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The Cursed Videotape

Avant-propos: Jimmy Arrow was a porn film director we met in Los Angeles in 2005. We asked him for his help on a short film. He died in 2010 at 62 years old in Vladivostok. In the various magazines that have published us, we’ve revealed a bit more about the life of this strange, unusual man who left behind a life’s work as secretive as it was passionate.

Fabien Clouette & Quentin Leclerc

 

 

 

The Ring is a Japanese horror film directed by Hideo Nakata that was released in theatres in 1998. The plot is straightforward: a VHS cassette causes all those who have seen it to die seven days afterwards. This mysterious phenomenon conceals a visual explanation revealed in the final scene: a static shot of a well in autumn (since the ground is covered in leaves), with dead trees in the background, all in black and white, indicating the cassette’s evident age. After several minutes, a girl in a white dress with long brown hair covering her face climbs out of the well (the image quality is terrible and the frame is often blurred due to shaking and static). Once the girl is out, she slowly makes her way forward, almost staggering, her face covered by her hair. As she reaches the camera lens, the girl, against all expectations, breaks the fourth wall and literally climbs out of the television that’s playing the videotape. Once she has broken through the screen, the girl crawls across the room, her oddly contorted hands scratching the floor (a kind of seagrass typical of Japanese interiors); her nails are practically splintered. Then she stands up and advances, arms hanging down, towards the man who had been watching the scene (Ryuji Takayama). Evidently the girl’s face is deliberately hidden because it is unbearably horrific. And, indeed, Ryuji Takayama is horrified, and he crawls backwards to get away from the advancing girl. Finally, as Ryuji Takayama flails on the ground one last time, he sees, through two parted locks of hair, an eye, its black pupil barely visible, and consequently, in beholding it, he dies.

 

Two years earlier, in 1996, the American novelist David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) published Infinite Jest, a 1,000-page-plus novel considered by many readers one of the masterpieces of English-language literature. A similar premise connects the main characters: an unfinished film, Infinite Jest, directed by James Incandenza, is so enthralling that whoever watches it loses all appetite for any other activity, to the point of death. A group of Quebec separatists in possession of a single VHS containing this film attempt to unleash its power upon entire populations.

 

Even as the topos of a cursed videotape has become, over the last twenty years, an utter cliché, we’ve somehow found ourselves, to our sheer horror, in a situation much like that of Ryuji Takayama (the hero of The Ring). The cause: a VHS copy of one of Jimmy Arrow’s porn features.

 

Indeed, the film Sweet Lost Home Alabama (known in Quebec as ‘L’hospitalité sudiste’), shot just outside Gillsburg, Mississippi, in 1982, is a classic example of what we might call a cursed film. As it’s not a direct adaptation of a Jack London novel, it’s visibly different from the director’s other films from this period. Likewise, this feature-length film was never shown in theatres (its distributors having deemed it too disturbing to properly titillate its audience), and it only enjoyed brief distribution on VHS. Filmed entirely in natural settings that had survived tragic upheaval several years earlier, it seemed to have captured on film several ghosts that hadn’t completely escaped limbo. A rumour circulated in Hollywood that Arrow had wanted to make this film to save the dead’s cursed souls.

 

The premise is peculiar: Alan Pearl, a man in a black T-shirt bearing the words ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die’, is driving a car that breaks down on the highway, at night, in a bayou. Another driver stops on the roadside and offers to help. The car is packed with girls all dolled up with long hair, bright red lipstick, and sheer dresses. After a long, darkly erotic sequence inside the moving car, the group makes its way to an aeroplane wreckage that has been turned into a nightclub called Survivors.

 

This wreckage is that of the Convair CV-240 plane, which never completed its 1977 domestic flight from Greensville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Upon realising that the twin-engine plane did not have enough fuel, the pilot tried to make an emergency landing in a swampy forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi. The accident made headlines at the time because among its passengers were the members of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as some naked groupies. Several survivors made it out of the plane’s carcass and struggled to make it to a farm and call for help, covered in blood and dirt. They were bludgeoned by the farmer, who had been terrified by their appearance.

 

Sidestepping this story to follow his own plot, Jimmy Arrow filmed what was considered during the shooting to be one of his most beautiful night-time scenes. Alan and the girls enter the Survivors disco through a ladder at the back of the structure, then settle into the cockpit for a sequence of hardcore sex, until a server comes in and interrupts them with a scream. He, too, is wearing a shirt declaring that ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die’. The server’s protests are the only words looped after filming, which makes the scene even more disturbing. The dubber’s thick Southern accent makes it impossible to understand all but a few words: ‘flight attendant’, ‘melody’, ‘survivors’, and ‘cursed’.

 

After this scene, a masterful backward tracking shot shows Alan staring into the camera as he walks from the cockpit towards the back of the main cabin. While his face remains calmly fixed on the viewer, the girls start dancing to a mélange of house music, human screams and gusting winds, as though in a trance. Alan Pearl finally stops, the camera panning left to show the spectator a view through one of the windows – revealing that the plane is in fact airborne, that the jet engines are on fire, and that it’s heading earthward at an inconceivable speed, in a welter of flames, debris, and screams. The television screens installed in the seat backs explode in-flight, and their explosion sets off another explosion, that of the viewer’s television screen. With a deafening whistle, the clamour systematically shatters the fourth wall and kills its audience.

 

Different theories about this film have been dreamed up. Some people think that the rock stars’ ghosts took advantage of the video’s medium to haunt an entertainment culture that watched them die without even batting an eye. Others believe that the Gillsburg forest was haunted by voodoo spirits that had held the musicians hostage since 1977 and tried to escape through Jimmy Arrow’s film.

 

After the death of Jimmy Arrow’s lawyer, Andris Jr. Schemerhorn, we recovered all the Arrow videotapes in his possession, amounting to more than fifty VHS cassettes. Among these cassettes, Sweet Lost Home Alabama was probably the most tempting yet terrifying of all. Tempting because the case included a 3D image that shifted based on the angle it was seen, and terrifying because, as the foregoing lines indicate, its reputation preceded it. The cassette from Andris’s collection was sealed. Since we weren’t entirely sure how we might watch the film without exploding in turn, we contacted a disenchantress from Mayenne whose ad we’d kept after finding it in one of our mailboxes. We’d kept the coupon because we thought it was hilarious, but this woman was ultimately the only contact we could call on for matters supernatural.

 

We called her and agreed on a meeting under the République arcades in Rennes. She took us to an apartment where she experimented in black magic. The apartment had three main rooms: two of equal size, one in which she conducted her experiments, the other in which she could observe what was happening in the first, or just rest; the last room was a bathroom with floor-to-ceiling tiling.

 

She had placed a television on the floor of her laboratory, on which she planned to watch the film, while we sat in the neighbouring room, watching her via video message. On the walls hung various paintings, each of them depicting the same Ouija board in various styles. Six dental cabinets were filled with jars of formaldehyde containing axolotls, deformed infants, and dwarf rodents missing their eyes.

 

At first, nothing happened. The disenchantress seemed barely aroused by the pornographic scenes, and completely bored by the main plot. But this boredom was short-lived. When the film’s final scene finally played, it looked like the whole screen was covered by a violent white cloud, although there wasn’t really any explosive noise to be heard. But when the white cloud had disappeared, the disenchantress had vanished from the room. We stayed there, frozen, unsure what to do, feverish and despairing at the thought that she might have exploded like all the previous victims, when her voice suddenly rang out again. She asked us to come into the room to turn off the television, and to take great care not to look directly at the television if we ever wanted to come back out. We had to use a small mirror that was on her desk, and only look at the screen through that. We did so carefully, and, once inside the room, realised to our utter shock that it was completely empty. We turned around to make out her presence, but we couldn’t find her; all that remained was the television screen, which was still turned on.

 

We slowly walked backwards and were unnerved by what we saw on the screen: a rock band seemed to be playing a fantastical concert on the rubble of a plane, while dozens of people (including the disenchantress) either danced, or performed deviant acts. We rushed to turn off the television as the disenchantress had instructed us, with a pang in our hearts for all the souls we were abandoning in this scenery of a lost bayou. We felt sure that the disenchantress’s intervention and sacrifice had been enough to halt the videotape’s curse. We were sadly mistaken. Once outside, things had changed.

 

We had barely stepped out of the building when a black Volkswagen Camper pulled over in front of us. Somebody had written ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die’ on the bonnet. The driver stuck her head out the window and told us to climb aboard, which we did without quite realising what we were doing. Four girls were already inside and watched us wordlessly as they rubbed themselves. They didn’t seem interested in welcoming us into their lewd games, but their eyes stayed unblinkingly fixated on us. As the van got going, we both noticed that the driver was also watching us insistently through her rear-view mirror. Like what you see? Think they’re pretty? she kept asking us, without any expectation of an answer. A thick fog hung over the countryside and obscured the route we were taking; visibility was nearly zero. Here and there, laser lights from the nightclubs on Rennes’s outskirts cut through, only to die away as abruptly. One of the girls, a little bigger than the others, did nothing besides bite her seatmates until they bled, sometimes tearing away chunks of their flesh. Then she smeared the blood all over her cheeks like smudged lipstick. The others were so unresponsive that she almost seemed to be invisible to them. Better yet: they became even more expressive, during these unreal bites, in the pleasure they took in the games they were playing. They don’t see her, or they don’t see her anymore, the driver told us, taking her eyes off the road to look at us at length, a dangerous decision on the winding, crowded roads around the warehouses of a commercial zone. The girls’ wounds multiplied but a striking beauty emanated from their bodies. We recognised this scene; it was more or less an echo of the opening scene of Jimmy Arrow’s Sweet Lost Home Alabama, which we had just seen thanks to the Mayennais disenchantress.

 

Finally, the van parked in a nightclub parking lot. The driver had waved her badge at the security guards who let us in without any trouble. A huge neon sign crackled over the entryway, welcoming us to ‘SURVIVORS PARK’.

 

Once we were inside the disco, we noticed how small it was. To create the illusion of space, the walls around the dance floor were wholly covered in mirrors. Behind that, a breeze-block garage served as a smoking room. A remix of Cerrone’s ‘Supernature’ pounded endlessly through the building’s steel walls. The van driver found a seat at the bar while the girls kept on with their caresses at the tables. After serving the driver, the server called out to us, but it wasn’t his voice we heard. A sixty-something man stood up next to him and spoke for him. Then the old man began yelling at us in a foreign language neither of us could understand. All the disco’s clients immediately turned and pointed at us. It’s hard to describe exactly what then happened before our eyes, but their faces all seemed to explode, open up, split apart, with sharp teeth protruding from those gaping maws. Bizarre wheezing came from these clefts, and it seemed like these sprawling creatures might leap at us at any moment.

 

We managed to escape through the smoking room by pushing aside those clients with ravaged faces and got outside, only to find ourselves on the outer limits of a football pitch. The wooden bleachers had caved in from moisture and the grass looked like it had been torn up. As we looked around and realised there was no place to hide, the groundskeeper appeared and hustled us towards the locker rooms. Who brought you here?! You shouldn’t be here! Wait for me, I’ll get someone to help! he barked at us before running off. At first we didn’t hear anything, and then there were screams, explosions, and shouting. After an hour had gone by without any sign of the groundskeeper, we decided to sneak out of the locker room and make our way back to the football pitch. Nobody was at our heels, and the disco seemed to have disappeared entirely, as had the van, the driver, and the girls. At that point, we heard a loud buzzing, like a string of explosions. It looked like a warzone. Massive convulsions shook the ground, as if artillery shells were landing all around us. But this wasn’t artillery: burning bodies fell from the sky, shrieking and landing with a thud on the muddy football pitch. We looked up: a blazing aeroplane was headed straight for us. We barely had enough time to shield ourselves from the immense shock that followed by hiding behind the thick wall of the locker-room building. The blast from the catastrophe shattered the windows and the wooden door, setting off an inferno in the room. The flames were black and smokeless. But they swallowed up everything with bewildering speed, like a black hole sucking in light. We had to get to a window at the end of the building and squeeze through to get out of danger. Once we were outside, the flames closed in around the space and disappeared as quickly as they had come. We finally took a moment to shake off our terror and make sure, not just that we were safe and sound, but that we were still real.

 

Everything had been destroyed. No recognisable landmarks had survived the impact, and the locker-room building looked more like the ruins of a school, a parliament, or a papal palace. Cap Malo was unrecognisable. The hand of a dying man emerged from the rubble, grabbing at our calves as he begged us to finish him off; a detached leg, impaled on the branches of a poplar tree, kicked reflexively, ineffectually; unlikely groans haunted us everywhere. As we made our way in horror through the field of corpses, we recognised the disenchantress, her dismembered limbs strewn in every direction, but still semi-conscious. My spell failed … she whispered to us in her death throes. I couldn’t do anything … there was nothing to be done … you don’t know what you’ve unleashed … in the horror … in the shadows … find the film IN THE HORROR … otherwise … there’s nothing to do … this world is doomed.

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author of Quelques Rides (2015) and Le Bal des Ardents (2016), published by Éditions de l’Ogre. He is also a filmmaker and maritime anthropologist, and was born in 1989 in Saint-Malo.

 is the author of Saccage (2016; Prix Littéraire des Grandes Écoles 2017) and La Ville Fond (2017), both published by Éditions de l'Ogre. He was born in 1991 and lives in Rennes.

Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature magazine and a translator from French, most recently of Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017). Along with serving on the 2016 jury for the PEN Translation Prize, his writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, the New Republic, and Vice.

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