The Augusta Historic Theater has been showing scary movies all this month. The spooky lineup continues this weekend with a Stephen King double feature.
The first feature presentation is based on a book the author considers the most frightening he's ever written. While “Pet Sematary” isn't the most frightening movie I've ever seen, it has a disturbing what-if scenario and moments of gore that are difficult to shake.
It's about a young doctor named Louis and his wife, Rachel, who move with their two children to a house in the New England countryside. When the family cat, Winston Churchill, gets run over and dies, Louis buries the poor thing in an American Indian burial ground, and the next night Winston comes back to life. The fact that he comes back as a terrifying zombie cat doesn't stop Louis from doing the same thing when people he loves start to die.
This is grim stuff. We watch Louis and his family suffer, and then we watch them suffer some more. In many ways this is one of the cheesier adaptations of King's work released in the '80s, not unlike "Silver Bullet" and "Maximum Overdrive". For instance, Louis is clearly wrestling a doll in the climactic fight with his son. But "Pet Sematary" touches a nerve – we'd all like to bring someone back from the dead – and it isn't afraid to take things too far, like when it shows a father digging up his toddler's dead body and cradling it in a graveyard.
As Louis, Dale Midkiff delivers what may be the single worst performance in any King adaptation. Luckily, he's mostly canceled out by the presence of the great Fred Gwynne, who plays Louis and Rachel's friendly new neighbor. Gwynne gives such a distinctive performance it once inspired a "South Park" parody. Look for a cameo by King, who appears in one of the film's many funeral/burial scenes.
The second, arguably superior Stephen King movie playing this weekend is "Christine", about a murderous '57 Plymouth Fury. A movie about a killer car might sound silly, but director John Carpenter makes it more intriguing than laughable. This adaptation is jam-packed with “wow” moments, and it retains King's gift for giving us sympathetic characters to root for.
Bullied teen Arnie (Keith Gordon) is lucky enough to have a few good friends, including Dennis (John Stockwell) and Leigh (Alexandra Paul). Their lives are forever changed when Arnie buys and fixes up an old broken-down car named Christine. The red-and-white vehicle only plays the golden oldies, and people have a bad habit of committing suicide or dying mysteriously while inside the car. Arnie becomes obsessed with Christine, and he also becomes a suspect when people start getting run over.
Page 2 of 2 - This is a wonderful lead performance by Gordon, who gets to show Arnie's transition from nerd to ladies man and then finally to hollow-eyed sociopath as the evil car possesses him. If the movie has a major flaw it's that its main character is ultimately unreachable, and I think the reason why this happened is because Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips removed a major character from the novel, the ghost of Christine's former owner, which explained a lot of Arnie's behavior. The filmmakers' decision to keep Arnie at arm's length can be frustrating at times, but it also makes the movie scarier and more mysterious. Up until the very end, we aren't even sure Arnie is responsible for the murders because the windows are too tinted for us to see inside the car. Whether it's “fixing” itself in front of Arnie or (in a terrifying scene) attacking Leigh at a drive-in movie theater, the malevolent car is the stuff of bad dreams.
While what happens to Arnie is tragic, the movie is mostly fun to watch, all the way up to its hilarious final line. Unlike "Pet Sematary", it's also relatively gore-free, making it more reminiscent of the horror movies that were coming out around the time Christine rolled off the assembly line in Detroit.
The Stephen King double feature will be playing this Friday and Saturday at the Augusta Historic Theater, 523 State Street. "Pet Sematary" will start at 7:30pm and "Christine" will start at 9:20pm. Admission is $6 per person and covers both movies.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He lives in Wichita.