Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2017)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-03-11 21:27

Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2017)
Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: March 13th, 2018

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Few films have scarred an entire generation quite like Pet Sematary, which has endured for nearly 30 years now, giving it ample time to have actually scarred multiple generations by this point. And yet, unlike so many of its contemporaries, it’s never quite been given its due: not only does it seem to be an afterthought in the discussion about great Stephen King adaptations, but it’s also rarely classed with the great American 80s horror films, a fate that’s been reflected in its home video treatment. Where the likes of Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Evil Dead are repeatedly graced with new editions overflowing with special features, Pet Sematary bowed on exactly one special edition release back in 2006 with a trio of supplements that were subsequently ported over to Blu-ray a few years later.

All told, Paramount has produced about 30 minutes of extra features in that time, a total that must have been unacceptable to John Campopiano and Justin White, a pair of fans who took it upon themselves to produce a homespun documentary to one of their favorite films. Arriving after years of scrappy, shoestring filmmaking, Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary arrives as a definitive document for the beloved film: part historical text , part love letter, it’s impressively comprehensive, especially given the multiple hurdles its directors faced.

Case in point: the duo openly admits that their status as average Joes didn’t exactly put them in the best position to contact anyone involved with the film (much less the on-screen talent), so it’s doubly impressive that they’ve managed to corral just about everyone you’d expect to hear from for this (though King himself is a notable—if not understandable—omission). Director Mary Lambert headlines a roster that includes just about every actor, from its biggest stars (Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Miko Hughes, Blaze & Beau Berdahl) to its supporting talent (Brad Greenquist, Susan Blommaert, Andrew Hubastek), plus the bit roles that were filled out by local folks (such as the truck driver from the film’s most infamous scene). Several crew members appear, like DP Bill Stein (who claims to have sworn off horror movies after lensing Friday the 13th Part 2 but was drawn in by this film’s aim to be different from the era’s slasher output), composer Elliot Goldenthal, multiple effects artists, and casting agent Fern Champion. Hell, even Heather Langenkamp makes an appearance on account of being engaged to effects guru David Anderson, not to mention Marky Ramone, who offers a quick anecdote about King’s personal request for the Queens punk quartet to write a song for the film.

Over the course of 97 sprawling minutes, these contributors—and many more—paint an amenable portrait of Pet Sematary’s production, one that takes audiences through its journey from page to screen. It’s a familiar structure, one that begins with the infamous story about how King hatched a tale that disturbed even him, so much so that it was shelved for a couple of years since he assumed no one would willingly pay to read such a fucked-up novel. Tracing its journey to the screen becomes a bit more of a non-linear affair, as Unearthed and Untold becomes a grabbag of various anecdotes, trivia (like the well-known nugget that Romero would have directed if he hadn’t already been attached to Monkey Shines), and even a tribute to the late Fred Gwynne. Campopiano and White sometimes appear alongside other horror fans (like Sean Clark), but, for the most part, they stay out of the way and cede the floor to the folks who were actually involved with the movie. They’re careful to hit all of the expected highlights, specifically the film’s most infamous—and traumatic—moments, like the aforementioned truck accident, Pascow’s gruesome appearance, the climactic freak-out with zombie Gage, and, of course, fucking Zelda.

One of the shrewdest moves is to take advantage of the almost familial, small-town vibe of the original production, which allows them to capture the infectious and cozy nature of making the film on location. King himself mandated that Pet Sematary be shot in his home state, something that’s still appreciated to this day since the production boosted the economy and provided locals with fond memories and notoriety. As such, Unearth and Untold is able to retrace the production’s steps back to these towns, giving viewers a glimpse of the actual locations and a better understanding of what goes into this particular kind of shoot. Seemingly simple stuff—like acquiring the houses that would serve as the Creed and Candall abodes—was more elaborate than you’d imagine, as it relied on actual homeowners letting the production borrow their homes for weeks. More than anything, you come to appreciate the locals’ cooperation, which extends all the way to this documentary, as those same homeowners appear here to offer their unique recollections of the shoot.

The unofficial nature of this documentary also poses the unique challenge of talking about a movie without being able to actually use its footage since, for whatever reason, Paramount apparently didn’t license it. To overcome this, however, Campopiano and White again turn to those involved, many of which still had home video footage on hand of the production. We’re often treated to vintage, fly-on-the-wall footage and still images here that captures actual filming and other behind-the-scenes prep work, such as the extensive task of overlaying the newly-constructed exterior shell of Jud’s Victorian house over the existing home (we later witness the delicate task of then burning the structure down for the film’s climax, a harrowing ordeal that left Midkiff with second-degree burns).

It’s all impressively thorough and truly captures the relaxed on-set vibe: many of the participants note just how much fun it was to be involved with Pet Sematary, and indeed, much of the footage and pictures here back that up, as the cast and crew are often seen mingling between takes. That includes King himself, who (as has often been noted) couldn’t be any different from his often disturbing work: we hear plenty of anecdotes about how agreeable and enthusiastic he was to be around on a daily basis, where he’d yuk it up with everyone (there’s a great photo of him reading some Archie comics alongside the Berdahl twins, for example). Even though King didn’t directly participate in this documentary, the filmmakers do a solid job of establishing his presence via archive footage, plus more recently-recorded talks at a local Maine college. Friends and associates—including the folks who created the original, actual Pet Sematary that inspired the novel—also appear to account for the author’s contributions to the film.

Campopiano and White are also quick to highlight another group whose contributions were vital to the film: women. Obviously, Lambert led the charge, plucked here to helm Pet Sematary after a run of indelible music videos propelled her to the top of the studio’s wish-list. Despite her relative inexperience (this was only her second feature), she asserted her authority when dealing with a studio that often had its own vision for the project, from acting choices to story decisions. However, it was actually another woman who got the ball rolling in the first place in Lindsay Doran, a studio executive who spent nearly five years convincing the studio to greenlight King’s script. When the WGA strike of 1988 sent Paramount scurrying to fill dates on their release calendar, Doran finally succeeded in winning them over, pointing out that the script was already suitable for filming, thus skirting around the strike.

Other women are also highlighted throughout, from the terrific actresses that have helped Pet Sematary to endure to the more unsung hands working behind-the-scenes. One of the most prominent here is Carlene Hirsch, the film’s lead greensman in charge of decorating exterior sets. She appears quite often, taking viewers back through the current day sets and describing how they converted them into the iconic locations that found their way on-screen, including the Pet Sematary itself and the surrounding Micmac burial ground (which are actually two remarkably different locales situated several miles apart). It’s nice to see these women receive these due, especially since scores of other films (indeed, most films) have similar unsung heroes that helped bring them to life. Of course, this was especially perfect for Pet Sematary because, as one of the on-screen scholars notes here, it’s mostly a story about men hoarding destructive secrets from women. In this respect, it’s King’s take on the 19th century gothic novels (Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula) he was teaching while writing Pet Sematary in the early 80s.

Little observations like that really help Unearthed and Untold to thrive. While it’s mostly a wistful recounting of a beloved film, it also seeks to account for why it’s endured for so long. There’s substance here to back up the fond memories, keeping the documentary from just being a breezy walk down memory lane. More than anything, it seeks to—and succeeds at—cementing Pet Sematary’s place in the King canon. In doing so, it sometimes goes a bit overboard in throwing shade at its slasher contemporaries (several folks insist that it was above and beyond those films, which is true—but still), but it makes a more than solid case for the film’s cult credentials. By the end, there’s little doubt that this film has earned such reverence: Pet Sematary is indeed an essential horror, one that will go on to traumatize generations to come, and Unearthed and Untold is a terrific testament to that.

The disc:

Recent years have seen a small boom in these sort of fan-driven documentaries, and Unearthed and Untold is the latest to arrive in that tradition. As they did for previous standout Just Desserts, Synapse has done the honors of bringing it to disc, where it arrives with a pretty solid assortment of supplements to the main feature. Campopiano and White have recorded two separate commentaries, plus provided alternate and edited takes from the documentary. 18 minutes of interview footage and anecdotes have also been scooped off of the cutting room floor for “Pet Tales,” which gives viewers some more colorful asides from the production. More vintage on-set footage also appears alongside a compilation of set photos, plus scores of promo materials for the documentary itself, including a sizzle reel, alternate poster art, and a promotional trailer.

Finally, Campopiano and White themselves appear for an 8-minute interview that truly demonstrates their dedication to this enormous task, as they recount their various struggles and triumphs. Despite its short length, this little bit captures just what a homespun, passion project this was. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these are just two fans who decided to pay tribute to Pet Sematary because they’ll admit as much themselves. Among other things, it’s quite an inspiration: if you have the time and the means to scrape together some resources and make the right contacts, maybe you, too, can produce a love letter to one of your favorite horror movies. I mean, how else are we going to get a tribute to Pet Sematary Two, which is notably conspicuous by this absence here, right?
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