, is more passive and while he gives a good performance, he is no match for Kathy Bathes.

Stephen King explained that his novel is an allegory for drug addiction, which he struggled with for many years. The film definitely demonstrates the inability to escape someone (or something) who has a firm grip on an individual. But more than the underlying theme, the most interesting and compelling aspect of Misery is its characters.

Annie Wilkes is terrifying, especially when she has psychotic fits of rage. Paul Sheldon, who is trapped in his own success, must now fight to escape (literally). There are two minor characters who I absolutely love : the town sheriff and his wife. I loved their cute relationship and was surprised that the sheriff is not a simpleton (as small town authorities are often depicted). He is the only one who gets very close to finding the missing writer. 

Misery is a character-driven story which will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is an absolute classic which everyone should watch.


Review : Cujo (1983)

Cujo is a novel written by Stephen King which was published in 1981. Two years later, Lewis Teague brought King’s story to the big screen in an adaptation starring Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly and Danny Pintauro. The plot of Cujo is simple : a rabid dog terrorizes a woman and her son, trapping them into their car for two days.

The film opens with Cujo chasing a rabbit into a hole. Trying to reach his prey, the dog is bitten by rabid bats on the nose. The viewer is then introduced to the Trenton family : Donna (the frustrated wife having an affair), Vic (who works in advertisement and is often away on business trips) and their young son Tad (who is afraid there is a monster in his closet). The film focuses on the family’s daily life for the entire first half, showing us how their apparent happiness hides frustration and lies. In parallel, we see Cujo becoming sicker as time passes. This first half resembles more a made-for-TV family drama than the premise of a horror film.

Unfortunately, the slow pace really hurts the rhythm of the film, which is quite boring until the main characters finally encounter Cujo. When Donna and her son bring their car for repair at Cujo’s owners’ house, they find the location empty. The rabid dog attacks them, forcing them to stay inside the car…which, of course, refuses to start. A Saint-Bernard is hardly scary and Cujo does little more than running towards the car and barking. The sense of menace is therefore rather limited and it all quickly becomes repetitive. 

However, the performances from both Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro are stellar. I found myself wondering what the crew did to traumatize the boy as his tears and fear seem too genuine and real to be fake. That little boy will break your heart when you hear him crying of terror.

The story is extremely simplistic and so is the subtext : the mother’s isolation inside the vehicle echoes the sense of entrapment she feels in her marriage. It is a thin story, with very little scares, too much exposition and no pay-off in the end.