June 4, 2023

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

Full disclosure: Pet Sematary is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, and by far my favorite adaptation of a Stephen King book. I’m hardly alone in this opinion; Mary Lambert’s 1989 masterpiece seems to garner a strong reaction from every horror buff, and simply screeching “Rachel!” may send a shiver up their spine.

Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, offers an in-depth look behind the magic that went into making such a timeless horror classic. Directors John Campopiano and Justin White have put tremendous effort into making sure this documentary dug beyond surface level facts, through the dirt and corpses and into the supernatural spirit which keeps this classic alive.

The documentary opens with an analysis of how the WGA strike helped the movie get made. Lambert was in love with the screenplay for Pet Sematary and had been lobbying for years for the studio to begin production, all to no avail. The prevailing opinion of studios was the reign of Stephen King adaptations had run its course, and further adaptations would be poorly received by audiences. The strike, however, forced studios to actively seek screenplays which weren’t merely completed, but also required no rewrites. Lambert seized this golden opportunity, and after some more pushing, she not only got the movie into production, but was granted the director’s chair.

Now, avid fans of the film may already know this story, since horror buffs tend to research the genre like they’re earning a doctorate in scares. Where the documentary truly shines is in the wide variety of interview subjects, providing as rich a historical picture as viewers could ask for. Along with multiple revelations from Lambert herself, tales are told from principle actors, pet wranglers, the composer, set decorators, and even the owners of the real life “Pet Sematary” which inspired King’s novel.

I’m willing to bet anyone who liked Crystal Lake Memories or Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy will feast on the wealth of behind-the-scenes information presented. Some tidbits are well-known facts, such as that Zelda (who, arguably, steals the show with her scenes) was played by a young man rather than a woman. Other stories, such as how hard Lambert fought the studio to hire Miko Hughes to play Gage rather than hiring twin child actors, are gems which make the documentary sparkle.

Although King himself isn’t featured, his presence permeates almost every on-set tale. He wasn’t hands-on, nor was his presence overbearing to the production; rather, he’s discussed as a giddy horror fan with absolute gratitude for his set visits. Around the time Pet Sematary was made, King was criticized by some residents of Maine because, despite the bulk of his work being set in the state, all the movie adaptations were being filmed in La La Land. This criticism was answered by King’s own lobbying for the movie to be shot closer to his home, and according to cast members, the authentic Maine atmosphere and proximity to the actual Pet Sematary did wonders for their character portrayals. This small miracle, however, also created a financial difficulty for the production, as well as mild discomfort for Maine locals who weren’t used to the light pollution of film sets.

Perhaps the documentary’s greatest contribution to the film’s legacy is the thorough analysis of Pet Sematary’s place in horror film history. After all, this was a time when slashers and maniacs were the faces of the horror genre—what were the risks in presenting audiences with a story featuring such personal tragedy? This is explored in detail, along with the challenges in working with child actors without traumatizing them with FX gore applications.

I could ramble on and repeat everything I learned from the documentary, but that would spoil all the fun. All I’m going to say is it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen on a single horror film, and the next time Pet Sematary scares the hell out of me, I’ll know just how much blood, sweat, and tears went into every chilling second.

The Path to Pet Sematary

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Rod Labbe
Rod Labbe
6 years ago

Loved the documentary; I interviewed John and Justin about Pet Sematary, and it’ll be appearing in Scary Monsters Memories 2017–along with brand new interviews with Brad (Pascow) Greenquist and Dale (Louis Creed) Midkiff. The issue will be on the stands in March or April. Incidentally, I’m also in Unearthed & Untold. I covered the movie exclusively for Fangoria, way back in October of 1988!

Rod Labbe
Rod Labbe
4 years ago
Reply to  chasemwill89

Wow, I just saw this! Yep, covering Pet Sematary was a great way for me to get my feet wet with Fangoria. The first time I went to the set was in early October of 1988. They were filming in Bangor (Maine’s) Mount Hope Cemetery, the scene where Louis decides he’s going to exhume the body of his son. That’s when I met Brad Greenquist and interviewed him, along with the FX guys. What an experience! I went back a week or so later, and they were in Ellsworth, Maine, where quite a few interiors were filmed. That’s where I interviewed Denise Crosby and Dale Midkiff. Hard to believe that’s almost 30 years ago!

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