Some hunters found a boy in a ditch on the side of the road, and all signs seemed to indicate that he had died from alcohol poisoning. The boy had clearly suffered more than the alcohol, as his eyes were sunken and purple, as his nose was crusted and bent, but the blue coloring of his vomit-stained face was the most apparent aspect of his ghoulish visage. I had known the kid, Perry Till, for much of his life because I was a friend of Joseph, his father. Hell, I was even invited to Perry’s 17th birthday less than a year back, even if I couldn’t attend. The boy called me “uncle,” and I tried to do the best I could for him, but I never knew how much he really needed in his last few days alive.
Joseph and I have no familial connections, we certainly weren’t raised similarly, but we both found ourselves at the end of the line in a dead end town. I have nothing but respect for Joseph, even after everything that’s happened, as he chose to befriend me when no one else would. A single father running a failed video store, I met him after sleeping in his parking lot back when I lived out of my car. He set me up with a job at his store and some money to sleep at a motel, and I just managed to stick to him like a leech. Perry was just four around this time, a miniature of his dad with the same short, straight straw hair, the same big hazel eyes, and even wearing similar jeans and shirts. The kid idolized Joseph, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when he began emulating the same obsessions.
Joseph had gone to film school and had planned on being an independent director, and while that dream never panned out, it never died either. Now, I’ve seen a few flicks in my day, even consider myself a Kubrick fan for all that’s worth, but Joseph really knows his stuff. He has always avidly collected Criterion films, and he has lectured to me, on multiple occasions mind you, about the works of Eisenstein, Cocteau, and Ozo. He’s often had me over for his own makeshift film festivals in the living-turned-screening-room. It was one of these get-togethers that I could first picture anything indicating something off about the family. Perry was only 12 then, yet Joseph decided to invite him for an overnight marathon of Bergman films. Perry loved it, and it didn’t seem my place to protest. However, I remember vividly how my skin crawled as the woman onscreen intimately described a sexual encounter with two pre-pubescent boys, while neither Perry nor his father was moved from his mesmerized state.
Over the years, I was invited many times to act either as staff or in the traditional sense for Joseph’s many film projects. Of the dozens of projects he tried, I doubt he finished one, though, if he did, I never saw it complete. Joseph had an odd style of directing and somewhat bizarre taste, seeming a different person when his creative juices began to flow. He would stretch his non-existent budgets to the limit and create beautiful and surreal matte paintings and miniatures. However, he would also become distant and erratic with his actors, yelling at them if they “forced” another take on the limited film stock. No one else in town ever came back to him after working with him once, no one but me. I must admit to myself that it was more than just loyalty to a friend, that I have been pointlessly infatuated with this man for years now. I truly believe that he is a genius weighed down by his own shortcomings, and that he is a caring father and friend when he is not caught up in his own mind.
When Perry started making his own films, Joseph was practically bursting with pride. I hoped that he would get along with others better than his father did. That definitely seemed to be the case when I was invited over to the screening of his first short film. The kid’s taste definitely mirrored his father’s, as the movie was a little horror story called “The Sound Diary.” As far as I can remember it, the basic plot was that a man kept writing down his thoughts into a little notebook, and, as soon as his pen touched paper, a strange noise would sound. The noises were all very well done, and only one of which I could really place, that being the sound of the engine on my old truck starting turned down a few octaves. I don’t think he really knew how to end the movie, ‘cause the man ended up just killing himself, and we never learned where those sounds were coming from. Still, Such a creative film thoroughly impressed me, especially made by someone so young with such a cheap, outdated video-cassette camera.
It was after this first project that Perry started working at the video shop as a more serious job, as he’d only done the odd chore or two up to this point. Him working at the shop was also when we really began to warm up to each other, enough for him to call me “uncle” without his father’s provocation. He was a hard worker, but from time to time I’d indulge the kid by just sitting down and letting him drone on and on about all of his ideas for movies. Eventually, he started spicing these conversations up by sharing with me a little fascination he had. It was a semi-common experience, but sometimes customers would accidentally (and sometimes intentionally) leave the wrong disk in a case. Perry had made it a habit to look through cases for misplaced films, though only finding a few interesting things in most instances.
It was a little hypnotic to hear him describe in excruciating detail the weddings of people he’d never met and now kept on a shelf at home. He never bothered to look for the original owners, and they never tried to retrieve any of the tapes to my knowledge. It took a year of this before he found the “skinny tape,” as we’d come to call it, yet for all intents and purposes the thing must have been there all along. He had been browsing through the dusty VHS section when he discovered an out of place tape in the box for The Seventh Seal. It was an average tape in appearance, yet had “SKINNY” written on the side in neat block letters obviously drawn with sharpie.
At least two weeks passed before Perry decided to show the movie to me, and at that time he admitted to watching it a dozen times. Up until then Perry was emitting a quiet exuberance, paying little attention to his work and jotting something down in a moleskine notebook every few minutes. I asked him what was up, and he told me that he had found an amazing film that I just had to see. When we finally snuck off into the back room, where we kept the VCR, I wondered allowed why he didn’t show this to his father. He ignored me. He put the tape into the machine and silently stood next to me as the static dispersed.
The actual footage only lasts for about 30 minutes before dissolving into static, but I could feel the time stretch. All of it is a single shot: a high angle of a bricked off wooden doorway in someone’s basement, two wine barrels on each side of the doorway. The scene is dark, the only source of light being a flickering lantern which is just out of frame, but you can see the shadow of the lantern on the ground next to a vague human figure. Very little visual action takes place, except for a mouse that scurried around one barrel at about halfway through. What seemed to entice Perry, however, were the sounds that infest that dank dungeon. The basic atmosphere is composed of dripping water, quick enough that it was probably raining at the time of filming, and shallow breathing that suggests the camera operator’s presence. After a while you adjust to these sounds, as they melt into the background with the accompanying events.
It takes a few minutes, but soon after the tape begins you hear a low moan arise from behind the red brick barrier. A violent yank of chains follows, and about five times it seems someone or something is trying to break its bonds. The thing behind the wall resigns, and you hear a grunt followed by the jingle of tiny tin bells. At this time the mouse scurries past, and the thing must hear it because it produces another moan, more guttural now and accompanied by more yanking of chains. Once again the jingle of tin bells. It seems quiet for a bit, but slowly you begin to hear growing sobs, dry and pleading. It’s faint, but little before the end a small, effete voice whispers “Jack? Jack?” while the sob continues. After that, the background noise takes over again before quickly cutting to black followed by static.
This felt like something Perry could’ve made, yet somehow off. Perhaps that was what enticed him so much about it, as I could see that he wanted to play it again as soon as it had ended. I told him that I found it quite strange and disturbing, to be honest, but he didn’t seem to register that. Soon after that Perry halted the project he had been working on, supposedly his would-be third film about a man living in a transparent hallway between the front doors of two suburban homes. In it’s stead he began working on a new project, an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” using the “skinny” footage. I told him that it was a bad idea, that the tape could be snuff a film for all he knew, but he simply dodged this advice. The kid was getting a lot more closed off now, sometimes missing school if his father was to be believed.
It was five days before Perry’s body was found when I went to tell Joseph. He was also very concerned about his son’s shift in behavior and asked me what I knew. I responded with a question of my own: whether or not he knew of a tape with the word “SKINNY” written on it. He was confused, but he knew his son well enough that I think he could understand some of the implications as I described the tapes contents. We sat across from each other on the sectional couch he kept in his living room, and he chewed the words a few times before finally speaking.
“I know where a wine cellar is” he said, “if it’s the one from the video, he could be sneaking off to the old ranch. We should both go.”
I followed behind Joseph in my truck as we twisted along dirt roads for about a mile. Eventually, we found ourselves in a huge overgrown field cornered on three sides by forest, with the road passing near a huge house that most likely used to govern a plantation. As we got neared, I could see that it had been abandoned for at least as long as I had been alive, for the porch on the big building sagged with rot. We got out of our cars and, from the look of his red eyes, it seemed that Joseph had been crying the whole time. He walked towards me and gave me a hug, whispering in my ear “thank you, thank you for doing this for me and Perry. ” I almost began crying myself. However, before I could get emotional, Joseph lead me around to the back of the house where the cellar entrance was. We could see that the doors were already wide open.
Once Joseph laid on the gaping wooden doors, he quickly sprinted into the dark stairs that the doors opened up to. It took all I had to keep up with Joseph, because he ran like a bat outta hell. It smelled like decay in the cellar, more than it smelled like one, and I imagined many of the barrels were filled with vinegar at that point. Joseph lead me through the huge tomb of wine before, not taking a single wrong turn, until we got to our apparent destination. Sure as my mother’s name is Anne, I saw the same exact location from the video, only the wall was no longer there. I clenched my teeth and fists, for I saw Joseph crumple to his knees before a mess of scrambled bricks, just a few of them piled off to the side. In the small room, the one previously walled off, were four rusted chain manacles, all of them broken. On the floor was what once may have been something like a jester’s hat, with three tiny bells attached to the ends of three different floppy points of the hat, and a half-missing, maggot-infested rat corpse lying beside it. Neither of us ever saw Perry again after that day.
Now would be the best time to reveal why I am writing this at all. I’m not the boy’s actual uncle, so I don’t have any right to disclose his life and fate to strangers. I do have a right, however, to do whatever I can to help my friend in whatever way I can. The truth is that I don’t have the slightest clue what has happened, I’m too close to it all to wrap my head around it. I don’t have time to figure it out, though, as a certain event occurred soon after Perry’s body was discovered.
Joseph invited me over to his house once more. I found him quietly waiting in the living room, the “skinny tape” sitting on the table before him. It looked more beat up than when I first saw it, overused, and apparently found hidden under Perry’s bed while cleaning out the room. Joseph said that he was sorry he hadn’t told me earlier, that he had realized as soon as I had described the tape. He was the one who made it. I didn’t know what to ask him then, and I still don’t. We just stared at each other for minutes He looked like he was twice my age, and he had gigantic bags beneath his eyes. I don’t think he has slept once since the day he learned of his son’s death. Finally, he said to me “I want to finish the movie. I need to, for Perry. I… I can’t do it without your help.”
“Can you work a camera?”