Warning: Spoilers for both the original and the new “Pet Sematary” films are in this story.
Mainers have a different way of doing things. Case in point: the way one Mainer, hired to work on the set of the original “Pet Sematary” when it filmed in Maine in 1988, treated a particular problem during filming.
A scene called for a number of shots of trees being felled, and the Hollywood people working on set lamented the fact that they would have to shell out major cash for a pulley system to get the desired effect. Carlene Hirsch, a longtime teacher at Bangor High School who was hired as lead coordinator for exterior sets (a greensman, in film crew lingo), said they would do no such thing.
Hirsch did a very Maine thing: She called a local pulp truck driver and hired him to move the trees around, at a fraction of the cost.
“I think, in general, Mainers are a little more pragmatic and methodical than a Hollywood film crew,” Hirsch said. “I think that’s one of the things that made ‘Pet Sematery’ so special. You had these Hollywood people, and then you had a bunch of Mainers. It made the whole experience totally unique.”
The original film was released in April 1989. Exactly 30 years later, another film based on Stephen King’s 1983 book of the same name is set to come out. The 2019 “Pet Sematary,” directed by Kevin Kolsch and Denis Widmeyr, hits cinemas nationwide this Friday.
Unlike the original, the new “Pet Sematary” was not shot in Maine. Like most other films and TV series based on a Maine-set King story in the past 20 years, it was filmed elsewhere; in this case, in and around Montreal. Canada also stood in for Maine in 2017’s “IT,” and did so again for “IT: Chapter Two,” which comes out this September.
Back in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, however, there were a number of Stephen King films shot in Maine, starting with a segment of horror anthology “Creepshow 2,” filmed in Bangor in 1986, “Pet Sematary” in 1988, “Graveyard Shift” in 1990, “The Langoliers” in 1994 and “Thinner” in 1995.
“Pet Sematary” the book was specifically inspired by the King family’s yearlong stay in 1978 in a spooky old house in Orrington. He wrote in an office in a store across the road on busy Route 15, but behind the house there was an informal pet cemetery where locals buried their pets. A local kid even made a sign for it with the famous misspelling: “Pet Sematary.”
“I can remember crossing the road and thinking that the cat had been killed in the road — and [thought] what if a kid died in that road,” King said in comments on the book published on StephenKing.com. “We had had this experience with [our son] Owen running toward the road, where I had just grabbed him and pulled him back. And the two things just came together.”
In part in response to fellow Mainers who questioned why earlier films including “Carrie” and “The Dead Zone” weren’t filmed in Maine, even though the novels were set in the state, King stipulated in the film rights to “Pet Sematary” that the movie had to be shot in Maine.
For those who were extras, crew members or bystanders during the “Pet Sematary” filming in and around Ellsworth and Bangor in late summer and fall 1988, there are a lot of memories surrounding the experience of watching a Hollywood movie being filmed in their backyard.
Russell Graves doesn’t specifically remember being cast as the stand-in for Miko Hughes, the then 2½-year-old actor who played Gage Creed. Graves, an Old Town native, was himself was just 2 years old, and was brought by his mother, Barbara, to wait in line at an open audition for the movie in Ellsworth.
According to his mom, however, a casting agent spotted the blonde-haired Graves and plucked him out of a crowd of 100 people.
“They basically said something like ‘Out of the way! We need that baby!’” said Graves, now 32 and living in Bangor. “I guess I was a dead ringer for Miko. In the scene where Gage Creed is chasing the kite, before he gets killed: That’s me.”
Locals helped make a lot of things happen for “Pet Sematary,” both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. About six months before shooting began, Ellsworth native Jack Raymond was living in Castine, where he owned an electronics and video store. He was approached by location scouts for the movie, who had been told by a local realtor that Castine would be a good place to shoot. Raymond convinced the scouts that Castine — which has one way in and one way out, and little in the way of housing — was not the right spot to film. Ellsworth, however, was.
“I knew there was a big empty building in Ellsworth where they could set up their offices, and right next door to it was the Colonial Inn,” Raymond said. “Next thing I knew, they’d rented the entire top floor of the Colonial and the other building as well.”
Over the course of that summer, Raymond helped arrange housing for countless crew and cast members. He put up Dale Midkiff, who played the main character, Louis Creed, at his own house. He found a summer-long babysitter for the children of actress Meg Tilly, who was married to the film’s executive producer, Tim Zinnemann. He helped scout the location for where the actual pet cemetery set was built: in an empty lot behind the Colonial Inn.
Carlene Hirsch, as exterior set designer, designed the cemetery. The house where the Creeds lived, however, was a real house in Hancock owned by Charlie and Betty Louis. During shooting, the Louises moved to a house across the street, but Betty Louis still came to the Creed house to do a few household chores.
“They were totally amenable to everything they did to the house, as long as they put it back when they were done,” Hirsch said. “She still did her laundry in the other house during the filming, though.”
Hirsch also helped construct the facade of the ramshackle house where Jud Crandall, played by Fred Gwynne, lived. For one scene in which Jud is portrayed as a little boy, that house was supposed to look newer. The actor who portrayed young Jud was also a local — Matt Ferrell, who later became a theater student of Hirsch’s at Bangor High School.
Raymond remembers lots of shenanigans on and off set, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charlie Sheen showing up to the set to visit friends working on the film, to an overflowing pile of cocktail napkins covered in local women’s phone numbers atop a cast member’s bedroom bureau.
He also sold TVs and VCRs from his store to various individuals associated with the film, and then bought them back at half-price after filming was over and resold them at the store.
“Sold a bunch of local people a pretty much brand new TV for cheap. It was a pretty good deal for everybody,” Raymond said. “Especially me.”
It wasn’t just a good deal for Raymond. The Bangor Daily News in 1989 estimated that the film spent $1.5 million in Maine during the shoot, a fact later included in John Campopiano and Justin White’s 2017 documentary about the making of the movie, “Untold and Unearthed: The Path to Pet Sematary.”
“Pet Sematary” later grossed $57.4 million in U.S. theaters.
Though he was making few memories at that age, Russell Graves does remember bits and pieces of his filming experience — specifically, getting knocked on the noggin on the roof of a wood-paneled station wagon when Denise Crosby, who played the mother, Rachel Creed, was carrying him out of the car during a scene.
“She accidentally nailed my head, and I started screaming and my real mom came,” Graves said. “I definitely remember that. I also remember riding around in an old Toyota van with Fred Gwynne. I sat next to Herman Munster.”
Graves said he’s a little saddened that the new “Pet Sematary” was not shot in Maine. But he’s fine with the fact that in the new movie it’s not Gage Creed whose death sets the plot in motion — it’s Ellie Creed, the daughter of Louis and Rachel.
“That’s fine. I get that,” Graves said. “But it’s really a bummer that they didn’t even come to Maine. It’s too bad people don’t film things here anymore. It was a pretty amazing experience for everybody around here.”