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The Cursed Film

by Michael Z. Atrata 3 months ago in fiction

Part 1

The Cursed Film
Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

The distributor asked me how I wanted the funds to be forwarded. I wanted a check. Not only did I want a check I wanted to walk into their offices in New York, meet with someone, anyone, the janitor, and be handed a live check and have my hand shaken. Then I’d walk down to the nearest bank branch and deposit that thing. I wanted to watch the teller’s eyes try not to bug as he or she punched in the numbers; three, two, four, four, three, zero, nine, point, eight six.

Completed twelve years earlier: It was perfect! It was brilliant! For the budget we had, and considering the production assets at our disposal it was a goddamn masterpiece! The Night of Doctor Barlow was a magnum opus five years in the making since I first outlined the script at age twenty-four. It was shot on weekends over three months on a DSLR camera. We had little in the way of lighting or anything else for that matter, so we used practical lights for the most part. My Assistant Director/Assistant Camera, Wade, had a two light LED kit so we could do a few artsy lighting schemes. The lens was a fifty-millimeter that could open up to F 1.7 to really compensate for the lack of light and the dark theme of the film. Focus was tricky, the depth of field at that aperture is a razor, but Wade was very nimble on the focus ring. Overall the image was strong and the actors could really get into the feel of the story with the set almost being as dim and gloomy as the final image would be.

Most of the violence had to be implied, which is generally more powerful to the viewer anyway; their minds fill in what is happening and that is usually much more gruesome. In the words of my producer, Dana, no effect is better than a crappy effect. Though the one effects heavy shot was quite simple to do, it was the genital mutilation of the leading man played by John; all we needed was a high quality dildo and a lot fake blood. His subsequent beheading after that was fairly easy as well, we just had to map out lots of creative shots and framing tricks and keep in mind how they’d be edited, then shoot it meticulously.

First there was a shot of the broken full-length mirror flying towards him; we just positioned the camera on the floor looking up, put a sheet of plexiglas over it for protection and dropped the mirror. In editing I just rotated the image to make it seem the glass flew in straight from the side. Then a shot of his eyes wide with terror and mouth agape, shot of his body framed from his neck to his knees so his head and calves are not on screen, the mirror comes flying in and his “head” followed by copious amounts of blood fall slo-mo from above frame through the frame to the ground. This finished off with a shot of the decapitated head (John’s actual head poking out of a hole we made in the carpet and covered in blood) next to his disarticulated dick.

As a coda Dr. Barlow shoves the dick in John’s character’s mouth. John wasn’t too pleased with that off the cuff addition but he let me do one take. I kept it in the film. Anyway, the film consists of creepy slow burn scenes peppered with fairly graphic nudity and sex (think drunk HBO executives) and follow all that with an orgy of killing and you have a classic! Cult or otherwise!

The biggest stroke of luck/area of hard work and lobbying was casting for the role of the creepy Hotel Manager. It was ripe for a name, it was a small but pivotal role and would take a two or three days at most to film, so we’d be able to squeeze the budget for a high daily rate if we had to. We got former movie star turned direct to video B movie actor turned national pariah Lorne Foster. Lorne, like so many, just got old and new stars replaced him, but instead of turning up in support of the younger guys and staying a bankable if a second billing name he decided to stay above the title on increasingly irrelevant films. After ten years of that add a groping charge and you get blackballed. We knew we could probably get him on our budget and my thinking was if his name pops up after years of absence in films or anywhere else, curiosity would be whetted. He was skittish but Dana, Wade, and I lavished praised on him, promised to pay his flight and accommodations, three hundred bucks a day fee (his scenes took two days) and just maybe a way back into the biz. For a bit over a grand total we got our man. He knocked the scenes out of the park and didn’t even try to fuck any of the actresses or female crew, the female crew consisting solely of Dana.

The film wrapped. I edited almost nonstop for two weeks. I barely showered, ate when I felt I would pass out, and seriously considered putting a bucket next to my computer desk for relieving myself. Dana and Wade came by to check on things and almost gagged that the odors of old food, B.O., and cigarettes. But they saw a rough cut and left me to it. Soon I had picture lock and we scored it with either public domain music or a few songs from local bands we know. They let us use their material for a hundred bucks and very large font in the credits.

At the screening party was when fortune turned its ugly side to us. Just as the credits rolled on the film and we were all about to cheer and applaud and drink (more) we heard Wade screeching. The state police called him at that very moment and gave him the news; his parents were killed in a car crash that night. When there were supposed to be screams of elation and fellowship the only sounds were the outro music of the film and Wade’s hard crying. The rest of us were silent.

We found out later that it wasn’t so much a car crash, but that a car crashed into them, a car driven by Wade’s younger sister. She was an emotionally challenged girl, the entire family had emotional issues, and when she graduated high school her world crashed. She had nothing to do and didn’t even entertain the idea of going to college. Long story short she turned to booze and drugs to cope and one day snapped. The parents got home with groceries just as Julie got home from wherever she smoked her meth and in a moment of desperate rage plowed her car into them as they unloaded their trunk.

Blood and broken eggs smeared the bumper.

We entered the film into every festival we found until we ran out of money; Sundance, Toronto, Cannes...they didn’t touch it. They didn’t understand. But The Night of Doctor Barlow found its way into many smaller and genre festivals including one in Los Angeles that was frequented by some name actors and directors. Wade got some money from his parents’ estate and funded our trip. He even sprung for a limo to take us from the hotel to the venue, stopping to pick up Lorne on the way.

Lorne was a kid again; a star struck young actor, a pig in shit! He had so much gratitude for giving him this opportunity even if it was just a one off. We drank in the limo on the way to the venue, drank at the venue, Lorne’s eyes tattooed to Dana’s ass, tits, or crotch (whatever was in line of sight) all night long. He never tried anything but his eyes had no control. I didn’t blame him, Dana was hot, I even tried to get to know better her several times but she shut it down. Never really knew what her thing was, never mentioned guys or girls. But she was a good human and a crack producer that kept it all together and moving.

We won Best Horror Picture, I won Best Director and Lorne won Best Cameo. It was a plastic Grim Reaper statue and two hundred bucks prize but Lorne was near tears. He stumbled to the stage, the man was well past drunk but hey let him enjoy! He gripped the podium for leverage and took his statue. He looked down at me and smiled, he was so happy I almost cried as well. The applause subsided and he opened his mouth to speak, and vomit spewed all over the mic and podium, then he collapsed.

He died that night at the hospital. Heart attack.

Due to the festival buzz and the notoriety of Lorne’s death a distributor swooped in and gave us a deal; worldwide VOD and Theatrical rights for five years. All platform costs covered and five thousand dollars advance against royalties. Dana, Wade, and I split that and gave hundred dollar gift cards to the cast.

John emailed me a rather nasty message about getting shortchanged. I reminded him that he was paid a daily rate and that myself, Wade, and Dana spent thousands of our own money to produce the film and that the advance wasn’t even close to making us whole. The gift cards were a gesture and go fuck yourself.

Back home in Grove City, Pa we had the home premier at a bar. We watched the film on Amazon Prime on a huge projection system. It was great, it was fun, it was the highlight of my life since the festival.

A fun night at the bar, highlight of my life.

Sigh.

Over the months that turned into years we got a few thousand, to a few hundred, to a few dollars per financial quarter. The film made back what we paid to make it, and a little more. We still worked jobs we hated, we still talked about making the next movie and never did. The five years passed. I hardly picked up a camera again. The distribution deal had an auto renew unless one party wanted out. Nobody opted out so the film was still out there.

Seven years later, thirty five years old, living alone, one night after work I ate pizza and flipped through Amazon. There it was, The Night of Doctor Barlow, no longer streaming with Prime but available to rent. I read reviews, most were fairly kind, but one stuck out.

Anyone think this film is cursed? I heard one guy’s parents died the day they wrapped then the star Lorne Foster praised Satan at a festival then vomited blood and died on stage!

Yeah I heard the director’s sister was a serial killer or something?

Not exactly but pretty close. Those review were written the week before.

A few entries down I saw another review, more of a commentary, mentioning Stephanie Jacobs, the girl who plays the first victim of Dr. Barlow. The writer claimed she was killed in a home invasion, shot in the face. I hired Stephanie at an open audition; she read the scenes well, was beautiful, and was willing to be nude. After her part wrapped I hadn’t seen or heard from her, she didn’t come to the screening party or the premier at the bar.

I found her on Facebook. There were a string of messages saying things such as I Love You, Be At Peace, You Will Be Missed.

I texted Wade and Dana; did you guys know about Stephanie? From the movie? We three hadn’t spoken regularly in over two years by that point, just drifted apart. Wade got married and had kids and I never knew what Dana was doing anyway. Wade got back to me first, mentioned he didn’t know anything but looked her up and found an obituary. Crazy! She was soo nice! Rockin body too!

Me: Right! I was surprised how big her boobs were, didn't look like much with clothes on but then BOOM!

Dana: Really guys? Jesus Christ!

Dana called. She knew some details from a cousin of hers that’s a cop. “Yeah, my cousin Stan lives in her town. I just asked about it and he was at the scene. I guess Steph was having a screening party for all the movies she was in, all little indie films like ours. Anyway, what he was told from witnesses her boyfriend was getting bent out of shape that she was naked so much, basically in every project she did. There were some other guys at the party and obviously they got to see her naked too. Big fight and she throws him out. He comes back later that night with a shotgun, kills three people including Steph, wounds two more, and then eats the shotgun. Four dead.”

“Jesus! I heard she was shot in the face?”

“Stan said she didn’t have a face, or much of a head when they found her!”

“God!”

“Guess what movie was playing when cops arrived?”

On my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram I posted very belated tribute to Stephanie and a short (clothed) clip of her in the movie. The response was overwhelming; well wishes and people saying they were going to watch the movie. Then other responses saying didn’t other people involved with the movie die? And Hey that famous actor was in it and died the last day of filming or something?

My wheels turned. Hard.

I opened up a word doc, copied official looking letterhead from Google images and put it in the header of the document. I looked at examples of police reports and then wrote up, using official language, what Dana told me her cousin found. I even found gruesome photos of shotgun deaths. I compiled all this then logged into my other Facebook under a fake name that I used for trolling politicians and other assholes. I found the thread and started adding to it, posting what I said were leaked documents and photos showing the faceless Stephanie. I added to the bullshit a story that my brother and I watched The Night of Doctor Barlow and two weeks later his car stalled on train tracks and was hit and killed by a freight train and that I was scared shitless ever since that I’d be next.

The Legend of the cursed film The Night of Doctor Barlow was born. Minor at first, it travelled along friends of friends, from that thread to others, to some horror chat pages and discussion boards. It was cool, I thought it was kind of fun. Then I got the next royalty check from the distributor; four thousand dollars and change.

A local public television movie reviewer, At the Movies with Marshal Reid, wanted to do a segment about it, seeing that this underground film was locally made. The guy had a local following obviously but also in Erie, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and West Virginia. Doesn't sound too glamorous but that's quite a few million potential eyes. They contacted me through Facebook. I didn’t respond.

Wheels spun; cursed film and anti-social hermit director?

Hmmmm.

I did tell Wade and Dana they should go on and be very evasive about me and to sweeten the pot I gave them their share of the royalties and a bonus, about fifteen hundred each.

Wade was indifferent but said he’d do it, Dana was all in but thought I was being lame for skipping out, until I told her what I did. I could hear her eyes roll but I swore her to secrecy. Dana above all was a businesswoman and she had to admit that this was working, at least for now.

I watched the show. It was your basic questions of how did you guys come up with the concept, when did you film et c. et c. A lot of the early conversation was about me as the writer/director and the overall initial creative force who brought everyone together. When asked why I wasn’t present at the interview Dana flatly delivered the lines that I was a reclusive individual and that the bad luck surrounding the film concerned me. She also added her own flavor, saying that there was something wrong with me, brilliant yet broken. I knew Dana, I could hear the sarcasm in her voice, but for everyone else it rang true.

Wade was a mute almost the entire interview until Marshal Reid prodded him. Wade talked briefly about how he met me and how we got the ball rolling, how he was basically in charge of all things camera while I handled casting and Dana took care of everything else.

Finally Reid started asking about the unfortunate things that happened to some of the cast and crew. Dana casually passed it off to bad luck and coincidence, then it happened, and the legend grew. Wade started crying.

“Coincidence! Coincidence! Lorne Foster fucking died on stage!”

“Whoa!” Marshal yelled. “Hey, language please!”

“My parents fucking died the night of our screening! My sister is a fucking basket case! My...my! Shit!”

“Wade!” Dana put her hand on Wade’s arm to comfort him.

“Ice bitch!” Wade screamed and whipped his hand away from Dana.

“Look man!” Marshal warned and stood up. Wade shot up and tackled him to the ground. Dana screamed.

Production staff rushed the set and just before the feed cut to black I heard Wade, “It’s fucking cursed!”

Nobody knew but Wade’s wife left him the week before, he was losing his home, and his sister had been violently attacked in the facility and was in a coma. Needless to say Wade was arrested at the show and Dana was taken to the hospital for a sprained wrist.

Word about the scuffle on the show got around and the episode was aired on several outlets and released on YouTube with many ads to skip through. I didn’t even have to scheme how to get the footage, Marshal Reid was going to try and ride that out to better things.

The next quarter’s check came, eleven thousand dollars.

The film was indeed cursed. It had to be. I had to make sure it was.

TO BE CONTINUED...

fiction
Michael Z. Atrata
Michael Z. Atrata
Read next: Chad Alan Lee
Michael Z. Atrata

Storyteller of bizarre outsiders doing questionable things.

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4651485/

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