This past April marked the 25th anniversary of the release of PET SEMATARY, the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 horror novel of the same name. Its emotional themes — grief, guilt, and denial — are somewhat unusual relative to the 1980s American horror film canon, as its rabid fan base will attest. Among these loyalists is filmmaker and archivist John Campopiano, who has spent nearly four years hustling around the country with co-director Justin White to create a unique full-length documentary about the making of the film. Following its world premiere at The Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth, Maine, earlier this month, UNEARTHED & UNTOLD: THE PATH TO PET SEMATARY makes its Boston premiere this weekend at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of its ongoing After Midnite program.
Campopiano was more than happy to talk with Boston Hassle about his experience making the documentary, watching the original film with a fresh perspective, and the perils of attempting the Down East Maine accent. This interview was conducted via email during September 2014.
Boston Hassle: There’s a notable undercurrent of crowdsourcing in your film, from the set photos and video footage you incorporate from locals and the production crew, to the audiovisual elements provided by fans of the original film whom you’ve met along the way. Were you surprised by how well-documented the production was?
John Campopiano: To be honest, we weren’t surprised. I’m making somewhat of an assumption here: I think in rural communities there tends to be a greater appreciation and even interest in community events and opportunities for entertainment, as compared to more urban communities where those outlets are more commonplace. If there’s any truth to this assumption, then it shouldn’t be surprising that troves of local Mainers came to the set – Polaroid camera and/or video camera in hand – with the hopes of catching a glimpse of Hollywood.
It was because of the fact that such documentation did happen that we felt the motivation to hunt these materials down and present them in a fun and interesting way that would appeal to not only fans of PET SEMATARY, but also anyone interested in regional horror filmmaking, Stephen King, or even Maine state history in general. And this feels like an appropriate time to reiterate something we’ve been sure to acknowledge along the way: this documentary would not have been possible had it not been for the individuals willing to share their photographs, home videos, and memories with us.
All of this is to say that this film is a labor of love, through and through. For better or worse, we really did man our own ship throughout the entire three-and-a-half year process. Equipment was paid for, plane tickets bought, gas tanks filled, etc., etc., all on our own. The two of us located interviewees and those who contributed materials, composed questions, shot the interviews (with the exception of a few that we paid to have done for us), wrote the film itself, and edited it all on our own.
BH: How did you settle on the title of the film?
JC: We wanted the title to encompass two important elements: the fact that viewers will be hearing many stories for the first time and the lengths to which we went to track down people and behind-the-scenes materials. “Unearthed” represents for us the act of bringing to light materials (photos, video, etc.) that haven’t seen the light of day in over 20 years, and “Untold” represents that notion that many of the stories shared within the film are being told on camera for the first time. Adding “The Path to Pet Sematary” at the end was just our way of acknowledging a geographical place in the film that is central to the story: the various paths that lead the main characters to the two different burial grounds and, often, to their demise.
BH: Documentaries about the making of a film sometimes gloss over the on-set challenges and technical flaws. Did these sorts of recollections arise during interviews with the cast and crew? If so, how did you handle them?
JC: The reality of documentaries is that it’s impossible to tell the whole story. So, what you do is step back and try to isolate enough material to tell the larger story in a way that gives the history a fair representation. To your question, I think the documentary definitely touches on logistical and production challenges that PET SEMATARY faced. In fact, much of our specific angle — the local perspective — is anchored in what was a major logistical challenge: actually getting the film shot on location in Maine. Cast and crew who have already seen the film have told us that it’s fair in its telling of some of these challenges and flaws. Had Justin and I been willing to have this be a three-hour long piece, then we might have been able to go into more detail and flesh out some areas we passed on.
BH: From the conversations you’ve had with Maine locals about the film, what does it get right about their home state? Where does it falter?
JC: I think some of the nuances of the principal characters, such as their connection to the physical earth — emphasis placed on lineage and tradition — were perceived as being true to real Mainers. King, a Mainer since he was little, did write the book and subsequent screenplay after all.
That said, not everything translated so smoothly from the page to the screen. One aspect of the film that often triggers laughs and grunts among locals is the way a Down East Maine accent was attempted. Many felt that those in the film who were supposed to be Maine locals butchered the accent to the point of it being comical. And then, of course, you have those who are intimately familiar with the filming locations that were used and can recognize immediately that places and landmarks are not actually where they’re purported to be in the film.
BH: Have you watched PET SEMATARY since you wrapped production on the documentary? If so, how has the film changed for you?
JC: I have, and of course! I feel a strange personal connection to the film as a result of exhausting so much energy on the documentary over the last 3+ years. Being in close communication with many of the cast and crew has also contributed to this feeling of having a personal connection to it. When I watch the film now, it’s hard to not think about how scenes were shot, where scenes are supposed to be geographically located in the film, where they were actually filmed, and so on.
The flip side to that is now I can’t really casually watch it as a straight horror film and as a fan – that, for me, is bittersweet. I suppose it’s just the natural result of spending so much time on a single film or subject. It’s funny — I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how filmmakers or writers of films often never actually see the final product, or choose to see it once and never again. My feeling is that I won’t be going out of my way to see PET SEMATARY after this is all said and done, and I’ll probably try even less to see the documentary itself. I’m proud of it, but I’m a little burnt out. Plus, both Justin and I have started to experience the feelings of never really being pleased with the “final” cut. There seem to always be things to tweak, drop, or add. If we allowed ourselves, we’d probably continuing editing it until the end of time.
BH: While it was a commercial success at the time of its release, PET SEMATARY received a lukewarm response from critics. The critical tide seems to have turned more favorable in recent years, though. In your opinion, what factors have contributed to the critical re-evaluation of the film?
JC: In general, I think horror films tend to get snubbed by critics. This isn’t always the case, but I think it’s rare to see a horror film receive the same kind of critical accolades as a drama, for example.
The passage of time has also allowed for perspective, particularly with regards to the Stephen King canon. So many Stephen King horror films have come along since PET SEMATARY that I think now it’s often considered a success, if for no other reason than how it’s compared to many of his other films. Most adaptations that followed it (GRAVEYARD SHIFT, THINNER, SLEEPWALKERS) flopped, and are mainly remembered today only by ardent King fans.
In combining both aforementioned points is my belief that, primarily for lower budgeted horror films, some critics have either accepted or learned to embrace the campy and schlocky nature of older horror films. It’s almost as if older films are evaluated nowadays with new lenses and using different criteria. I think a lot of this centers around nostalgia and possessing a desire to reconnect with some of the films from our youth. Feelings of nostalgia are wrapped up in several different aspects of reconnecting with campy films, from a newly found appreciation for practical effects to the originality of the stories and films themselves.
UNEARTHED & UNTOLD: THE PATH TO PET SEMATARY (2014) DIR. JOHN CAMPOPIANO, JUSTIN WHITE, 100 minutes
Friday 10/3 & Saturday 10/4, 11:59PM
Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446