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

JUNE 29, 2018


My mom was a (casual) Constant Reader, so she would often rent the movies based on Stephen King novels when they came along, and I'd watch them because I could (as opposed to the ones I asked her to rent, like Friday the 13th sequels). I think the first I saw was (heh) Maximum Overdrive, but Pet Sematary was the first I vividly remember watching, being freaked out by Zelda like so many other kids (and adults), and of course the death of Gage was probably the most upsetting thing I had seen in a film up to that point. In fact when I had a son of my own I put it at the top of my list of movies I wouldn't watch again until he was an adult, because I worry enough without the visual reminder of how easy it is to lose your whole world if you take your eyes off him for a second. BUT, I still think highly of the film (and its source material), so I was excited to check out Unearthed & Untold, which was a labor of love documentary about the 1989 film.

Like Just Desserts, the full length documentary about Creepshow, Unearth & Untold is basically the retrospective doc you might find on a big special edition of the movie, albeit released on its own. And also like Just Desserts, they couldn't manage to land King for an interview, but they shouldn't feel bad about that - George Romero himself couldn't convince him to sit down for that one. So we have to settle for a few clips from a public speaking engagement King gave a while back to hear from him, but they got literally everyone else that's still alive: director Mary Lambert, every cast member I can think of (even the guy who played the truck driver!), the DP, the composer, the Fangoria writer who covered the production for the mag... save King, I can't imagine anyone watching this and thinking "It's a shame that _____ isn't here" (Fred Gwynne being the only other omission of note, but he died in 1993 so you'd have to be a total asshole to complain about his absence). We've all seen retrospective docs for a particular favorite film only to be disappointed that major players weren't on hand, so considering the only holdouts here are a dead guy and a guy who almost literally never does anything of the sort, the two filmmakers have really pulled off an impressive feat here.

And the film's cast and crew would suffice, but they went ahead and got a few locals who were around for the film's production (which, per King's demand, was actually shot in Maine - a rarity for the films based on his novels: for example both versions of It and Dead Zone were shot in Canada, despite being Maine-set), including the owners of the house that was used for the Crandall residence. Unlike Jaws and its notoriously dickish Martha's Vineyard residents, the locals were actually pretty accommodating and happy to house the production for the most part, and remain proud of their little piece of movie history even today. Since it's "King Country" it's sort of like a badge of honor to get one of the few Maine productions for one of his films, not to mention one that he took a more active role in than usual, adapting the screenplay himself (also rare; he adapts his short stories often but has only taken on the tough job of paring his doorstop novels down to 90-120 minutes) and contributing a cameo as the priest. I was so charmed by the people I could have happily watched a documentary just about their experiences, to hell with the actors.

This approach might have prevented, or at least softened, one of the movie's noticeable flaws: it lacks any actual footage from the film itself, using only behind the scenes and promotional stills or home video footage when film clips would traditionally be shown. I thought you could use anything under "fair use" law but perhaps there is a limit (which would obviously be exceeded in a documentary specifically about the one film), and I know Paramount is stingy about clips having heard filmmaker pals' war stories about dealing with them, so it was almost certainly a budgetary restriction, i.e. nothing I hold against the movie. But it is a bit distracting to keep hearing about this or that scene, such as the fire at the end or how they pulled off getting little Miko Hughes in the shot with the truck, without any of the finished product to hammer those points home. And this extends to the music too - Marky Ramone pops up to talk about the Ramones' legendary theme song, and we don't get to hear it. Again, this is aimed at fans of the film and so it's not like you won't know what these scenes/songs are like, but it does lead to the occasional awkward presentation.

The other thing I noted as "off" is that it lacks a narrator to guide us into a new topic, and instead the filmmakers themselves show up as talking heads to fill that role. But the things they say are obviously scripted in order to set up a particular aspect of the film ("One thing that really makes the movie stand out is the music" kind of things), so their inclusion is a bit jarring when juxtaposed with the off-the-cuff, candid interviews with everyone else. A narrator would have made more sense, I think - hell they could have tried to get Blaze Berdahl to do it, as the former Ellie Creed is now a successful voiceover artist anyway. Speaking of Blaze, Ellie was actually played by twins, with her sister Beau sharing the role, but Beau's credit was buried as if she was a stunt player or something - one of the many stories we get to hear. Ultimately that's the main draw of the movie anyway, and of course I'd rather have some funky editorial decisions than a perfectly polished movie where no one has anything interesting to say.

Indeed you hear so much (these people have great memories, I tell you) that it's a shock there was anything left, but Synapse's disc release of the film (it was available on streaming platforms last year) has another 20-25 minutes' worth of excised material, primarily other anecdotes that didn't really fit in anywhere. As it is the movie doesn't always gracefully switch topics or present everything in the most flowing nature (Heather Langenkamp pops up to talk about her husband, who did makeup on the film - but doesn't tell us that connection until the second time she appears, much later in the doc), so I'm glad they made a few snips to get it into a more manageable shape. The filmmakers also contribute an interview where they talk about the origins of the project (it took them five years to make it), along with a commentary (two, actually - there's also a podcast they did that you can play over the film? I didn't bother, but hey, it's there) and some other smaller bonus features. Long story short, the disc is definitely packed enough to get your money's worth, even if it's basically all just "disc two" material.

It's a shame that it takes so long and so many willing participants to put these kind of things together, because ideally we'd have one for pretty much every movie of note. The film was a hit when it came out (speaking of box office fortunes, its less successful sequel goes unmentioned) and is usually name checked as one of the better adaptations of King's work, so it's an obvious candidate to get this kind of treatment - but if you're a bigger fan of something like Needful Things or even Maximum Overdrive, you'll likely never get treated as well. As labors of love go, it's one of the more impressive that I've seen, and Paramount would be foolish to not try and work something out to have it packaged with the original film for a mega special edition release next year when the remake comes out (and it also celebrates its 30th birthday). If that doesn't happen, it's worth the dough to pick it up on its own, and since Synapse also released Just Desserts maybe we can start lobbying them to do some others. I think it's time Silver Bullet got its due...

What say you?


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