It’s dark and getting late when Marshall McKenzie catches the bus to the cinema. He rides through older areas of town where he doesn’t usually go. He’s never liked the nightclubs and show bars here or the people they attract: the reeling high-heeled flesh; the lewd lolling of tongues; pale youths under sodium street-lights looking diseased. Marshall imagines himself as the anti-hero protagonist from the film Ned Killer: a pale boy squares up, his bulging sheep-like eyes lock onto Marshall’s own. Marshall swings a hammer with all his might at the boy’s head, hears the crunching thud, the boy falls back. Marshall is called a hero by the media, congratulated for making some sort of a stand.
Marshall blinks himself from his daydream as he nears his stop. He lifts himself from the seat with an unconscious grunt and moves his soft bulk towards the exit. Once onto the pavement, eyes down, he scuttles straight toward the cinema’s doors. The hammer scene from Ned Killer reruns in the screen of his mind.
Something feels wrong. He stops and lifts his head. The foyer is empty. There’s no-one about, not even at the ticket counter.
It doesn’t matter because he remembers why he’s here: the shiny black postcard and its curving silver lines.
Marshall heard the flap of the letterbox clatter and then the soft pat of mail hitting the floor. He leaned forward on his armchair to look through into the hallway and saw a small rectangle of darkness on the linoleum. He paused the film he was watching, heaved himself up and shuffled to the door. He picked up a glossy, wet-looking postcard and his eye was drawn to a diagonal red line running through a series of silver curves that resembled a fingerprint.
It reminded Marshall of a scene from Bitches Need Tellin’ where the killer uses a razor blade to etch a hundred red X’s into his first victim. It was shot in one take, and Marshall loved that the director described the scene as ‘having no cuts’.
He turned the postcard over and read:
‘For One Night Only’
Atrocity or Art? Ruse or Reality? Torture or Titillation?
Could one man’s plight be another man’s delight?
Filmhouse, Screen 3, Tuesday 13th, 11.45pm.
So what was it advertising? Marshall thought. A documentary, a blockbuster or some art-house shite?
He flipped the card over and stared at the silver fingerprint. His eyes began to trace the curves. Every single one was interrupted at least once by the red diagonal. He noticed the embossed words running along the bottom of the card: black on black. They could only be read if you angled the card just so:
“You have been chosen to behold. Scars will change you forever.”
Chosen? Just how much of an idiot did they take him for?
His eyes slashed across the card following the red line.
Instead of throwing the postcard away, he pinned it to his cork board.
He saw it every time he entered the flat and every time he would trace the silver and red lines with his eyes.
Marshall stands in the empty foyer and pulls out his pocket handkerchief. He wipes sweat from his brow and neck.
There’s nobody here.
He checks his watch. There are still three minutes left before the start of the movie, or whatever it is. He spots a vending machine and gets himself a coke and a Twix.
He wanders down the corridor towards Screen 3, and glances into the Cafe Bar. It too, is empty.
How many films has he seen where the protagonist is lured to a deserted building only to be ‘sliced and diced’? Is the barista lying dead behind the bar, limbs artfully arranged to complement the scarlet splashes on the beer bottles? Marshall wants to have a peek but the show is about to start. There isn’t time for detours.
He nears the entrance to Screen 3, there’s no usher, and is greeted by the low whispering of voices. He glances up and down the corridor, sees no-one, shrugs and walks in.
The voices are louder inside, but not by much. He stands in the dim dark for a moment to let his vision adjust, and the source of the susurration is revealed: the room is filled with people.
Here they all are. Mystery solved.
He casts around for somewhere to sit and notices one free seat right in the middle.
He steps up to the row of seats and aims a forced smile at the people there. He makes a friendly gesture that indicates that they should, you know, budge over to give him room. Instead, they stand as one to allow him access. The whole row of people from the aisle to the empty seat are now looking at him. The situation reminds Marshall of a scene from Slaughterhouse Cinema where the bad guy pulls out a submachine gun, shouts “Twelve little ducks all in a row” and mows down innocents munching on their popcorn. “Quack. Quack. Quack,” the bad guy screams as the muzzle flashes light up his face.
The space between the row in front and the standees looks like a tight squeeze. Marshall begins to turn away, to leave, when an image of the shiny postcard pops into his head: the silver curves and the red line.
He lowers his head and sucks in his tummy. He shuffles, crab-wise, into the space between the seats with his back to the standers. He presses the front of his thighs into the rear of the seats in front and tilts his pelvis up because the last thing he wants is to brush his bum against the crotch of someone behind. Each stander sits down as he passes, their thighs making femur and quadriceps barriers to escape.
The chatting around him continues, the voices are hushed and excited. Marshall thinks they sound like quack-quack-quack. If only I had a machine gun, he thinks. Ho ho ho.
When he reaches the empty seat he takes off his coat, sits on it, organises his refreshments.
The woman to his right smells flowery. It’s nice. He begins to wonder what she looks like. He takes a quick sideways glance at her. She wears glasses and a chunky knitted cardigan. She gesticulates with her hands as she narrates her story to her companion. He notices a small gold watch on her left wrist. His eyes follow the watch as it traces golden zigzags in the air. The cardigan cuff rides up her arm. Eventually, her companion gets a word in, and the gold watch comes to a rest. Marshall sees that there is a scar running up her wrist and under the watch strap before it disappears under the cardigan’s cuff. The scar is fat and pink and is white along it’s edges. Darker suture marks run the length of the scar on either side.
It looks like a pink centipede, Marshall thinks and leans forward to take a closer look.
The woman stops listening to her friend, turns and stares directly at his face. He lifts his eyes from the scar and looks into hers. She smiles a broad, sweet smile and pulls her cardigan sleeve down. Marshall smiles back. She turns away and continues chatting as if nothing has happened. Instead of embarrassment and going red in the face he can feel his blood flowing elsewhere.
Marshall shifts his posture away from her, swapping his weight onto his other buttock. He risks a quick peek out of the corner of his eye but her scar is still covered by cardigan. Shame.
He takes a sip from his coke and scans the backs of heads. In the dim light he sees an angry looking red scar that curves around the ear of the man immediately in front of him. His eyes trace the scar’s path as it runs under the lobe and disappears under a bearded cheek. There’s something odd about the ear though.
The auditorium lights fade out. The chatting stops.
A series of silver curves begin drawing themselves on the screen.
Marshall’s surprise is a jolt of electricity as he realises that this is the exact same path his eyes have taken, over and over again, when tracing those silver curves, first on the postcard pinned to his cork board and later in his mind’s eye. He feels sick and excited at the same time. He can smell the flowery perfume of the woman beside him, the woman with the centipede scar. He is aware of the silhouette of the ear of the man in front, the one that was odd. The blood flow heading south isn’t slowing down.
The curves finish drawing and they have sketched a perfect silver fingerprint. A thick red line draws itself slowly, from top-left to bottom-right, through the central whorl of the fingerprint, marring the perfection. It’s exactly the same image as printed on the postcard. The fingerprint shrinks and moves to the top left of the screen. An extreme close-up of a brightly lit eye appears. The image is dazzling after the darkness. The eye’s iris fills the screen: it’s blue. The eye’s pupil is very black and very big. Something obscures the iris for a fraction of a second. A blink, Marshall thinks. The camera zooms out to show the full eye, which slowly fills with moisture and a tear falls out over the lashes. A reflected shadow in the eye moves from left to right. The eye shuts tightly. Something metallic enters the frame and sticks itself into the upper eyelid. With a flick, the eyelid is cut off. The blue iris is visible again. The eye blinks rapidly to clear away bloody tears, but with a missing upper eyelid the blinking is ineffective.
Marshall sits up in his seat. Holy mother, that’s fantastic! How the heck did they do that? Maybe they had someone with a malformed eyelid and added a prosthetic one to cut off, you know, like they do for the amputation scenes in ZombieZombieZombie. It’s incredible.
The eye recedes as the view pulls back. A head now fills the screen. The head is held immobilised by a metal cage. The camera begins to circle. Pins extend from the cage’s frame to press against temples, cheekbones, and scalp. Each pin creates a dent in the flesh. The camera rotates three hundred and sixty degrees around the trapped head. It can’t move. The view zooms in to the maimed eye so it fills the screen again. The bottom eyelid tries to blink away congealing blood. A rounded metallic object moves into frame. It pushes its way past the remains of the upper eyelid and into the eye socket. The eyeball becomes misshapen.
No sounds at all: from the screen, from the audience. There are no screams or gasps or nervous laughter. No-one turns to a companion to exclaim or show disgust. No-one gets up to leave.
Marshall shakes his head. How? Perhaps the actor doesn’t even have that eye, just an empty socket. But why is no-one reacting? There are always gasps and titters during the gory bits. He takes a quick look at the woman with the centipede scar. Her eyes are locked on the screen, and what?, they look eager, hungry even - not even close to disgusted. His eyes are drawn back, not quite against his will. Can’t look away, eh droog?
The metallic instrument levers upwards and pushes further in behind the eyeball, making it look like a wet rugby ball. Then the eyeball disappears from the frame. One moment there, next, gone. The empty eye socket remains. The optic nerve runs over the lower eyelid which twitches as if trying to blink. The metallic instrument, now revealed as a spoon, removes itself from the eye socket.
No-one in the audience stirs: they are, all of them, transfixed.
Marshall shifts his weight from his left buttock to his right. This is more than he could have hoped. This is even better than the eye piercing scene in the Japanese film Optician. This is almost unbearable. Marshall can’t see any evidence of the actor being blind or eyeless. It looks so real. Marshall’s thigh muscles have tensed, as if he is about to flee. And at the same time he is getting harder than ever.
The image on the screen changes.
It shows a roomful of people, their faces tilted up to stare straight at the camera. Every face, pale or dark, is silvery in the reflected light.
Marshall can’t tear his gaze away from the sea of faces on the screen. He is acutely aware of the people around him as he watches the projected image of a crowd staring back.
The camera zooms down to someone near the front, to a single face in the crowd. The face that fills the screen looks vaguely piratical: a dark eye patch and a single staring blue eye. It is obviously the same face that was inside the metal cage. There is no fear or pain on the face, instead it smiles. A hand appears in frame and slowly lifts the patch. As the shadow clears Marshall sees that the flesh above the cheekbone is red and inflamed. He sees that the upper eyelid has black sutures running along the top under the brow like a second row of eyelashes. The view zooms into extreme close-up: the screen is filled with a closed puffy eye socket. It opens. A bloodshot iris, contracting under the bright light, peers out as the swollen lids blink.
The iris is brown in colour.
There is a jump cut from one extreme close-up to another. A tanned ear replaces the eye.
Wait, Marshall thinks. Brown?
From the edge of the frame a metallic instrument intrudes. A scalpel. It performs a precise circular movement around the ear. Blood flows from the cut. The camera pulls out to reveal another head clamped inside a metal cage. The camera rotates around the head as before.
When the camera pans around behind the right side of the caged head it shows the ear surrounded by hair and the side-burn part of a beard. Marshall frowns and looks again at the silhouette of the man sitting in the row in front of him.
The scalpel reappears and pushes under the circular cut in the scalp and in towards the middle of the ear. The view zooms in. The tip of the blade stretches then pierces the skin of the inner ear.
It’s just like that spear through the throat scene in Camp Lakeside Teen Horror III, Marshall thinks.
With a slight sawing motion the blade cuts around. The view zooms out and the whole ear is shown. A pair of industrial sized tweezers grab the top of the ear and pull. A circle of scalp and most of the ear disappear from the screen. A small tanned piece of inner ear is all that is left. Red and white are the predominant colours: blood and bone.
Marshall shakes his head. How do they do that?
His thigh muscles start to tremble. He feels sweat tickle as it runs down his back. He has leaned forward in his seat and so forces himself to lean back and wills his legs to relax. He feels almost out of breath. He wants to cross his legs to conceal his excitement but he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. Instead, he pulls out his handkerchief and dabs at his forehead and neck.
The roomful of people reappear on the screen. Marshall spots movement in the middle as the view zooms in towards the crowd of pale silvery faces. There is a flash of white as if from a handkerchief. Before Marshall can focus, the view has moved on and is now centred on the face of a man with a full beard. The man grins at the camera. On the screen the grinning man turns his head to the auditoriums right. The man sitting in the row in front of Marshall turns his head to the left. On the screen, the man’s neck and cheek are tanned, but the ear attached by red bulging scar tissue is white, freckled and pale. Marshall sees the man before him lift his hand to his ear and on the screen a hand enters the frame. The man flicks his ear. Marshall hears it, a fleshy thud, perfectly in sync with the image on the screen.
There is no movie reference that Marshall can compare to this. It feels odd because he thought he had seen everything.
The pale ear fades to black, the silvery fingerprint grows from the corner to fill the screen once more. Then a man wearing a tan leather suit walks into frame. He stands in front of the silver fingerprint. The red line starts somewhere near his head and exits under one of his arms like he’s been speared by it. “There are more,” he says.
Marshall hears the crowd around him inhale. Expectant.
“With yet more to come,” the man says as he takes off his jacket and then his cream shirt.
Marshall thinks the man’s torso looks oddly like patchwork and then he hears the flowery smelling woman with the centipede scar exhale ‘ahhhh’ in a whisper.
The half-naked man lifts his arms and stands cruciform. “Behold.”
A white skinned wrist and arm fills the screen. A scalpel cuts an incision around the wrist; the skin is peeled back, a fleshy satin glove. The view cuts to the half-naked man’s right arm. A pink scar runs around the wrist where the skin changes from white to brown.
A soft gasp comes from somewhere on Marshall’s right.
Next, a male torso: the chest is held open by huge metal clamps as hands encased in blue surgical gloves remove a red glistening organ. The view moves to a large scar running down the half-naked man’s chest.
A moan some rows in front. A whispered exclamation to the left.
A large white smile smash cuts to show a raw gummy mass. Close up of the naked man’s mouth. His lips move apart in a grin. Every tooth in the mouth is a different shape and a different size. All the teeth are incisors.
Someone sighs up at the back of the theatre.
The images come faster and faster, each one another modification, with no hope of identifying the body parts.
A man says ‘Yes’ directly behind Marshall and the air tickling the back of his neck causes him to shiver. It’s not entirely without pleasure.
Fade to black.
Then darkness on the screen for several moments. The air smells like musk.
Marshall is as rapt as the rest, he doesn’t know and can’t guess what is going to happen next, and he can’t wait to find out. This is all new, so new.
The silver fingerprint draws itself on the screen in the same familiar order as before, the red line slicing through it. Then the half-naked man reappears, his arms are held out in a fatherly gesture as if to embrace them all. The camera zooms into his face and then his mouth.
“I give you,” he says. “The Chosen.”
His incisor smile fills the screen. The bright reflected light from the teeth forces Marshall to close his eyes to slits.
Everyone around Marshall begins to applaud. He looks to his left and right, every face is smiling, looking up at the screen, unconsciously mimicking the incisor grin. In the white glare Marshall sees nothing but scars: red pulsing scars on arms and fingers; scars squirming on necks and cheeks; scars, bright and raw, old and new, big and small, at least one on every piece of naked flesh he can see. There are scars everywhere.
The room darkens. The faces around Marshall fade. He looks back at the screen. The incisors are gone, instead it shows a roomful of applauding people all grinning up at the camera.
There is someone in the middle: not grinning, not applauding. The view zooms in. As it does people stop applauding and turn their faces to the non-participant.
The camera zooms in tighter and tighter until a face fills the screen. Marshall knows if he were to look away, every other face would be turned towards his, every eye looking at him.
It’s been real. All of it.
He feels a hand on his and looks down to see that the flowery smelling woman has pulled her cardigan sleeve up so that he can clearly see the long centipede scar. It’s beautiful. He wants to touch it, but he dares not move because he is so excited, any movement will set him off. Instead, he looks back at the screen.
He stares up at his own six foot wide eyes.
Marshall McKenzie’s lips stretch out slowly revealing his teeth.