12.20.2012

King's Highway pt. 58: Pet Sematary


THE NOVEL

Although it was nominated the year after it first appeared for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (1984), neither Pet Sematary nor its author was reviewed particularly-favorably at the time. The New York Times expressed disappointment that "the horror, which, when the last drop of blood finally spills, (is no) worse than the experience of reading a 373-page version of W. W. Jacobs's famous short story, 'The Monkey's Paw.'" 


The reviewer also observes: "What has always made Mr. King so effective as a storyteller is his instinct for subtly exploiting the unconscious hostility and consequent guilt that men and women feel in the routine of living with each other and raising their children." True. This is as accurate as the previous comment re: the-experience-of-reading PS is off-the-mark.  

Kirkus also mentioned "Monkey's Paw" in its review, adding that "King's 400-page version reads like a monstrously padded short story, moving so slowly that every plot-turn becomes lumberingly predictable."

Its reputation has improved considerably over time - thankfully, as it's a funereally-good read, steeped in moral relativism and American Gothic Horror. I don't think it's perfect, but it works because it doesn't cheat: it ticks off each box of said genre with no apology and doesn't let you skip over any of the nitty-gritty. No, you have to dig the graves, climb the deadfalls, walk through the woods, and stay up grieving with no commercial break. 

I was unaware of the above reviews back in 1988 when I read it. At the time, it enjoyed the reputation of King's best novel among everyone I knew that had read it. Which was basically my buddy Chris and his older brother, my dentist, and my optometrist, all with whom I discussed a lot of King in those days. 

Reading this in 2012 "brought me back," no pun intended, and I had a strong associative-memory of being driven back and forth to those appointments and listening to Metallica's And Justice for All. At the time, the arrangement with my mother was that I could play my cassette on the way home after an appointment; on the way to, it was always Oldies 103.
Cover to the UK edition I read this time around. A side-note: it was cheaper to purchase this from a used-bookstore in UK, including the price of shipping, than it was to buy it locally. Always bizarre when that happens.
The story is like some negative print of A Christmas Carol. Where Ebeneezer Scrooge learns what he needs from his supernatural visitations to realize his salvation, Louis Creed, from the moment we meet him, is doomed. As is his family: of the four Creeds we meet (five, if you count Church the Cat, which I think we certainly should, so, five) all but one are dead by novel's end. (And the lone survivor is in the hospital, traumatized, under heavy sedation.) And where Scrooge's ghostly visitors are benevolent, Louis's are increasingly malevolent. Both works propose an epistemological system where supernatural forces from beyond the grave offer warnings and opportunities to the living; how they are heeded (or unheeded) determines everything else.

...Unaware of these other happenings, like slow-moving projectiles aimed not at where (Louis) was, but rather in the best ballistics tradition at the place where he would be...

It's a story that, from the dedication page to its last few sentences, is concerned with buried things, most particularly buried things that rest uneasily in the ground or in the unconscious. It's divided into three parts and an Epilogue. Part One, "The Pet Sematary," contains all that will resurface in parts two and three. The Creeds arrive at their new home in Ludlow, Maine. It lies between The Road, which is really an ominously-established highway where huge trucks barrel down the freeway, leaving a trail of dead animals on either side of it, and The Woods, through which a trail leads to the Pet Cemetery of the title. (The variant spelling comes from the crude, childlike scrawl on the weather-stained arch at its entrance) Beyond a deadfall-barrier at its edge lies a trail to the title for Part Two, "The Micmac Burial Ground," an otherworldly stony plain atop an ominous hill that lies under unrecognizable constellations. It is a supernatural place, where one hears horrifying lunatic laughter on approach and where time bends around itself. 
"It may sound like voices, but it's just the loons," Jud Crandall tells Louis. Although Jud is providing false assurance, here, loons are crazy-sounding, to be sure, and their mad cries reverberate through the North Woods.
Burial ground from the movie. Actually pretty much exactly how I pictured it from the book, so well done, movie.
And the Sematary itself. (I'll just stay with that spelling.)
What is buried there returns... though not like it was before. From a mixture of the burial ground and the buried-trauma of Rachel Creed comes the title for Part Three, "Oz The Gweat and Tewwible."

King says of this one:

"That book was pretty personal. Everything in it—up to the point where the little boy is killed in the road—everything is true. We moved into that house by the road. It was Orrington instead of Ludlow, but the big trucks did go by, and the old guy across the street did say, You just want to watch ’em around the road. We did go out in the field. We flew kites. We did go up and look at the pet cemetery. I did find my daughter’s cat, Smucky, dead in the road, run over. We buried him up in the pet cemetery, and I did hear Naomi out in the garage the night after we buried him. I heard all these popping noises—she was jumping up and down on packing material. She was crying and saying, Give me my cat back! Let God have his own cat! I just dumped that right into the book. And Owen really did go charging for the road. He was this little guy, probably two years old. I’m yelling, Don’t do that! And of course he runs faster and laughs, because that’s what they do at that age. I ran after him and gave him a flying tackle and pulled him down on the shoulder of the road, and a truck just thundered by him. So all of that went into the book. 

And then you say to yourself, You have to go a little bit further. If you’re going to take on this grieving process—what happens when you lose a kid—you ought to go all the way through it. And I did. I’m proud of that because I followed it all the way through, but it was so gruesome by the end of it, and so awful. I mean, there’s no hope for anybody at the end of that book."

Indeed. I suppose the last line is ambiguous enough where you don't know if Louis really lives or dies. (Though he is most certainly going to prison, if he does.)

The movie ends on a more definitive - but equally tragic - note.
There are many viewpoints on the phenomenon of sublimation, but the reader needn't concern his or her self too particularly with them. All that you need is spelled out or hinted-at-strongly-enough in the text itself.

"Louis thought [Rachel] might eventually get rid of this awful, rancid memory that had haunted her for so long... he knew that there are half-buried things in the terrain of any human life, and that human beings seem compelled to go back to these things and pull at them, even though they are cut. Tonight, Rachel had pulled almost all of it out, its nerve infected..."

Trauma that is not successfully excavated tends to come back with extreme prejudice, which is exactly what happens when Louis exhumes and re-buries their son Gage - run down in the road - in the burial ground beyond the Sematary.

I sympathize with the filmmakers, here; it's more or less impossible to convey on screen the Killer Gage of the novel.
Still, it leads to some unintentional comedy, as this clip demonstrates. His "signature giggle," in particular, is grating.
Gage Creed may be gone, but his sneaker will return in Insomnia.
The passages of the novel that describe the journeys to and from the burial ground are my favorite bits. King shines when he's walking in the woods. The grave-digging scenes are fine examples of suspense-writing. It's difficult to see how this tale could be told without them, though my thought while reading them was that they took up perhaps too much space. Speaking of, Louis got everything he needed to dig up his son's grave for $58.50. It'd be interesting to price the same items now; I bet it would be twice that.

The Micmacs themselves serve the story's themes of uneasy-burial and landscape-ghosts, as well. Jud describes them:

"They (were here) for a thousand years, or maybe it was two thousand - it's hard to tell, because they did not leave their mark deep on the land. And now they are gone again... same way we'll be gone, someday, although I guess our mark will go deeper, for better or worse. But (this place) will stay no matter who's here, Louis."

The Wendigo, that terrifying spirit of the North Woods, is the Trauma That Endures. Jud refers to Timmy Baterman - one of the "three ghosts" that visit Louis (in some form) - as "something that has been touched by the Wendigo. We "see" it in the shadows through Louis's eyes on his way to the burial ground with Gage. The Wendigo as a concept has always fascinated me, as has the tale of Jack Fiddler, who claimed to kill several of them; I've always wondered if he was just a serial killer who exploited the myth or if he was the Cree's real-life Van Helsing. (Cree/ Creed?) It is used to great effect, here, by King.

An illustration by Matt Fox for the Algernon Blackwood story, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, 1944.
SOME OTHER THOUGHTS

- The book is dedicated to Kirby McCauley. Whatever happened to that guy?

- Interesting fan theory on Norma Crandall can be found here on the SK Forum. If that doesn't open, the gist of it is that Norma died and returned to life via the burial ground and that this is Jud's secret (and ultimate doom). I don't think it's what King intended, myself, but it's a fun idea.

- At one point, Ellie mentions Little Black Sambo and Louis thinks "I'd have thought that would have become an un-book by now," i.e. something removed from schools in our thankfully-more-aware-of-offensive-racial-iconography era.

I don't think it's brought up here to deliberately evoke that idea of past-trauma buried in consciousness returning to bite you, though it's certainly worth noting how often this book "re-surfaces" (ahem - I've got digging things up on the mind) in King's work. It may even be mentioned as many times as Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." I don't have a running count or anything, or even a list of examples. That it's an incidental detail that resonates so well with the theme is probably just coincidence or luck, but we all know what Obi-Wan Kenobi has to say on that subject.

(Sambo's creator, by the by, is Helen Bannerman. Whether or not she's related to the late Castle Rock Sheriff is unknown.)

- Poor Church!


As far as abused-Creed-family-members go, Church wins hands-down. He's neutered, run over, covered in stank, kicked repeatedly, and then killed again. In the film, Church comes across as more malevolent; in the book, he's more a victim of circumstance. (I guess he does trip Louis when he tries to rescue Gage, but at that point, Louis has already abused him enough; I was cheering him on.)

- Poor Ellie, too; that kid's going to have quite a time getting over all this crap. Maybe she'll show up in Doctor Sleep.

- I didn't get a chance to listen to the radio serialization of the story, but it's out there.

THE MOVIE

Miko Hughes, then
Miko Hughes in Tropic Thunder (2008)
I somehow never saw this movie when it first came out (though I did have the Ramones tape that had the title-track; not one of their best. I loved it at the time) or any of the thousands of times it's been on cable since. A good overview of the recently-released Blu-Ray can be found here. "With a $57 million domestic gross, (it) became the most successful King film (up to that time), and it has only been eclipsed by three such efforts since (Misery, The Green Mile, and 1408)."

Successful at the box office, sure, but as an adaptation of the book, it's not-very. Dawn and I watched it last night.
It has its moments. Judged against some of its contemporaries, it's probably more-than-acceptable. The burial ground/ cemetery/ real-Maine setting is cool, and the menace of The Road is conveyed well:




And Fred Gwynne gives an eccentric performance which is a little off-in-spots but still easily the best part of the movie.

The "Dead is Bett-uh" thing has definitely lived on in pop-cultural memory, for better or worse.
Mainly, the problems are these:

1) King's script makes some weird changes to the story: No Norma, but a maid-character named "Missy" is added (actually, the Creeds may have a laundry-lady, I can't recall offhand), and her death takes the place of Jud's wife's; what purpose does this change serve? Victor Pascow gets the "The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis" line; why? It makes little sense in its new context and is not reflected-back-upon by Louis at any point. Other puzzling changes: It is Jud and his friends who murder Bill Baterman and son and burn their home to the ground. (With no devilish smack talk from Tim before they do) Victor Pascow shows up, again, to warn Louis at the graveyard (And this daytime visit to the grave is a little odd... he ends up going back at night to exhume Gage's body, but we clearly see him throw a pick and shovel over the fence during the day. Huh? It seems needlessly confusing. I guess it's done to convey he struggled with the decision, or something, but it's not handled all that well.) Also, Steve Masterson is introduced only obliquely (he just sort of shows up at the funeral to restrain Louis) and his just-barely resisting the call of the Wendigo at novel's end is excised completely.

2) The casting. The girl playing Ellie is painful to watch in spots (or at least just annoying) but okay, maybe that's a judgment call. Doesn't dilute anything, really, for her character or place in the story. Rachel Creed, on the other hand,


is de-sexualized completely. If you recall from the book, she and Louis get it on a lot, which, I feel, adds good counterpoint; it helps sketch the humanity they slowly lose. But okay, maybe they were trying to keep it PG-13... except wait, it's rated R. Okay, well, maybe no one wanted to see Tasha Yar getting busy on fifty-foot screens. (Maybe Data. Maybe.) More importantly, her problem with death/ buried-trauma with Zelda is handled too breezily; it makes the scene where she recounts her sister's death seem like window-dressing rather than essential-characterization/establishment-of-theme. 

Speaking of Zelda, most everyone I've talked to about the movie mentions how scary the sequences with Zelda seemed to them back in the day. I can see how these scenes would have seemed creepy at the time, definitely, but they haven't aged well. 
Part of it is Perry Farrell's never-quite-disbelief-suspending performance as a little girl...
Okay, so it's not Perry Farrell, but Andrew Hubatsek. The "twisted sister" aspect is indeed gruesome in spots, but... I mean, it's far too obvious this is a guy in drag. Even for 1989 standards. Apparently, he was chosen because they couldn't find a girl "that skinny." This seems ridiculous to me
Zelda comes across as a pop-out scare (spinal-meningitis-'sploitation?) rather than a vehicle for Oz the Gweat and Tewwible.

Finally, Dale Midkiff is not a good choice for Louis Creed. Not only does he not seem like the character from the novel, he just isn't convincing as a doctor or a grieving father. The novel spends time making Louis's actions and his motivations, ambivalent as they are, believable; the film doesn't. He just mumbles and squints a lot.

3) The editing is erratic in key spots. Two scenes stand out: the sudden-switch to Victor Pascow being brought into the clinic at the University, and the sudden-switch from home-to-Gage's-funeral. They are too jarring, not in a gasp-inducing jump-cut way but in a deprive-the-scene-of-impact way. Establishment shots that could have gone a long way to better set the mood are missing, most particularly for Louis's ordeal at the graveyard and his journey back to the burial ground. The atmosphere from the book is lost, as a result, or at least much-watered-down. Not sure if this is a problem of the screenplay...

Another argument against a writer adapting his own material? GRRM seems to do ok. <shrugs>
or the director...
Mary Lambert, whose other work is mainly in music video, though she did recently give the world Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid, memorable mainly for starring former 80s-"rivals" Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.
but it definitely should have been fixed. As it stands, the film reads like a story with pages missing.

And 4) although this is admittedly very, very minor, during Rachel's flashback, she runs down the stairs screaming "Zelda's dead! Zelda's dead!" just like in the book, only she passes several "neighborhood kids" gathered around the door... what? Why are these kids here? Who are they? How did they get there? What's the point of adding them and introducing them this way?

So, final verdict, the power of the novel awaits effective realization onscreen. Not the worst thing I've ever seen and far from the worst-King-adaptation there is. Acceptable lazy-afternoon-fare. But with a little tightening up and some more thoughtful casting, it could have been so much better.

NEXT: Zeroing in on finishing/ ranking all the novellas and all the Bachmans. Or the "with Stewart O'Nan"s. Which will be complete first? Tune in to see, true believers!

13 comments:

  1. My thoughts on the Norma-is-a-zombie theory: balderdash. She was nothing of the sort. If she was, she'd have been killing people and stinking up every room she was in, and since neither of those things happened, there is zero chance that that was what King intended. She's just sick and dying.

    Jack Fiddler, Wendigo Slayer -- seems like a SyFy movie waiting to happen.

    I look forward to -- and, simultaneously, dread -- a genuinely scary remake of the movie one of these days. It's bound to happen.

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    1. Yeah I don't buy it, either, but it's fun to consider. The original proponent of the theory (vcalio372) provides just-enough-textual-"evidence" to make it seem possible. But, I certainly don't think it's what King intended, or even all that likely, all things considered.

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  2. The first King novel I ever read. Was living in a rickety dormitory at a Great Lakes amusement park where I worked the summer of 1985. I read it in two sessions. The second night, I left my room and went to the lobby to finish it. It creeped me out that much. It's still one of my favorites.

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    1. Nice, Brian, thanks. I love re-connecting with the scenery/ first impression on re-read. King mentions writing as telepathy in On Writing, and I certainly don't argue. But reading is a lot like time-travel, too. (Or at least re-reading.)

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  3. It was a good summer. Lived in a world class amusement park on Lake Erie(Cedar Point), got over a broken relationship, and discovered my favorite author. . .and did a whole lot of other things I can't disclose.

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  4. - "Poor Ellie, too; that kid's going to have quite a time getting over all this crap. Maybe she'll show up in Doctor Sleep."

    Oh God.

    Um, okay, I don't know if I'll get in trouble with the this or not, but here goes.

    I've said before how I'm against the idea of any sequel for Danny Torrance. One idea however I'm sort of okay with is the of a brief cameo appearance by a grown up Danny.

    When I think what could have happened to Danny I think, "He went on to teach at Stovington Prep and became a well established playwright and essayist/critic. He's the man his Dad never managed.

    In this idea, Danny and Doctor Sleep are two different characters. That's why i wondered, well who on earth could Doctor Sleep be is he meets Danny at Stove? That's a high priced establishment that doesn't accept credit or personal checks.

    Then I remembered the name of this Old Established New England family from Dead Zone, and the question occured, well, what if the current line has fallen on hard times, and I mean real ba big time?

    What if something like the wife died, the Dad lost everything in the recent recession and then took the stock-makers way out so to speak, leaving behind a son in college with just enough money to coast on. And what if this son, who's a product of a bad home life, has ways a menas of surviving his parents don't know about, one of them is in the drug making and dealing business, the other is, well a kind "Shining On"?

    Enter Jimmy James Gendron, known in the drug culture as Doctor Sleep, the best and most infamous manufacturer and seller of assorted satellites like crystal meth, prime A cocaine and some really deadly stuff that's naturally the hottest ticket on demand in the market.

    To be continued.

    ChrisC

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    1. Part 2

      These were the ideas that, literally, just came into my head as I sat and thought about the sequel. I saw how with such a set up it would be easy for Danny and this character named Doctor Sleep to meet.

      I thought that was it, until I wondered what reputation Danny might have at Stove and then this line occured out of nowhere:

      "They called him Professor Peabody, after that four eyed, pipe smoking Beagle in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. I didn't care if he called himself lord high king of turd mountain, all I knew was he asked me to his office."

      I swear to you, that all just came mostly by itself. In my mind's eye I saw this Jimmy James Gendron (aka teenage drug mogul Doctor Sleep) walking along the halls of Stove Prep to the office of the head of the English dept (of course Danny's head of English Lit. What else would he be?) wearing creased khaki slacks blue blazer and white button sleeve shirt and tie.

      In this set up, Danny calls him to his office and tells Doctor Sleep all about himself, including is recent drug activities around school. All at once Jimmy James has had enough of this happy crappy, and he gets up, reaching for the switchblade he keeps on his pocket at all times, even in friendly company, just in case you understand.

      To be Continued.

      ChrisC

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    2. Part 3

      As Doctor Sleep stands up, hand in his pocket with switchblade, the following thought occurs to him.

      Sit Down.

      Doctor Sleep (blinks): Huh

      NOW!!!!!!!!!!

      And it's like he's been punched square in the face by Muhammad Ali, yet never moves from behind his desk, just goes on staring at him like some curious specimen found under a rock. In fact, the impact sends Sleep tumbling back into his chair and his nose bleeds.

      Yeah, this is a grown up version of Danny nobody messes with, the kind maybe even ghosts and monsters are afraid, a thought which might have led to another idea but I'll get to that in a moment.

      Anyway, in this scenario Danny is like the older adviser, he's like the Gandalf or Van Helsing of the story yet he only appears in it briefly and doesn't take part in the main action, in that way he's sort of more like the host, really.

      Danny tells this version of Doctor Sleep that he's willing to let him go so long as never comes within inches of either Stove or Vermont again. he tells Jimmy that he's already informed the cops about a few of his classmate cohorts already yet he hasn't told them about him yet.

      Danny also mentions how Sleep's classmates, the ones who helped him push the stuff along, used to be some of the most promising students in class, in fact, he thought of them as prize pupils, till Sleep came along and ruined their futures.

      Sleep asks the obvious, why not put the finger on him? Danny says if he were like any other druggie he would, the fact that they have something in common (Shine) makes things a bit more difficult, especially since Sleep is like a book to Danny, so to speak, and he knows what Sleep's never told to anyone else.

      Danny takes a chance and says he's willing to let Jimmy go, proved he leaves Stovington Prep and never sets foot in Vermont again. Jimmy James agrees and hits the open road.

      What's all this got to do with Rachel Creed though?

      To be continued.

      ChrisC

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    3. Doctor Sleep now thumbs his way down the road, figuring to lay low for awhile until things die down. He's a patient guy, he can wait things out, and besides he always wanted to see a bit of the country. In my mind I can see his road walking self in torn jeans, sneakers, dirty gray shirt and a Nehru jacket, or maybe a Vietnam vets jacket.

      Everything is fine for the most part till one night he is maybe getting some ice outside a motel somewhere still up north, and he sees this guy chasing after a girl or maybe she bumps into him and they get in an argument.

      Here's one thing, my version of Doctor Sleep is a real mean bad guy, he goes beyond Bachman protagonist in my imagination, maybe even near borderline. He's really crazy.

      Anyway, the result of bumping into this twenty-something girl called Abra Stone is suddenly people keep stalking him and he keeps noticing the same set of RV's hanging around wherever he is.

      That's where this "True Knot" deal crops and they're like trying to get rid of him because "he's too much in the way" and all that.

      At one point imagined one of those vampire like guys tossing him a newspaper while Abra's right in front of both of them and the front page talks about a forest fire in Maine. Abra sees this and tries to take the paper away before he can read more but either Sleep or one of the "Knot" men retrains her.

      Sleep then learns Abra is just a pseudonym, her real name is Rachel Creed, and she's the one responsible for the "Great Fire of 94 etc" in the Maine north woods. Guess what she was trying to burn down?

      That's as far as I got on my thinking for the most part.

      To be concluded.

      ChrisC

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    4. all that was a surprise for me, to tell the truth. I didn't expect anything like this. For instance, that idea of Danny seeing his prize students wrecked by Doctor sleep just occurred to me fully formed while writing this multi-comment.

      Don't shoot the messenger.

      Anyway, the funny thing was the questions those ideas raised in my mind. The questions were: Can a monster ever be afraid of anything in the way people are? Can they be henpecked and neurotic? Could you tell this story from the monster's perspective? Can the Shining be a weapon? Can a villain be a hero?

      The idea occurred to me of setting part of the novel from "Knot's" viewpoint and I'll be damned if they weren't like Philip K. Dick protagonists, obsessive, neurotic, with a strange dysfunctional family life and having fears strangely like most of our own. It was like this surreal take on the mobile nuclear family, only I have no details to give there.

      Aside from this blog comment, it's always been only in my head and that's where it's going to remain and nowhere else.

      I was just stunned, however Bryan, if you remember that comment I emailed you about Doctor Sleep, I think you'll see how such an idea occurred to me and why I tend to believe in archetypes.

      The real funny thing for me is my idea for the ending. It takes us right back to Danny. We're in his office at Stove Prep again and Rachel is like his student and he's reviewing a story she's written and is impressed by her skills.

      She tells him some of it's based on personal experience. He believes her.

      ChrisC

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    5. Hey, those are some cool ideas, Chris. You should change the names and write them out; I bet you could get it published. Although it works better, of course, with the King-verse behind it, as character and thematic background, there's no reason why it can't mean that to you (the author) and something else/ await discovery from the reader.

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    6. Well, thanks for the encouragement. It's enough right now however freelancing nonfiction on the market for me.

      The more i think about it, the more it kind of sounds like something Joe Hill would write. I even thought at one point, you know, this moving way out of the normal range of most King stories.

      ChrisC

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    7. P.S.

      Since I've wanted to post this for a while and was just waiting for the right time, consider this like a humorous example of one of the reasons for my misgivings about Doctor Sleep courtesy of that Nostalgia Critic guy.

      Copy, paste, enter and enjoy

      http://blip.tv/nostalgiacritic/nostalgia-critic-jaws-4-the-revenge-5118712

      ChrisC

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