It seemed like a good idea.
A punk band performing a live original score to a silent film.
On October 31st no less.
I mean, I don’t really do Halloween anymore, it’s so much work and the pay off hasn’t been there in years. This seemed like a good middle ground. No need to dress up, live music, a horror film. Jon asked if I’d be interested a month ago and I said sure. Mostly, I wanted the excuse to see an old friend but the whole thing seemed cool as shit.
After Jon called, I looked up the band and the movie. I knew of the 1923 German film Voices from the Walls, but it wasn’t one I had seen. Wasn’t exactly an easy one to find either. Same for the band performing the live score, Domain Archaea, a local experimental punk band I vaguely knew from back when I was an active part of my local scene, going to shows every other night. I just never saw them live. The whole thing was happening at a new venue called The Plateau, an abandoned theatre, recently renovated by some intrepid punks to put on shows.
Jon and I used to go to shows like this all the time, the more outlandish and esoteric the better, but we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We worked nights. Jon was a short order cook at a diner. The kind of place people gathered in after the bars closed. I worked in a factory producing processed foods, doing quality testing in the lab, testing samples of each batch for salt content, acidity, viscosity, basically every quality the consumer might recognize as being slightly off and think the product was no good. Lowest seniority meant that I worked the graveyard shift. Those kinds of hours left me with an okay paycheck but absolutely no social life. This show would be a relief. A conscious effort to not retreat. I was alone a lot.
I met Jon outside The Plateau thirty minutes before the start of the show. He had our tickets.
Jon looked great. Dressed in a grey three-piece suit, white shirt, and burgundy tie with a wide full Windsor knot and, my favourite, a pair of brown Chelsea boots with a two inch heal. He looked like a man going out on the town in the 1920s to see a film. I was in skinny black jeans, a white button-down shirt, and a ratty black cardigan I had worn to shreds, all on top of scuffed Doc Martins. I looked perfectly appropriate but if we hadn’t greeted each other with a tight hug, you wouldn’t have guessed we were meeting to go into The Plateau together.
Jon is that guy I always looked up to. I’m actually a few months older but that never mattered. He was always the one who knew the best bands, wore the coolest clothes, knew where to eat and drink with the people who knew all about eating and drinking. When he leant you a book, it came with a lecture on why this was worth your time and instead of coming off as pretentious or self-important, you actually wanted to read the god damn book by the end of it. So much of my cache during our teen years was due to my proximity to this guy and I missed that as much as I missed the guy himself.
While still half in a hug, Jon said, “I’m excited to see what they’ve done with this place.”
I said, “I swear I’ve walked down this street a thousand times and never really noticed it before.”
“The place has been closed since the 50s and they’ve never tried to do anything with the building. But nobody’s knocked it down either.” Jon stepped back to look at me. “Shit, you look great. So good to see you.”
Jon could make you feel that good, that easily.
“Thanks. And thanks for the ticket. You’ll let me buy you a drink?”
“If you insist.”
We walked into The Plateau.
The Plateau could not hide the fact that it was an old theatre. You entered the main room from the side. The shallow stage lined the width of the room to your left. The seats in front of the stage had been ripped out decades ago, leaving an open floor plan all the way to the bar at the back, hidden in the shadow of the first of two balconies. On that night, the balconies were closed, and the ground floor was littered with evenly spaced, mismatched tables, each with a decorative jack o’ lantern spilling sharp toothed candlelight onto their scuffed, stained surfaces. There was no escaping that this was Halloween programming after all.
Jon and I had our choice of several tables and settled on one located right in the center of the room, equidistant from the stage and bar. I sat down hard on the folding chair and felt the legs dig into the soft wooden flooring as I handed Jon a beer and took a sip of my own.
“I don’t suppose the people who opened this place up again have been able to bring it up to code?” I asked, expecting Jon would know.
“Not likely. I’d say we’ve had a successful evening if we’ve only inhaled asbestos and mold. It’s the guys from Domain Archaea doing it.”
“The band we’re seeing tonight?”
“Yeah. Do you remember them? Not a lot of people do. They’ve been quiet the last few years. Their guitarist was hit by a car stumbling out of The Fairmont after a show. Died on the spot and the band kind of just stopped performing. I had a couple of their early CD-R releases. Great artwork on handmade cardboard sleeves. Punk aesthetic with the noise and layers of shoegaze. They had a niche. I wouldn’t be able to name another band like them.”
Jon reached into his jacket and pulled out one of the band’s cardboard sleeves because of course he would.
“What do you notice?” Jon said, handing me the sleeve.
I leaned in close to the little bit of light thrown by the concealed candle on our table and was surprised to see that the cover art was a painting of our current view of the stage at The Plateau. It was unmistakeable. On stage, there was the vague impression of a single person, dark and hunched over, but it was small and hard to make out in the painting.
“So what do you think made them want to start up again? And to do all this?” I asked, pointing to our surroundings and the white sheet taking up most of the stage’s back wall, ready to project the film.
“I really don’t know. But clearly, they know their shit and love this place. The movie they chose is interesting too.”
“All I know about it is the when and where.”
“I’ve only ever seen it described as a hard to find but important silent film. Gothic ghost story, castles, gaunt German women fainting at the unexpected and uncanny for ninety minutes. Should be a good time.”
“I’m excited to see it. But I worked last night and couldn’t sleep today so, between the beer, silent film and ambient distorted soundtrack, there’s almost no chance I don’t fall asleep for part of it.”
“Same. I closed the diner last night, then went over to one of the waitresses for drinks with a few friends. I’m running on four hours of sleep in the last two days.”
“I can only imagine what this table is going to look like in a half hour.”
“Yeah, but I’m still happy to be here.”
As we continued to catch up, having a second, then third round of beers, about two thirds of the tables filled with costumed punks, small groups of hipsters, and a few solitary film nerds, notebooks at the ready. Looking around, Jon and I fit the interdisciplinary bill just fine.
When the already weak and diffuse house lights went out, every table looked like its own island, outfitted with a single pumpkin shaped lighthouse. The people in the room were reduced to smeared shadows, swaying in front of the candlelight. The overall effect was nice.
The band took the stage, grabbing hold of instruments I hadn’t taken the time to notice were already laid out. They were only three: two guys on guitar and bass, and a woman at a laptop. One of the guys walked up to a mic set up on the side of the stage and said, “good evening.”
Polite applause all around.
“We’re Domain Archaea. We’re doing something we’ve never done. We’re going to perform a live score. The movie is Voices from the walls. I fucking love this film. It’s probably the single biggest influence on everything we’ve ever done, and it still scares the shit out of me so it seemed appropriate.”
“So we’re going to get started in a minute. If you like what we’re doing here, tell some friends. We’re trying to program punk and alternative shows here at The Plateau, bringing the venue back a little bit at a time. It’s got some history, some of it fucked up. We’ll see if we can live up to that.”
Jon could see my raised eyebrows in the darkness but all he had for me was a shrug. We’d have to do some research later.
“So if you want another drink now’s the time because seriously, don’t miss any part of this movie. It’s fucking gorgeous. Okay, enjoy.”
More polite applause. Jon and I were good for beer, so we stayed put in comfortable silence waiting for the projector to illuminate the back wall.
The band started in darkness before anything was shown. A slow build to a wall of distortion with a sludgy, galloping beat. Then suddenly, enough to make me jump, the opening image of the film burst onto the back wall, accompanied by faster downstrokes from the guitar and bass. It was a castle on a cliff, seen from a distance. The lighting suggested evening. The flickering light of fires burned in several windows. It obviously looked like a beautifully shot miniature. I was so sure in fact that my stomach dropped when a slender shadow clearly crossed one of the windows. Fuck, these silent film directors were the God damn best. So much creativity with what I assume was so little. This was going to be special.
Voices from the Walls is about a young woman named Gretta. She’s been institutionalized since childhood but has been deemed cured, returning home for the first time in years. She doesn’t recognize her family and they barely recognize her. You get the impression her existence and perceived psychological weakness was a source of shame for her parents, and to her younger twin siblings, she’s a stranger, entering their lives and privilege as though she belongs. They disagree. All of this is established in the first twenty minutes. Her voyage through the countryside, arriving at the castle, the awkward greeting from her parents, the cold aggression of her twin brothers. Her first night at home, alone in such a large space, she’s nervous and sweaty. Despite her palatial room, everything is shot in close up. The room does not matter, she’s trapped in the confines of her mind, holding a tenuous grasp on reality.
Then she hears the voices.
At that moment, about a half hour into the movie, the distorted and disjointed music continued to plod along with unchecked aggression but with high frequency squeals piercing through the noise, perfectly timed to Gretta’s every flinch, almost as if to make us ask ourselves, did we hear something? Was that a scream? A voice? It was truly excellent.
I looked over to Jon. His eyes were closed but he was nodding to the music. As much as I was enjoying the film, the music, I was having a hard time staying conscious. I was drawing out my third beer, taking small sips, using it to try to keep me awake. It wasn’t working. And to make matters even worse, the temperature in the room had shot up. Drops of sweat streaked down my back, soaking through my shirt. The smell of the theatre had changed. When we walked in, the room smelled like burning incense, the fragrant wood smoke I associate with a lot of the shops in the neighbourhood but now, I got repeated wafts of an acrid, metallic smell. Like spoiled raw liver. Or, and this is really what came to mind, the sweat of a person fighting some kind of infection. Salty decomposition. It was distracting but did nothing to help keep me awake. No one else seemed to notice.
The second act of the film put on a clinic in building tension. Gretta continued to hear voices but was now followed by a shadowy presence. A human shape with large antlers, sometimes upright, sometimes acrobatically on all fours. It first appeared to her in a wooded area near the castle. The scene took my breath away. As she stared down the overgrown path, we follow her POV and see the shape seemingly detach itself from a tree. Even if you know to expect it, it’s shocking to see this dark presence, almost absorbing light, open its luminescent white eyes in a dramatic close up. The music reached its first pinnacle at that point. Like getting hit by a wave. Then everything stopped, abruptly, perfectly in time with Gretta fainting.
The room remained dark and quiet for a minute. Many of the jack o’ lanterns had gone out. It was darker than before. More waves of heat and that awful smell. Then the music started up again but instead of coming from the amplifier stacks on stage, the distortion seemed to be coming up through the floor. It continued to grow in volume. I was uncomfortable, cut off from so many senses. I put my hands flat on the table to make sure I could still orient myself in space.
The projector came back on. The image, a burning fireplace, Gretta asleep in front of it. It illuminated the room so suddenly that I had to close my eyes. When I opened them, the scene remained, but The Plateau had changed. Filling every bit of available standing room were perfectly still, quiet bodies. People who appeared in that brief moment of darkness and disorientation. I couldn’t move. I didn’t understand what was happening. This wasn’t possible. Jon was still asleep. And the music was so loud it hurt, vibrating my chest to the point where it confused my breathing. I couldn’t take a deep enough breath.
Was this part of the show?
Some of the bodies, because that’s all they were to me, vague impressions of humanity, turned around, orienting themselves towards our table. From their shaking, open mouths, came awful, thunderous crackling. There was no message, just cataclysmic sound added to the distortion from below. The person closest to us lifted the pumpkin from the center of our table and poured the hot candle wax from the jack o’ lantern’s mouth directly into their open eyes, blinding themselves. Their eyes disappeared through the slowly hardening wax, but I could tell they could still see me. Like a signal, that act of self harm triggered the crowd of bodies to move in rippling waves of moshing, but it was more than that, their collisions were violent. They were tearing each other apart. Ripping out hair, catching arms and bending them at unnatural angles, fingers piercing holes into flesh as easily as shoving sticks into rotten gourds. Breathing hard and unable to move from my seat, I tried to look past the convulsing, disintegrating bodies. The film had moved on. Gretta stood at the cliff, her family’s castle filled the background. She’s distraught, she’s crying. In her face is the misery of thinking she had succeeded in battling her demons, that she could begin to live but really, she would never be allowed to. Slowly approaching behind her are two of the antlered creatures. Just like the one she first saw appear in the woods. They bring their mouths close to either side of Gretta’s head and scream. Their voices no longer just emanating from the walls, it breaks something in Gretta. The Plateau shook at that moment and a calm came over Gretta’s eyes. She steps off the cliff. I felt the vertigo of her free fall. Not imagined but felt it. The scene changes to that same miniature that opened the film. In the distance, we see Gretta fall to the rocks below. Back on the cliff, the antlered creatures turn and face Gretta’s parents watching from the window. The creatures remove their hoods, revealing the twin boys. They gleefully followed their parents’ instructions. They rid themselves of their family’s shame. No one would ever even ask what happened to poor Gretta.
The final scene is a pull away from the castle, backing into the woods. The music in the room grew to a final, shattering climax. The convulsing bodies in the room, bleeding, some torn to ribbons, continued to mosh in figure eights around the tables. I couldn’t take it anymore. In the remaining flickering light of the projector, the movement was disjointed and inhuman. The same person who poured the wax onto their eyes was now spinning fast around our table, their lower jaw was missing but I could still see the edges of what remained of their face turned upwards in the most hideous smile. The noise they made. I needed to leave, I needed to stand.
The screen went dark.
The music stopped.
The noise stopped.
A moment later, the house lights came on.
The room was as it was.
Jon, who looked as pristine as when we arrived, leaned in and said “Fuck, that was fantastic.”
I frantically looked around, turning in my chair. What happened?
Jon asked, “Are you okay?”
“No.” I said, a bit too loud, a bit too fast.
“You were asleep for a minute, didn’t want to wake you, I can fill you in on what you missed.”
“I didn’t sleep. I was awake the whole time.”
“Okay. It’s no big deal, you drifted off for a bit.”
“No, I’m fucking telling you, I was awake, I saw everything.”
“Shit. Okay, you were awake.”
Silence. People walked past our table, noticing my panic, noticing Jon’s concern.
“Why don’t we get out of here?”
“Yeah. Yeah, let’s do that.”
Standing outside, I began to breathe again. Drunken partiers stumbled past, their costumes in various states of ruin.
Jon said, “A friend of mine is having a party right now. She says we wouldn’t need to dress up or anything.”
“I don’t think I’d be good company right now. Hey, did you? Was there? How do you feel right now, after watching that movie?”
“Good. I really liked it. The ending messed with my head.”
“Yeah?” Maybe he did see something.
“Yeah. That she would kill her brothers with the antlers from her bedroom, thinking they were playing tricks on her, that they were the voices. And that we don’t really know in the end if it was them. It’s a lot.”
What was he talking about? That’s not what happened.
“And Domain Archaea showed beautiful restraint.”
“Hey seriously, is everything okay?”
I had to think about it. I decided to nod yes and blame it on fatigue. I was embarrassed. Jon hadn’t seen any of it.
Jon and I parted ways in front of the theatre. We would see each other again eventually. He gave me a tight hug which I held onto a moment too long, taking in his smell and the feel of him, how much he cared. I walked away fast, unable to look back at Jon, or The Plateau.
Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.
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