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Friday, 15 March 2019

Streaming Horror: Pet Sematary (1986)


Before the latest adaptation of Stephen King's Pet Sematary hits cinemas next month, I thought I'd remind myself of the original from 1989, another veteran of the VHS years that I'm pretty sure I haven't seen for decades.

And, to be honest, while well made, it doesn't feel as though it has stood the test of time.

In a nutshell, a man is told - and witnesses with his own eyes - that if he does something, something bad will happen.

He does the something and the something bad happens.

Hilarity ensues.

A doctor, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), and two young kids, Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes) move into a country house beside a road frequented by fast-moving lorries.

Thanks to friendly neighbour Jud Crandall (The Munsters' Fred Gwynne), they soon learn that in the woods behind their house is an old pet cemetery, where local pets killed on the road are buried.

However, while his family are away at Thanksgiving, Louis has to deal with the death of his daughter's beloved cat, Church, and so Jud leads him to an area way beyond the cemetery, a cursed Indian burial ground (because, America) that can supposedly bring creatures buried in it back to life.

But they come back "wrong".

Turns out the only time someone tried it with a human being, they turned into a flesh-eating zombie, so that's never been tried again.

Only, some time later, little Gage gets mown down on the busy road, and Louis kind of flips out (understandably), steals his corpse from the proper graveyard, and takes him up to the old Indian burial ground.

Naturally, the Gage that returns isn't Louis's beloved toddler... but a human Chucky doll intent on murder and mayhem.

Although working from a Stephen King screenplay, Pet Sematary has a whole host of problems, not least of which is that the central conceit - even if we accept that in this supernatural verisimilitude that the Indian burial ground has the power of resurrection - there are no anecdotes, not a single one, where using it has worked out for the best.

There is not a single iota of evidence to suggest that it brings someone back as anything except a soulless ghoul.

And yet, Jud still dangles it in front of Louis as a way to avoid having to teach his daughter about the fragility of feline life.

Then, on top of that, we have the kitchen sink approach to the story: there's an American Werewolf In London-style friendly ghost looking out for the family (Brad Greenquist); Ellie has very accurate and unambiguous prophetic dreams (which may be, but possibly aren't, connected to the appearance of the ghost); Rachel is haunted by her dead sister; when Gage returns from the dead he has the power to create very vivid illusions (something the earlier zombie in the film most certainly didn't have); in the denouement there's meaningful shots of clocks showing midnight - but time has never been mentioned as a factor in this process.

Even, stepping back from the surfeit of supernatural elements, towards the end of the movie a house burns down right at the side of the main road, but - even though considerable time passes afterwards - no fire engines or police cars ever show up to investigate.

I don't know if explanations were cut, or they were simply considered superfluous, but Pet Sematary feels - although it clearly wasn't, with Stephen King's direct involvement in the script - like a child making up a story as he goes along ("And then this happened, and then this, and you wouldn't believe what happened next...").

I'm hoping the remake corrects this jumbled storytelling and delivers a more cohesive narrative.

I get that the idea of a cursed burial ground that can bring people back from the dead is very creepy and that Pet Sematary is a tale about a man driven by grief to do something stupid and dangerous, but it's more contrived than convincing.



GAME MATERIAL


Pet Sematary Soil


My RPG system of choice, Crypts & Things, lacks any kind of resurrection magic, and so players must find other methods to bring back back their fallen comrades.

One such method is burying their corpse in the tainted soil of a sacred burial site, belonging to an ancient race that no longer exists in that part of the world.

Intent: The first requirement for the magics to work are that those burying the person are family (either by blood or some other bond) and they know the person, or creature, intimately and really want them to live again (this, for example, prevents kings from burying dead soldiers there with the intent of raising an army of zombie slaves).

The Magic: Once buried, if the magic works, it takes 2d6 hours for new life to be breathed into the corpse and for it to claw its way back out of the soil.

The Effect: The Dungeon Master makes a saving throw vs magic for the buried corpse (at the level they were when alive, both at -1/two full hours between death & burial and at Disadvantage, ie roll two dice and select the lowest).

On a roll of '1', nothing happens and the corpse stays a corpse.

On a success, the corpse actually comes back as the person who was buried, the only lasting effect being they still bear their death wounds and their CON and WIS are permanently lowered by one, although they are back to full Hit Points.

However, on a failed role, they come back as a flesh-eating zombie - with the strength (and abilities?) of their old self.

As Dungeon Master you can either apply the zombie template from page 76 of Bloat Game's Cryptid Guide for Dark Places & Demogorgons or simply run the character as an evil NPC version of the player-character.

The main difference to 'traditional' zombies is that she will retain her intelligence (and knowledge of her peers) and isn't carrying any form of 'zombie-creating' virus in her bites, scratches, or blood.

Notes:
(i) The process only works once on a corpse. If a person is raised by the cursed soil, killed, and reburied in it they will never rise again.
(ii) If your OSR system of choice employs some kind of 'luck' mechanic (action points, bennies etc) they cannot be used in this situation - a dead person has already run out of luck!

Indian Burial Ground

2 comments:

  1. This is an honest review and I enjoyed it.

    I really like your game mechanics too. I will have to use this in the swords and sorcery idea I have.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. It means a lot coming from someone with your RPG cachet.

      Delete

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