This night I would violate long standing habit and attend a theatrical movie showing. All my buddies insisted that I must go see the latest Star Commandos feature, the bulging budget, box office smash, fully computerized light show extravaganza, complete with the usual cast buried under a mountain of gaudy special effects. I chose to go, merely to shut them up, and anyway it promised a dull evening otherwise so what’s the harm? I went.
The theater complex was crowded. I didn’t know about the other seven dinky screens, but the main auditorium, where SC6 (as the “in” group styled it) would be presented, was uncomfortably packed. Before long I remembered all too clearly why I’d come to eschew these public exhibitions. Masses of humanity, many of them hailing from unpleasant social strata, jostled and shifted and fumbled within that gloomy space, cavernous yet a size or three too small for the restless throng. Such noise they also made, a subliminally hostile murmur punctuated by snarky catcalls, bursts of grating laughter and occasional devocalized shouts. Cell phones chirped and jangled unceasingly, with stray whiffs of conversation carrying to my ears the white noise of mindless thought.
Already approaching my limit, I nevertheless eased slightly when the lights dimmed to darkness and the throbbing uproar subsided to a muted susurrus of agitation. Expecting, like everyone else, the film to commence, I was surprised when a bright spotlight suddenly illuminated a patch at the corner of the walkway before the screen curtain. A short, rotund fellow with thin, sparse hair appearing there with a standing microphone, genially identifying himself as the manager, announced a change of plan. A special event, he informed us, would replace the scheduled movie. Oh, such an eruption at that! Briskly continuing, he proclaimed the preview of a new film by the much heralded cinematic auteur Ernst Klinghofer, who had come up with something that would “knock our socks off.”
The manager glumly offered refunds to those who desired same. A few accepted the offer, storming out with actions accompanied by the bitterest of oaths hurled at hapless teenaged ushers, but most stayed, perhaps held fast by the further welcome pronouncement that the noted director would introduce his preview in person.
So he did. The manager scooted, replaced by a figure recognizable to me from tabloid covers, a tall, cadaverous, dark chap shabbily attired, sporting a grubby goatee and glaring eyes. “This is it, ladies and gentlemen,” he declared in thickly accented tones, wildly waving a hand over his shaggy head. “If you know me, you know I’ve been building up to the big one. Shocks and thrills I deliver, and this time I’ve got the goods. Prepare to be astounded!”
Lord, how did I get into these things? Braced to withstand the relentless two hour assault of strobing computer imagery, instead I must accept the latest from the notorious “King of Sleaze.” Ernst Klinghofer, German born peddler of obscurant “arty” flicks; critically noticed after a ridiculous award at Cannes; snatched from boastful poverty by Hollywood, where he fashioned a couple of profitable, if commonplace, action thrillers that put him on the public map. Then: a bizarrely discordant, downright disgraceful private life—by the standards of these times!—marred by angry incidents of vague causation, and a peculiar turn to churning out a series of increasingly squalid potboilers, followed by a succession of even more putrid horror flicks. I’d seen one of those, on video, just to say I did, and once was enough. His reputation had crashed, although the market for tasteless junk apparently kept him busy. Now, this, whatever. Thankfully I’d managed to claim an aisle seat, promising a quick getaway if needed.
“You’ve never seen anything like it!” he thundered, that deep, bass voice hollowly rumbling. “It is an entirely new experience in terror that I offer. Fresh techniques of my design, the secrets of my art unbound, drawing you deeper into the darkness. I have studied, plumbed the depths of hideous lore. Had enough, have you, of masked slashers and cutesy vampires? Do you seek the reality of the true nightmare underlying all? As do I. I found it for you. I’m finished with the fake. It’s the real deal tonight, for the first time in your lives . . . and the last.”
Barking laughs and snarls of “Get on with it.” Klinghofer gleefully clapped his hands. “So we shall,” he hissed into the microphone. “Ever have I dreamed of this. May it be only the beginning. I give you Behind the Shroud.”
He motioned, a curt gesture, and the spotlight snapped off, rendering him invisible. The curtain moved aside to reveal the huge screen at first dark blue glow. The credits rolled.
Their informational content was short and sweet, unlike the customary credits these days that scroll or fade in and out languidly and interminably. Yellow letters on black ground—Behind the Shroud—gone—Directed by Ernst Klinghofer—gone—iris from black to dark brownish murkiness. Those were the credits in entirety. I wondered about the professionalism of this production. Perhaps a rough cut?
One could certainly make the case. The image, such as it was, held quite a while. Eyes adjusting, I realized I peered into a fairly featureless landscape, a rocky plain abutted by a silhouetted line of low, rounded hills or mounds, no vegetation discernible. A sourceless reddish tinge fringed the dominant brown; in fact, one could not determine the cause of the vague radiance faintly illuminating the scene. Night, obviously, yet no hint of moon (where the wolf-man’s moon?), nor stars in the sky for that matter. An aura of drab sterility cloaked all.
From out the darkness came the guttural voice of Klinghofer. So he remained with us. “This awaits,” he intoned, “shielded from mundane sight by the false lights and colors of the gaudy world woven by desperate imagination. We wish not to gaze upon the reality in store for us. Instinctive dread fabricates the wall between our timid senses and savage veracity. But I learned the way, people. I found the crack in the wall, hacked at it, wedged it open. The door yawns wide for you, my favored guests.”
Mumbling, snickers from the crowd, then chuckling gasps upon detection of motion on screen. Things moved up there; hesitant, sporadic, lurching. Were those human figures?
This wasn’t unfolding like a normal movie. It struck me that we were several minutes into the show already, with nothing substantial to account for time invested. Restlessness within the audience indicated consensus on this point. Came a mocking sneer from up front: “Does anything ever happen in this crap?”
Mocking laugh as rejoinder, and Klinghofer again. “Indeed it does, now, forever, and always. You look upon the face of eternity, your eternity. Long you for heaven, a just reward? The latter you surely receive, and before your time.”
Movement on screen, and—a trick of the eye, or some bravura special effect?—I could swear the image of dismal landscape seemed in the process of gradually flowing from the screen and wrapping by minute degrees around the walls of the auditorium. Trick lenses, I supposed, or multiple projectors.
I forgot that as the intimations of motion began to interestingly resolve. Those were human profiles, some of them, of a sort, not wholly edifying. I thought of feebly animate scarecrows, shambling among the rocks, and though too poorly lighted for detail I gleaned suggestions of morbid distortions. Clothing: rags if any, remnants of a variety of fashions. Shadowy thin shapes, fearfully thin, bony, oddly jointed, tall and short, male and female, young and old maybe, awkwardly approaching the viewers, tediously slow but seemingly nearing.
The other things puzzled. Not all bore the outlines of men. Weaving among this strange and ghastly crew were entities apparently intended for different types of creatures, but try as I might it wasn’t possible to connect them with regular life forms. Some were kind of snaky, wending serpentine around rocks and underfoot of the human figures, only bigger by a lot than non-cinematic reptiles. Certain forms seemed to flow in the manner of viscous liquid. Something flapped bat-like through the air, with a dull glint of compound eyes and jagged teeth, a 3D effect giving it wings directly overhead. Lumbering shapes with way too many arms, or feelers, strode through the motley gang. As a rule these uniquely weird objects advanced as did the forms of humanity. Sometimes, in passing, they snapped at or otherwise tormented those more man-like. I garnered the powerful impression, brief glimpses only, of moments of messy consumption.
“This is your inheritance!” cried Klinghofer. Did he hang around for kicks, or was the film meant to be narrated? “I abjure the lies, adjure the truth. Thank me, that you no longer wallow in the muck of children’s fables. Our masters of flesh and dirt would have me gull and jolly you to the grave, but I do not cooperate further. As I have seen, you must see. Deem me a peddler of phony entertainment? Nein, you’ve lived the illusion. What closes in now is the soul-annihilating actuality. Good-bye!”
Far down front, in the first row, members of the audience screamed. I could see why, had to laugh in amused appreciation. Cleverly done, I must admit. Whatever his other esthetic demerits, Klinghofer’s filmic magic served to create the artifice that those horrid beasties and skeletal folk were getting among the viewers and perpetrating mayhem. It was just a matter of shadows and silhouettes, but I sure gained the impression of proper horror movie carnage. A superimposition technique, I supposed it would be called. Good stuff, that, deserving of a better vehicle.
This show still hadn’t developed into anything like a regulation movie yet, but this scene was soaring to a high point of grue, so it galled me that an old problem now reared its head to subvert what currently passed for viewing pleasure. In haste to grab a decent seat, I’d skipped the routinely necessary initial pit-stop, with the result that I was now under pressure, if you get my meaning. I had to go, and darn it, but it just couldn’t wait. Rising, I gingerly felt my way up the aisle toward the faint light marking the door into the lobby. I couldn’t see well my fellow patrons, although reflections in eyeballs indicated generally rapt attention. One guy, as I passed, complained to his girl about crummy cell phone reception. That served him right, ought to be a feature rather than a bug.
Klinghofer’s trade tricks made it seem as if his faux world of dim rocks and shadowed horrors beamed from three full sides of the big chamber, and the ceiling too, where leathery fluttering shapes cavorted and dived. The audience were reacting well to the grim pageant, with intermittent, scattered shrieks and pockets of hubbub. I wasn’t convinced that Behind the Shroud would sell, unless it straightened out fast, but there was potential in the presentation. Me, I prefer a strong plot.
At the door I turned for a quick peek at the screen to tide me over until return. The decibel level had shot up enormously, most of it sounding like audience reaction. Squinting into the dark, it looked more like participation. There was an awful lot of chaotic commotion down there, flailing and thrashing counterpointing the shouts and screams. Oh well; maybe this was the ticket to Klinghofer’s success, with me simply out of tune with contemporary market requirements.
I took care of vital business, rinsed my face, stopped off at the counter for a candy bar, the kind with whole peanuts inside the milk chocolate. Pausing in the lobby to munch, I heard a reverberating crescendo of ungodly noise and—surely my mistake—a sensation as of quaking, in time to the freaky sound. Did that come from my movie? Heading back to the auditorium door, I met an usher peering into the dark, who turned wild-eyed as I approached. When I jocularly accosted him he nervously blurted, “I don’t get it. It can’t be. What’s happened?” I made to push past him, only then the manager and others came running, and the upshot was that I didn’t get to see the rest of my movie; exhibition canceled. No great loss, really, and I received a full refund (without even asking for it!), but answers to questions no one was willing or able to provide.
I’d nicked a peek before the manager slammed and chained the door. I didn’t spy anything dreadful in there, which is okay, except maybe that’s part of the point, too. I didn’t see anything at all: nothing whatsoever, emptiness, a gray void. All right, Hollywood can do anything, granted, but . . . but what? What am I trying to say?
I’m looking forward to reading more about this stunt in the entertainment news. What did Klinghofer do, and how did he do it? Schlock-meister he may be, but if that preview be any guide, Behind the Shroud is going to make a great splash.
BIO: Jeffery Scott Sims, a degreed anthropologist and author of dozens of short stories published in magazines and anthologies, makes his home in Arizona, a region he has explored and photographed for several years, and which forms the backdrop for many of his sinister tales. As writer and reader he prefers the spooky and the fantastic, his favorite genre authors, and greatest influences, being H.P. Lovecraft, R.E. Howard, C.A. Smith, M.R. James, and E.R. Eddison. He is the creator of the serial characters Professor Vorchek, modern investigator of strange mysteries, and Jacob Bleek, cunning sorcerer of a dark, antique era. His recent publications include a volume of weird tales, _Eerie Arizona_; and the short stories”Those Who Came After,” “Xenophor’s Children,” “The Russian Temple,” “The Vault of Phalos,” “The Idol of Zita,” and “Klinghofer’s Folly.” Full information on his writings and publications, and a growing collection of essays devoted to the weird tale, may be found at the author’s literary web site: http://jefferyscottsims.webs.com/index.html