26 Stories

26 Stories: The UnderGrand Guignol Film Festival

This was supposed to be a short story. I was trying to incorporate feedback from a few months of DFW Writer’s Workshop sessions that (rightly) point out that I am often slow to get things going. I wanted to write something that quickly jumped into the plot and didn’t get bogged down as it rolled along. Instead, it started to grow, like most stories do, and took me down a different road than I intended. As such, I didn’t finish the whole thing, and while this won’t be the first story I’ve left hanging as part of this project, it’s the first one I have done unintentionally. That said, it will give my two or three readers something to look forward to. 

Additionally, this will bring in other stories I’ve posted and tie them together. It’s not the first time I’ve revisited Rabia, as I did so two weeks ago with my sci-fi jaunt. As I add to this, I have plans to revisit two other characters (given that this is set in Austin, at least one of them can be pieced together from previous works).

In any event, I would have liked to finish this, but as always, perfection is not the point of this exercise. Practice and accountability is.

The UnderGrand Guignol Film Festival
10th Floor

               “Amateurish,” Franklin said into his recorder, “as if the filmmaker—and I use the term loosely—felt their first-year student film would be worthy of a showing in any venue other than in a class filled with similarly minded peers who cannot see past their angsty high school careers.” He clicked the pause button and took that moment to make some notes in his notebook as the final credits of the last film he’d watched scrolled past in the dark room. They ran backwards, accompanied by music from a calliope played in reverse; another attempt to unsettle that was as trite as the prior three hours of movie. He clicked the recorder back on after a moment of thinking about it, and added, “Scott, I hope you realize that you owe me a lot of drinks for this.” He scrawled some more notes on his notebook—bits that he would work into his review—and turned off the small light he had clipped to his notebook.

               The atrociously titled “UnderGrand Guignol Dark Film Festival” was considered an exclusive event with dozens of secrets hoops to jump through, seeded weeks before the first showing. The effort put into the marketing was far more impressive than the shows had been so far. Franklin’s initial excitement had worn off with the first black-and-while short of a tortured artist building her own cross and was now officially dead after the last overly long mess of jump cuts, footage of an abattoir’s killing floor, and one forty-five-minute long, time-lapse shot of an apple rotting. At least the self-crucifixion flick had been five minutes.

               He walked out of the unused cold storage warehouse where the film had screened, his joints protesting the time spent on a metal folding chair, and into the chilly Austin air. Several blocks away, he heard the usual thump of music and calling of voices from the bars and clubs on 6th street. He thought about blowing the rest of this festival off and joining them, even though the crowd would be a decade or two his juniors. His next offering, according to the messages pieced together from QR codes left on the backs of “voodoo” charms hidden around downtown suggested that he was in for some good, old fashioned cultural appropriation.

               Franklin focused on figuring out which of the historic cemeteries he’d have to take an Uber to for showing, was it number four tonight? Five? Just as he’d made up his mind on the one to try first, he looked up in time to avoid plowing into the man that was standing directly in front of him. Franklin jumped and started to mutter an apology when he saw that the man, who was easily close to seven-feet tall, was wearing a featureless white mask.

               “Ah,” he said. “Was that yours?” he gestured back to the warehouse. “If so, I’d… well, you can read the reviews tomorrow like everyone else. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Franklin tried to walk around, but the looming person put up a white-gloved hand to stop him.

               “Okay, I get it. Creepy film festival, creepy masked guy. I’m not going to change my review of the film because of some performance art. The film has to stand on its own merits.” He received no response. “Great. Well, look. It’s been done, before, so why don’t you just let me get on to my next show…” At that, the man produced, with a flourish, a rectangular piece of paper and presented it to Franklin. When he didn’t immediately take it, the tall man gestured with it.

               Franklin sighed. “Damn viral marketing is out of control. People used to try to make it easy to find their stuff, you know.” He took the slip of paper and turned it over in his hand. “A boarding pass?” He asked. The figure gestured at the paper, whether in agreement or insistence that he read it, Franklin didn’t know. “Mission Airport… never heard of that one.” The back side had a hastily crawled “Scene I.” The figure gestured in precisely the same way. “Fine. I’ll… I’ll find it. It’ll be better than Voodoo Zombie Prostitutes or whatever. Guess your film will be in, what, some old abandoned…” Before he finished, the tall man turned and walked away.

*             *             *

               An hour and one confused Uber driver later, Franklin arrived at Mission Airport. It was one of those old private fields for private plane owners. Based on the condition of the runway, it had been along time since a plane flew out of here. Weeds and crabgrass grew out of countless potholes. Several ancient, aluminum hangars lined the runway where he’d been dropped off. He could see one rusted out skeleton of a Cessna that had cantilevered to one side. Small foliage grew through the cockpit; nature reclaiming the realm of man.

               He considered the possibility that he’d been tricked. He’d blogged negatively about more than a few local “filmmakers,” and there was ever the chance that someone would want to have him dropped off in the middle of nowhere as petty revenge. This day and age, he should probably be thankful that he hadn’t been shot. Just as he reached into his pocket to pull out his phone and call for a ride back, a flickering light appeared in the open maw of a hangar. The light danced in time to a familiar twenty-four frames per second. He had to give them credit for the effort, whoever they were, but he decided to reserve doing so until after the movie.

               The large sheet stretched across the back wall of the hanger displayed a plain, white sequence of empty frames as he walked in. There was one single chair (another damned folding chair) with an antique projector spinning two smallish reels. At least this one will be short, though he reasoned that it would not be worth the effort it took to get out here.

               “Well, there’s nothing for it,” he said to no one, and sat down. He pulled out this notebook, recorder, and small book light. With the soft glow of the light and the white glair of the projected movie, he said to the room, “let’s get this going, then.”

               On cue, the white rectangle went dark. He looked back and didn’t see anyone at the projector. It might have been a prop itself, with the real projector somewhere else, but before he could search it out, an intertitle card appeared.

               Silent movie? He jotted down. The image was in the style of the old silent movies he’d grown to love in his own film school years. “In Golgotha, the dead bear the Scars for all to see,” it said.

               Religious symbolism… another philosophical film, he scrawled. Leave it to these self-styled auteurs to go right for religion as if it made it deeper to do so.

               The title card vanished, and the scene opened on a great, white desert. The camera panned across it, bleak and empty.

               Shot on location somewhere? Not nearby, that’s certain.

               It came to a stop on a rob-wearing person. It was black and billowed in the wind that kicked up clouds of sand. The shot changed to the figure’s front, showing eyes peering through a slot in the robe’s front.

               Woman in a… burka (???). Muslim robe women wear. Look up the correct term later. Hope this isn’t attempting to emulate Begotten… would be par for the course.

               The camera lingered for an uncomfortable time on the woman’s face, and as it did, he was surprised by the level of detail the grainy, black-and-white 35mm film captured. It was a bit uncanny.

               Props are due to the cinematographer, he wrote. There was something about the way the robe clung to the woman’s skin that gave him pause. Before he could reflect on it further, the shot changed again, to another intertitle.

               “Rabia wandered alone in the desert of ground bones, her skin a reflection of her shame.”

               Next, a scene of a woman—presumably the woman in the robe sans the burka (niqab, he remembered, the ones with just the eye slit were niqabs)—recoiling as a liquid is thrown on her face. She screamed, or at least appeared to as there was no sound save some generic organ music. The liquid caused burns to appear on her face.

               Interesting cultural commentary, he wrote, impressed by the brutality of what he was seeing. The actress was skilled at conveying agony without the benefit of an audio track. Before he could write more, the scene changed to a shot—from the woman’s perspective—of a group of men standing over her, raising rocks over their heads and bringing them down with repeated ferocity. Franklin found himself cringing with each blow, easily imagining the sound.

               “She paid for her defiance; murdered for his ‘honor’,” the next card said and quickly shifted to a shot of woman’s bare feet suspended half a foot above the ground and swaying.

               Okay, he wrote, getting a little preachy. Reverting to “film school” clichés again. It was too bad, too, as he’d thought there might be some potential. A silent movie dedicated to the plight of a culture of women who were bade remain silent by controlling men? There was something there to explore, but it had to hold back a little.

               “Now, she wears her shame. Her Scar.” The specter again, in her niqab, staring across that desert. This time, he managed to place what about her robe stuck out.

               It is her skin, he wrote. Clever symbolism. Again, the shot of her walking across the desert—this Golgotha—felt more real than it should have. He was getting lost in the images, not noticing the lines, exposure marks, and “cigarette burns” that accompanied a 35 mm film. The space around him felt deep and empty, as opposed to the closed-in space a small plane hangar should have been. For a second, he could feel sand blowing across his own face.

               “Then,” the next title card said, startling him from his revere, “one came who was un-Scarred.”

               The woman now stood with a little girl, their hands clasped.

               Motherhood? He wrote. Or guiding feminism?

               The two looked across the desert together.

               “They met another,” the next card said, and showed a man in what appeared to be some sort of space suit. Okay, Franklin said, now I’m lost and the astronaut seems pointless. The group of three now set off across the desert.

               “They would face the Chained One, to stop it forever…” the next card said, and in that moment, Franklin’s senses were assaulted by vivid and terrible images of some indistinct creature displayed on the screen. It was bound by chains that he could tell were supposed to be titanic in size. They could have easily bound the world and held it in its orbit, had they been real. The beast, of which he could only see fragments, strained and fought against the chains.

               “…and they would fail,” the last card said, “for to bear witness was to break one of the four chains that held it fast in its prison.” At that moment, for the first time in years of watching a wide spectrum of shocking or disturbing horror and thriller movies, Franklin wanted to look away. He almost did, afraid that he might be the witness the intertitle spoke of. Even still, he watched, and in doing so, saw the chain strain against the power of the creature. The link began to separate and even though the movie was silent, he could hear a deafening screech of rusted iron.

“It stirs in its prison,” a small voice said next to him, and he jumped. Immediately to his right, a second seat had been added, and a small girl—the small girl from the movie—sat next to him, staring at him with eyes that begged him to look away from the movie, even though it was already too late.

               “What the He-” and he was jerked out of his visions by the sound of loose film slapping against the projector. Looking back to the screen, the movie had ended. The sheet now showed only a blank rectangle of light. He turned back and saw the girl and the second chair were gone.

               After a moment, he allowed himself to laugh. “All right,” he said out loud. “Very convincing.” No one answered. “Really,” he said, “you had me going there, but I’m going to say the same thing I said to the tall guy back in town. The movie has to stand on its own merits.” Still no response. He stood.

               “If you want an accurate review, you should probably tell me the name of your film. And who made it.” The empty hangar was his only audience.

               “Okay, I’ll just call it ‘Golgotha’ or something like that,” he said to no one. He turned to leave, then, and stopped as someone had placed a basket behind his seat. In it were two bottles of booze—a quality scotch and an exceptionally cheap malt liquor. He stopped down and saw that there was business-card sized square of paper. The blank side read “Part II,” and the flip side named a place called Dom’s Quality Spirits.

               “Ah,” he said, “I guess it’s not over, then, huh.” Pulling out his phone, his weariness with this night conflicting with a growing curiosity, he looked up Dom’s Quality Spirits and found a location in one of the seedier east side neighborhoods.

               “Part two it is,” he said, and put in the request for a second ride.

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