The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, September 16-22

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Pet Sematary (1989)
Directed by Mary Lambert
If children don’t first learn about death through their grandparents, it’s usually through their pets. This magnificently mad movie, adapted by Stephen King from his novel, offers plenty of chances: it kills a cat, it kills a surrogate grandpa, it kills a son and baby brother, a mommy and a daddy, but still—no one seems to learn a damn thing about dying, which is what makes Pet Sematary sting. The opening credits linger on the title boneyard, filled with cats and dogs and goldfish, most of which (ichthyoids excepted) strayed onto a nearby rural route favored by speeding semis; the camera soaks up the goofy epitaphs while the soundtrack blares a creeped-out children’s choir. From the start, this a silly movie, also overwrought, fusing the two until it approaches something grand and gonzo and tragic and meaningful, summed up by the chorus of the end-credits Ramones theme, goofily commercial but also oddly moving: “I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary/I don’t want to live my life again.”

That’s a reference actually to a spot beyond the necropolis of domesticated animals, an old Mi’kmaq memorial ground where that which is buried returns—except different, in the very worst way. It’s also a reference to the fucked-up existence of the main character, a doctor (played by Dale Midkiff) and patriarch of a newly moved family; he will throughout the course of the film bury in the forbidden field many once-living things, starting with his daughter’s cat, Church (as in Winston Churchill), despite a ghost’s warning not to, also imparted to his little girl, who seems to possess some sort of shinning. (If you’re wondering why his wife, played by Denise Crosby, first appears done up like a desperately sought Susan, it’s probably because director Lambert helmed many early Madonna music videos.)

Midkiff’s antics show the lengths to which we’ll go to deny death, especially for our children—and how much worse things can get as a result. But the movie pushes further, to show the price of our emotional weakness, of our own inability to confront the finality of the lives of our family members. It’s kinda silly and sorta clumsy, but the filmmakers build to a moving and disturbing and gruesome climax, infused with the pain that parents feel watching their sweet innocent babies grow up into nastier things. (King, who makes a cameo as a preacher, is usually at least good at endings.) The hero’s tragedy is that he never learns, but for those willing to listen, the movie offers the ultimate comfort: not just that we shouldn’t fear death but that we should even welcome it. Says Poor Jud, before he’s dead (the neighbor, played by Fred Gwynne), “Sometimes, death is better.” Too bad Midkiff won’t hear him. Henry Stewart (September 18, 19, midnight at the Nitehawk)

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