Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Silver Scream

by Kent Rosenberger




House lights came up as the images on the screen faded away without orchestral finale or traditional closing credits. The witnesses to the experimental scrap of film did not react right away, each of them still digesting what they had just experienced. They were the first to be exposed to anything of this caliber or style, and if all went according to plan, they would not be the last.

At least that was what the director had in mind.

As far as Hollywood types went, Trudy Pepperdine did not fit any specific mold or stereotype, and that was the way she liked it. Almost everything about her was unremarkable; medium brunette hair, hazel eyes obstructed by round-lensed, black-framed glasses, five and a half feet tall, average build, average weight, nothing about her mannerisms or makeup or Midwestern American accent to set her apart from the crowd or make her memorable. She preferred to be remembered for her work, and therefore let the sample she just screened speak for itself without requiring any introduction, fanfare or lengthy explanation before presenting it. She was a little bit hurt from the lack of applause once the test footage reached its conclusion, but there were no booings, scowls of distaste or appalled departures either, so she took that as a good sign. The absence of response, good or bad, threw her off her game a little, so when she stepped in front of her sparse audience to complete her presentation, the excitement level she had before her piece was revealed had deflated a bit. “Well, ladies and gentlemen of the board, what did you think?”

An awkward pause ensued. Trudy wished she knew if it was because they all hated her creation, or because none of them knew where to begin due to its formidable subject matter and unprecedented format. A couple of coughs and clears of the throat dotted the otherwise uncomfortable silence, but none of them managed to flourish into any kind of rejoinder.

Unable to stand the suspense anymore, and sensing perhaps some sort of context was required for classification, she followed up her generic inquiry with, “Of course, you understand, we don’t have to use these particular characters or actors. This is just a small sampling of how the power of the technology we now have can be used to produce a seamless, realistic movie by manipulating old footage and integrating it with computer-generated digital likenesses to take the world of entertainment to the next level.” She tried to punctuate her insight with a forced smile that made her appear more like she was suffering from indigestion than attempting to convey positivity and help it become contagious.

Thankfully the silence that resumed was much more short-lived than previously. A balding man with a bad comb-over who looked like a potbelly stove force into a three-piece suit and very red tie spoke up. Since smoking was not allowed in the theater, his chomping on one end of a licorice strand while the other stuck out of his mouth like a cigar normally would made it a little bit disgusting for Trudy to watch him talk. She forced herself, though, since no one else seemed to be volunteering any feedback. “Young lady,” he began, “do you really think you’ve presented us with some sort of groundbreaking achievement? Computer generated animation has been around for…”

“With all due respect, Mr. Fox,” she interrupted, “this is not animation. These images were taken by the computer from hundreds of existing films and knit together into picture perfect pattern. To fill in the spaces from one shot to the next without any cutaways, edits or change of camera angels can be considered animation, but on such a highly sophisticated level it is all but undetectable to the human eye. The same thing goes with the voice. The system I created searches through tons of dialogue from the established filmography of the subject in the blink of an eye, cobbles together lines from the script in the actor’s own voice, and adjusts influx and tone as needed. If they never spoke some of the words, like character names, it will find close matches by syllable in the pool of information and fake it as best it can. We can always clean up rough edges in editing.

“As far as original content is concerned, in the past we have had modern-day stars spliced side-by-side with legendary actors or in classic scenes, but the footage of the older talent was just being played with either no adjustment to them, or with goofy and awkward advertisement attached to them for the sake of promotion and laughs. But this…” she pointed to the blank screen behind her, “this process will allow us to make any actor who has passed on do and say what we want. It takes some doing, but no more time or effort than it does for a modern production to reshoot the same scene several times until they get it right, and for less money with guaranteed results.”

Fox, who took up more than one seat in the row he chose to observe the film, leaned back in his chairs. “I see,” he said, mulling over the idea while removing the licorice stub in true smoker fashion.

Evidently further elucidation was required for the woman in the pillbox hat two rows back from Fox, a Mrs. Brookside representing West End films. “So what you’re saying is, this process allows you to take any onscreen personality, live or dead, and put them in a brand new movie, making them do anything with anyone, and the results will be the same as this sample you just gave us?”

“Yes, that’s right.” The grin Trudy wore was genuine now. Her surge of enthusiasm was returning. “ We would leave the live actors alone, of course, since they get paid to do what they do. But for the staples of yesteryear, this could be a whole new chapter for them even though they’re no long with us. Just imagine, you could have Marilyn Monroe have an affair with James Dean, or Charlie Chaplin, or even Chaning Tatum if you wanted. Boris Karloff could be Frankenstein and the Mummy in the same movie. All of Lon Cheney’s one thousand faces could meet each other and form their own super villain league. The possibilities are endless.”

“The lawsuits will be endless,” said a voice in the back. Dressed like the legal representative he was, Milton Drake straightened his own spectacles, clawed at his too-tight collar and raised an accusing finger. “You can’t just go putting people in films willy-nilly and make money off of them without proper permission. And compensation. This is why there are contracts, negotiations, reams of paperwork that needs to happen before a single frame can be shot. Or in this case, superimposed.”

“That’s the beauty part of this whole idea.” Trudy was beaming now. “In this room, the six of you represent about eighty percent of the original film companies that date back to the Golden Age of movies. Despite mergers, takeovers and buyouts, the rights to classic films, and more importantly the images of those iconic actors and actresses, belong to you. Therefore, you are the ones in control. If the estate of someone is still looking for a payout or holds certain rights, then just don’t use them. There are plenty of folks whose work and likenesses have no more heirs to cash in or have fallen into public domain.

“And the gravy train does not need to end there. Years ago, Natalie Cole sang a duet of Unforgettable with her deceased father, Nat King Cole, and not only was it a number one selling song, it took home several music awards. I can see it now,” she gazed up at the camera booth as if searching the heavens for something amazing, “all new songs featuring the original Rat Pack. Bing Crosby does a duet with Alliyah. An all-star cast revives an old Broadway gem, or brings one of the current ones to the big screen. Could you see Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi in Xanadu?”

Mrs. Brookside shuddered at the thought.

“Let’s not get carried away,” Fox urged.

But Trudy went on. “Then there’s television, video games, music videos…why, the possibilities are literally endless. Why should an artist’s career end just because they died?”

“Reel it in, Miss Pepperdine. You’re going to oversell it.”

“You really think that’s possible, Mr. Drake? Was it possible to oversell the internet? Cell phones? Victoria’s Secret?” She fell silent for a moment, realizing she was getting a bit off track with her comparisons. “My point is, ladies and gentlemen, this is the next big thing. For us and for an audience hungry for what we have, they just don’t know it yet.”

The silence returned, this time more irritating than before.

“I’ll tell you what. Let me put together a full-length film. You can even approve the script, cast, songs if applicable, everything. You fund me for one film, play it for a test audience and see the results in comparison with the price tag, and I guarantee you will be willing to approve a summer and a Christmas release every year for the rest of your natural lives.”

“And if it doesn’t work out?” Fox finished off his candy.

“Then it’s no cost to you. We shake hands, part as friends, and I’m off to find the next ‘next big thing,’” Trudy promised.

The half-dozen audience members took a few moments to draw closer to each other and discuss the matter. After a minute or so of debate, they had their answer.

“One picture,” Drake confirmed, holding up sole finger. “And you better make it a good one, Miss Pepperdine, or trust me when I quote an old favorite of mine; ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’”



*****



Trudy Pepperdine did work in that town again. And again. And again. Her premier project, A Good Ol’ Fashioned Christmas was one of the biggest box office successes of the decade. And it was no wonder, with the low overhead, state-of-the-art computer use, high definition 3-D treatment, and most importantly, a cast of thousands that no film lover worth his salt could resist. Old favorites mixed freely with the recently and long departed, rekindling an interest in classic cinema, and building a bridge between the generations the likes of which had never been seen in film history. Fred and Ginger danced again, but this time they had some competition, as Patrick Swayze cut up the floor with classic high-stepper Kathryn Grayson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson escorted a very grown up Shirley Temple with uncommon ballroom grace and elegance. As if that were not enough, Glen Miller and his orchestra were on hand to play while Billie Holiday sang to warm up the dancers. They then retired to make way for the most amazing rock band ever assembled to get the competition cooking. Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin performed a blazing duet, Hendrix wailed the only way he knew how, accompanied by a showboating Randy Rhoades, with a Zen-like John Lennon keeping everything on an even keel. Keith, Moon and John Bonham tag-teamed on percussions while Karen Carpenter and Mama Cass Elliot harmonized in the background. The entire number culminated when the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, put on the best onstage antics he ever performed, miming and mimicking the ballroom hot-steppers as they hoofed their hearts as they had never done before.

And that was only the opening scene.

The story itself was only so-so, a convoluted, thinly plotted musical murder mystery set over the holidays, the likes of which could easily have been dreamed up and hammered out by a handful of college drama majors over spring break, but, as with most song-and-dance films, the narrative was hardly the focus. It was the stars, the silver screen sirens and studs from yesteryear, restored to amazing three-dimensional Technicolor life as if they had never gone. And with the Three Stooges posing as the Three Wise Men, poking and pratfalling their way through the Nativity scene, Jack Benny as the Innkeeper dropping one liners, and shepherd Arte Johnson given any excuse to deliver his famous phrase, “Velly Intellesting,” just one more time, the humor tour-de-force packed more punch in the scene retelling of the first Christmas than any other comedy released that year in all of their ninety-minute-plus runs. Despite its obvious shortcoming and just above average reviews, the movie-going public voted with their wallets to see the picture again and again, creating an insatiable demand for more entertainment of this ilk and making a mint for creator Trudy Pepperdine and her backers. There was even discussion of adding a pair of new category to the prestigious Academy Awards, Best Resurrected Actor and Actress, all due to the brainchild of a C + film student from Decatur, Illinois and a little bit of computer wizardry.

By the end of the next year, fifteen more films featuring deceased film icons cropped up from every major studio in Hollywood. Kids who were four and five generations removed from the comic stylings of Buster Keaton, unfamiliar with the smoldering gaze of Bette Davis, never heard of Rudolph Valentino, or had only seen Marilyn Monroe in photos and paintings, became appreciative, fanatical, and even smitten with the celebrities their grandparents and great-grandparents loved more than a century ago. Television and online programming began harkening back to a simpler time when Dick Van Dyke tripping over and ottoman and Wally and the Beaver getting in gentle trouble was enough to tickle a funnybone without throwing sex, crude language or drug use into the mix. New life was breathed into products ranging from breakfast cereal to technological innovations now that the likes of Orson Wells, Jim Henson, Dana Plato and Whitney Houston were endorsing them. Public service announcements began to resound with the ring of truth as Yul Brunner and Walt Disney were placed on a hardcore anti-smoking campaign while Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain spearheaded a new Don’t Do Drugs crusade.

And for every movie ticket, every endorsement, every company that wanted to use her specially designed brand of technology, Trudy Pepperdine got a royalty, a percentage, or some other price-negotiated piece of the pie. In less time than it took her father to climb his way up from a minimum wage cubicle job to an office with a view and an upscale lunchroom, Trudy had become one of the richest and most prestigious people in Hollywood.


*****



Sleep comes easily to those with money, status, clout and contacts, so it was understandable that Trudy Pepperdine slept like a rock. With more money in the bank than she could use in ten lifetimes, a household name synonymous with the film franchise she had created practically single-handedly, and a list of associates a mile thick, the concept of worry was about as far removed from her as possible. She had just said goodnight to her boyfriend, actor-turned-director Julian McSnazz, the type of man who would be way out of her league had she stayed in her hometown like most of her jealous high school friends had done, closed her laptop and placed it on the empty side of her bed, the side that would not remain empty for too much longer, rolled over, and was out almost instantly.

It was then that the noises began.

At first she believed the rustling and scratching outside her closed bedroom door might be one of her faithful watchdogs trying to sneak in to cuddle with her in bed, but after mumbling, “Muffet, go away,” through her fog of sleep and still hearing it continue, she grew aware that there was someone…or something…else attempting to gain access to her private quarters. But if it was a prowler, a thief or a stalker, they would have to get by the perimeter cameras, motion sensors, door and window alarms, and Muffet and her fellow Rottweiler friends in order to even gain access to the second floor, much less her door at the far end of the hall. All of the servants had gone home for the night, and except for herself and the dogs, the house was empty.

Or so she thought.

As she emerged completely from sleep and stared at the door where the scratching was becoming louder, she swiftly ran through the inventory of items within arms’ reach that she could use as a weapon should the worst-case scenario become a reality and this very special intruder had indeed stymied all the defenses of the house. All she had was her computer, a half-full glass of water, a Tiffany nightstand lamp, her pillow and her slippers on the floor. Not exactly a deadly arsenal of choices.

Then she heard it.

The voice.

It was haggard, like dry weeds under an October moon, ancient and weathered, and yet somehow familiar. And it was calling her name.

It was not so much the fact that a spooky presence made itself known, but rather what it said, that made her blood run cold.

“Troooody…Troooody….”

“Who is it? Who’s there?” She made a sound with the nightstand drawer like she was drawing a gun, but in fact the compartment held only her charging cell phone and a couple of items designed to make romantically challenged women feel not so lonely. She did not remove any of the pieces, but did lie out loud, “Don’t come in. I’m armed.”

“Troooody,” the voice continued, as if it had not heard her. Though it had a rough, gravely quality to it, it sounded distinctly female. “I have an idea for your next movie, sugar.”

“I’m warning you, I…” The words took a moment to register. “What?”

“Your next movie, dear. A murder mystery, with a female detective, starring me. After all, if you’re going to use my likeness and my talent, I expect to have a say in the roles I play. It’s only fair, don’t you think?”

I must be cracking up, was all the Hollywood mogul could conclude. I’ve been working too hard, burning the candle at both ends. This has to be a dream. She pinched herself. The pain reassured her she was not in the throes of a subconscious fantasy.

The eerie voice continued, the subject matter being discussed unlike the ramblings of usual hauntings reported. Trudy could not shake the feeling that the accent was awfully familiar, but she could not place it. “After all, in my time women held no status, forever playing to a leading man who got all the glory. But now…now you can give me top billing, make me a true star, not just arm candy, or a girl Friday for a man with the acting qualities of a door post.”

Sliding from her silk sheets and into her slippers, she crept to the door, now more curious than frightened. She grabbed her barely-working phone and dialed 9-1-1 but decided not hit SEND until she was sure the threat was real. “Who are you?” she asked, unable to see anything through the keyhole.

“Who am I? Well, dearie, I’m the one who’s going to light up the silver screen in your next picture. I invited you to come up and see me sometime, but you never did, so I decided to come up and see you instead.”

That voice! That quote! She knew who it was in an instant. But it was impossible. With very slow motions, she unlocked her bedroom door, twisted the knob until the latch sprung from its home and pulled inward, peering through the ever-widening gap.

It was she. It looked nothing like her, all bones and rotten flesh in a disintegrating gown that smelled from decades of decay, but the mannerisms, the walk, the way she nonchalantly sauntered past the director and observed the master bedroom through hollow eye sockets as if scrutinizing the place, it could be no one else but her.

It was Mae West. The Mae West.

And she was not alone.

“Charming place you have here,” the deceased actress commented, her lipless jaw swinging to form the words. “No bed-warmer tonight, sugar? You need to get out more often. You look like a Bogart girl. Or maybe a Billy Holden fan. Stick with me, toots. I’ll introduce you.”

Trudy was barely able to contain the mixture of terror and star-struck enthusiasm rushing through her when suddenly her bedroom door was rushed by creatures of the night of every shape, size and assortment. They were all her beloved actors and actresses of the Golden Age somehow summoned back to life…or rather back to afterlife…and brought to her doorstep.

“Hey, don’t be all day about your pitch, sister,” the transparent, ghoulish specter with funny hair, a bushy mustache, googley eyes behind round-rimmed glasses and a huge, smokeless cigar clenched in the side of his mouth. “We agreed you’d go first, but me an’ my brothers have a great idea for a new picture. We even got Gummo to agree to come back.”

“Comedy is dead,” another distinguishing voice insisted, this one belonging to a zombie in tattered clothes that stood half a head taller than Miss West. “What this generation needs is a solid leading man, and Trudy, Trudy, Trudy, you are just the girl to put me back in the spotlight where I belong.”

A wasp-waist southern belle ghost pushed him aside. “With God as my witness, I will never go unseen again,” she admonished.

“Frankly, my dear, no one gives a damn about you anymore,” piped in the bag of bones behind her. “You no longer deserve to be kissed ever again. Your career is as dead as you are. It’s pushing up daisies, swimming with the fishes, gone with the…”

Trudy’s attention was diverted elsewhere as both Lon Cheney Senior and Junior were busy exercising their talents on her bed. They morphed from human to wolf to mummy to cat person to a million other nightmares of the B-movie kingdom. “Look at us, Miss Pepperdine. We were the men of a thousand faces, but now we have the ability to change our whole bodies. We’re the talents you are looking for.” Between them, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff argued over which one of them was to play the mad scientist and which was to portray the ghastly assistant this time.

Appalled, Trudy careened sideways, looking for some sort of opening between the haunts and horrors spilling into her private quarters in order to flee her residence and find some sort of sanctuary, but her way was blocked by the never-ending swarm of creeps that clogged the hallway all the way back to the winding staircase, which was her only escape. She dropped her phone in the scuffle as the dearly departed kept barging in, each with their own career suggestions.

“Well, little lady, breathing new life into the western genre could breath new life into me,” the zombie form of Marion Mitchell Morrison, his given name, intoned while wearing a white hat and a pair of gun holsters that kept sliding off his non-existent waist.

“I think that it would be fun to run a film about a news blog,” Mr. Welles, Orson, not H.G., suggested.

A female ghost no higher than Trudy’s waist tugged at her robe and announced, “We’re heeeere,” far too late.

Each direction she turned; left, right, back, forth, even up and down, she was surrounded by frightening, foul, fetid fiends fresh from their funeral fodder pressing their putrid, polluted personae against her, all of them vying for the dream roles they never got to play, or the springboards to re-launch their new, indefinitely long vocations once again.

The nightmarish shock proved to be too much for the overwhelmed director/producer as she sank beneath the sea of ancient bones, decaying flesh, scraps of burial clothing, ectoplasm and spiritual energy.

“Back away, give her room,” one echo-filled voice called out above all the others. A phantom figure bent to the floor to take the unmoving form of Trudy Pepperdine into his glowing arms. He shook her gently, trying to rouse her.

“You brainless idiot…you killed her,” Ray Bolger accused what was left of Robert Armstrong cradling the famous woman.

“No. ’Twas you beasts who killed the beauty.”

Alec Guinness placed a bony hand on her crushed forehead. “This girl was our last hope.”

“No, wait. Look!”

Like a snake shedding its skin, a translucent form of Trudy rose from her sack of flesh and hovered next to the meat sack she most recently occupied. “What…what happened?” When her answer came into view and she beheld her lifeless shell splayed next to her, she took a floating step back. “What did you do to me? I’m…I’m….”

“You’re one of us now, sugar,” her initial intruder intoned.

A chorus of little people nearby chanted, “One of us, one of us.”

“You…you killed me! You all scared the hell out of me and trampled me to death. Why? Why would you do such a thing? How could I have idolized such a selfish group of spoiled, self-serving egotists?”

You rang,” a ragtag Ted Cassidy explained in his savvy baritone, now a contradiction to the tall wispy form he had become. “The energy you created in people with your work was strong enough to resurrect us all.”

“So you’re saying all of you storming in here and killing me is my fault?” Trudy’s ghost seethed.

“Look on the bright side, sugar, you’re living up to your potential now.”

Confused, Trudy cast her translucent eyes to the remains of the queen of double entendres. “How do you mean?”

“Now you don’t have to decide which ones of us you have to please. You can satisfy us all. You now have all of eternity to write and direct the perfect scripts for each of us. After all, you said it yourself, why should an artist’s career end …”

Trudy finished the thought, her untimely demise suddenly the greatest asset she could have ever hoped for, delivered to her by the very people who helped to put her on top in the first place, “…just because they died!”



THE END


2019 Kent Rosenberger

Bio: Kent is the author of over thirty e-books available for review at Amazon.com/kindle and Barnesandnoble.com under his name, including novels, poetry and short story collections. His work has previously been published in such magazines as 365 Tomorrows, The Absent Willow Review, Aphelion, Big Pulp, Bumples, Creativity Webzine, Danse Macabre, Deadman’s Tome, Death Throes, Digital Dragon, Dark Dossier, Flash Shot, The Horror Zine, The Literary Hatchet, Morpheus Tales, Orion’s Child, Resident Aliens, Schlock!, Title Goes Here and Weird Year. He is also the winner of the 2011 Title Goes Here short story contest and the Fall 2018 Creativity Webzine Flash Fiction contest.

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