Tuesday, November 1, 2022

MY FICTION: The Beast Of September

 

 
By
Al Bruno III
 

The following was culled from the interview notes of Cinema Hound Dog reporter Gina Brannen magazine’s unfinished profile of director Willard Katz.


****

…I don’t much like the term ‘dream project’. I prefer to say this has been a labor of love. The Beast Of September is the film I always wanted to make. I was working on the script way back in 2002 when I was attending Pratt University. My roommate read the early drafts and suggested I take one of the scenes and make it into a short film.

Yeah, that was Peter LaRoche. Damn, I miss that guy. He had so much potential and so many connections. He somehow got my little movie in front of producer Laura Saldivar and just like that, I found myself every spare hour working as a gofer and occasionally extra for Olympus International Cinema. I know they have a sleazy reputation, a well-deserved one really, but I learned a lot there. I learned the three most important rules of being a director; be prepared, be efficient and be ready to improvise.

And that’s about the time I started reading Cinema Hound Dog! I learned a lot from you guys too, used to read your article about Michael Reeves every time I was feeling down in the dumps.

After graduation, I moved from T&A movies to directing commercials. They weren’t anything fancy, just thirty-second spots for deodorant and car insurance but let me tell you, remembering that first time I stood behind a camera and yelled “Action!” is still pretty sweet.

Not as sweet as my first kiss mind you.

Then from commercials, I moved on to directing an episode of Law and Order, which didn’t go as well as I would have liked, then a few episodes of The Stopwatch Seven, and then, thanks to some truly dumb luck I got the chance to direct my first film. The Grief Councilor didn’t get much of a release but thanks to word of mouth at Cannes people sought it out. And it took off on home video, twenty-five on me, I should have read my contract a little more carefully.

What’s in my contract now? Oh. Oh, that. Wow, you did your research didn’t you?

It’s just a silly little clause and I doubt if in 2022 it will amount to much of anything after all how many drive-in movie theaters are even left now? I read like three hundred or something but some folks were saying that with the pandemic they might make a comeback so I wanted to just get it in writing that this film will never be shown in one. You can put them on the big screen, you can make them a streaming exclusive or you can take every copy in existence and drop them into the middle of the ocean, just no drive-ins.

Yes I know it sounds crazy, but the guys at Eden Pictures were looking at me in exactly the same way you are now. When they asked me why I told them it was my way or the highway. Just the thought of this movie I’ve worked on for so long being projected onto a dirty wall on the outskirts of some podunk town! The very thought makes me sick to my stomach with fear and bad memories.

Sometimes I think maybe we should… No. I’m sorry. It’s just… Look, I tell you what. How about I tell you why I hate drive-ins? Off the record of course.

Ok… ok… I’ve never told this story to anyone before. Not even my kids. Let’s go for it.

As you know I grew up in Yottle’s Grove, North Carolina. It’s a little town on the Eastern side of the New Brunswick River. Most of the town had been employed by Tatro Glass Products but in 1967 the factory caught fire and rather than rebuild the owners declared bankruptcy.

In the ten years that followed the town went began to die, the businesses closed down and any families that could afford to move out did. We were not one of those families but we stayed anyway. My father and grandfather owned a garage and the citizens of Yottle’s Grove were desperate for someone to help them keep their vehicles running. The family garage kept us in a nice house and we never wanted for anything. In fact, we had it so good that on the Christmas of 1977 I got a brand new Atari and my brother Jody got a brand new ford pickup truck.

Even now, despite what happened, I have such great memories of that truck. Jody would always take me for rides and we go speeding through the back roads of Yottle’s road with the windows down and rock music blaring from the 8-track. Sometimes I rode shotgun, sometimes I rode in the back, hanging on for dear life and grinning like a fool. How we didn’t get pulled over and arrested I’ll never know.

Jody was as cool a brother as you could imagine. I was four years younger than him but he always had my back. It didn’t matter that he was an ROTC jock and I was pasty, skinny, and wore glasses with lenses so thick that my Dad would joke they could see the future. Everyone in town- classmates and teachers, family and friends of the family, all of them treated me like I was the runt of the litter. Like I was barely worth noticing. Everyone except for Jody. He always made time for me, played Atari with me, took me out for burgers, and bought me comic books with his own money. He even did stuff with me he shouldn’t have, like giving me my first beer and letting me see my first Playboy.

The local drive-in was called Planet Pictures and it stayed in business because it was pretty much the only place left for the town’s teenagers to hang out. If it wasn’t raining Jody was there every Friday. And whenever he went he took his three buddies Carson, Bob, and Pisspot. Since Jody was nineteen and I was just fifteen years old I never got invited along. I didn’t mind, I spent those nights reading or working on my model kits. I was crazy for model cars and spent just about every penny of my allowance on them. I had so many stacked up around my room, more than I ever had time to build. Back then Mom said that all I could think about was model cars.

And that was true until I met Ally Jones. Then she was all I can think about. Hell, I’m almost sixty years old and still think about her at least once a day. Remembering her still hurts but it’s the sweetest hurt you can imagine. Ally was a year older than me and a grade ahead. The first time I saw her in the cafeteria I just gaped, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe. I nearly fainted when she finally noticed me and said, “If you are going to keep staring like that you might as well just come over and talk to me.”

Yeah, she was like that.

We fell in love right away, that kind of crazy love you only feel when you are a kid. The problem was that everyone in town hated Ally’s family. Despite her father being some kind of new-age hippie that had named his only daughter Alchemy, he had a job working as a real estate specialist for a company called Keeler Enterprise Management. He’d moved his family to Yottle’s Grove in December and had spent the last few months buying up every foreclosed home and abandoned storefront he could make an offer on. Then he moved on to rental places and established businesses; tenants were forced out, and stores lost their leases.

It also didn’t help that the Jones family was black, as black as I was pale. They were the only black folks in Yottle’s Grove since ever.

I didn’t care, I was crazy about her but suddenly all the people that never gave two shits about me before were paying attention. I was the talk of the town and not in a good way. Used to be none of the school knuckleheads ever bothered me on account of Jody but I started to get jumped and pushed around every day. Teachers and townsfolk started calling me awful names when I was within earshot. I won’t repeat them here but I know you can imagine.

What really hurt was my parents. They were good church-going folks, who always told me that God was love and God loved everyone but now… now I was hearing a whole other story. I got told race mixing was a sin and that I was a disgrace to the family. I was grounded, they took my Atari and model kits away. My Mom started trying to get Ally expelled from the school for any reason she could think of and my Dad? Well, even my big brother didn’t know that some of those bruises I got weren’t from my classmates.

And I didn’t tell Jody because I think he would have killed Dad. You see he was the only one that understood what I was feeling, in fact, he told me I was the bravest kid in the whole town for not hiding the way I felt. Jody understood but it wasn’t until he was long gone that I understood why he understood so well.

In the summer that followed that hellish school year, Jody started having me tag along to the drive-in with his pals. My parents couldn’t be happier of course, they were sure that quality time with their golden boy would straighten me out. We, and by we I mean my brother, myself, and his three pals would arrive at Planet Pictures just before dusk. He would park his truck facing away from the screen so he, Carson, Bob, and Pisspot, could sit in the back drinking beer and half-watching whatever movie was playing on the giant screen.

Meanwhile, I grabbed a pair of lawn chairs and a big bag of homemade popcorn and made my way to the back of the drive-in. To where Ally was waiting for me.

Thankfully her parents, like Jody and his pals, were on our side. Like I said they were pretty much a pair of hippies so they were more than happy to take their daughter to the drive-in every Friday. They were big believers in family time. The rule was that Ally had to sit with them through the first half of the double feature but once the dancing cartoon snacks started doing their thing she was free to make her way to the back wall of the drive-in where I was waiting for her.

Like most drive-ins, Planet Pictures was surrounded by an eight-foot-high wall. It was bordered on one side by the county highway and the other by a Legman’s Scrapyard. I always chose a spot near the junkyard side of the drive-in. Nobody ever parked near there because of the faint smell of motor oil, which made it quiet and private.

That last night at the drive-in the double feature was Empire of the Ants followed by Harvest Fiend.  We sat together on our lawn chairs, far from where any of the other patrons might see us.

Do you know what the first thing I always asked her when she sat down beside me? “Did anyone see you?”

I should have said “Hello” or “I love you” or anything else but that’s how bad the last few months had messed with my head. Years later I would sit up at night worrying if I hurt her when I said that. Did she think I was ashamed of her? Did she understand that these nights at Planet Pictures were all we had left and I wanted to protect them from a town full of bigots and snitches?

The sky that night, despite the promises of the local weathermen, was dark and cloudy. I remember how warm and small her hand felt in mine. I also remember the two trailers from that night, one for a movie about a killer whale and the other about a killer buffalo. We thought both were pretty hysterical looking.

When the previews ended and the big screen darkened in anticipation of the second feature I leaned over and kissed her. Ally was my first kiss and considering that I’m your grandpa you know she wasn’t my last but she was the one that set the bar for every girl that came after.

And she set the bar pretty high.

We didn’t see the movie begin, We only heard the music that played over the opening credits. It was a loud crash of brass instruments that might have been jarring if we hadn’t been hearing it diluted through the four hundred or so speakers stationed to the right of the drive-in’s every parking spot. The discordant notes grew louder and louder, demanding our attention. We looked away from each other just in time to see the title fading from the screen, and it wasn’t Harvest Fiend at all. It read;

La Bestia Di Settembre

The red gothic letters and ugly music gave way to the sounds of birds chirping and the image of a desert. The sun was high in the sky, and the wind rustled through the branches of the empty scrubland. Somewhere off in the distance the sound of goats could be heard.

Then there came two human figures—a man and a woman—walking slowly along on the edge of a wooded area. They were dressed as if for a formal occasion, he in dark breeches and a white shirt with frilled sleeves, her in a long flowing dress with a large bow at the back. The man was plain featured, the woman was beautiful with blonde hair and mismatched eyes. When they spoke it was in a foreign language.

“Where are the subtitles?” Ally asked.

On the screen, the couple had begun to argue and the sound of goats was growing louder. “Must be some kind of a mistake,” I said before leaning in to kiss her again.

“I love you,” Ally said.

“I love you right back,” I replied, my hand settling on her thigh. She was wearing shorts and her skin was soft and warm to the touch. A few pleasant moments passed before the soundtrack of the film crashed again, the shriek of a violin and the blare of trumpets giving way to a loud animal huffing.

We both looked back to the screen and recoiled at the horned, animal-like face that filled it. It had too many eyes.

“What kind of goat is that?” I asked.

“That’s a man.” Ally breathed. I felt her skin prickle under my hand.

The camera pulled back to reveal she was right, it was a man with the head of a goat. He wore armor and rags and carried an ugly sword in his hand.

I tried to joke, “Maybe it’s the devil.”

“It’s too ugly to be the devil,” she said back.

The goatman began walking toward the couple. As he walked he raised the sword and screamed. The sound was horrible, like nails being dragged across glass and it echoed strangely through the drive-in. At the sight of him, the couple stopped in their tracks. The woman cried out and the birds went silent.

The sound of other bleating-grumbling voices could be heard. There were more goatmen now, coming in from both sides of the screen. All wore sickening parodies of medieval clothing. One even had a helmet shaped like a ram’s skull. They formed a ring around the couple and began chanting as one. It was like no language I had ever heard before.

The man started screaming his face was twisted into a mask of horror.  Then the woman fell to her knees her face buried in her hands. The goat men drew closer, One of them reached down and grabbed the man by the hair, and pulled his head back exposing his throat. A sword flashed, and blood arced across the screen. Then the goatmen began to claw at the woman. The soundtrack crashed again, the symbols and horns drowning out her cries.

I chuckled nervously at the gore and absurdity. Ally made a sound of disgust and got to her feet. The lawn chair toppled over as she ran along the back wall of the drive-in. I blinked in confusion and chased after her. It looked like she was heading for the exit. I wondered what she was so upset about and I worried that someone might see us together and tell my parents what I had been up to. Finally, I realized she was making for the exit.

What is she going to do? I thought, Walk home?

The first scene of the movie faded to black and lingered there. That coupled with the thick low hanging clouds left me effectively blind. Everything was shadows. “Ally!” I called after her, my voice a stage whisper, “Ally!”

The big screen flashed with light and color, resolving itself into the image of a stone fortress at night, knights and soldiers stood at ready on the parapets. From their vantage point, they could see the army of goatmen surrounding them. Beastial faces moved in the torchlight cast in the shadows by their torchlight. Siege weapons lay at the ready, a wooden cage had been constructed in the center of their camp, in it, a red shape screamed and screamed.

The camera’s view moved down from the parapets to the cage until the figure was revealed to be the woman from the previous scene. Her mismatched eyes stared out from a body that had been expertly flayed. My stomach lurched.

Then bam! I ran straight into one of the speaker poles and went down hard onto my side. It had knocked the wind out of me, I was gasping for air. Suddenly Ally was at my side.

Then bam! I ran straight into one of the speaker poles and went down hard onto my side. It had knocked the wind out of me, I was gasping for air.  Immediately Ally was at my side.

“Are you all right?” Her voice was barely audible through my strangled breaths.

“Yes.” I nodded, “Hey. Why are you crying?”

“The way they surrounded that girl,” Ally pointed a thumb at the big screen, “bad memories.”

“I understand,” I said, but I didn’t understand. How could I? I was just a naive boy.

She helped me to my feet. The nearest car was a couple of yards away but when someone got out of it to head to the concession stand we retreated back to our spot. Better safe than sorry. We sat down on our lawn chairs and decided to ignore the movie. Small talk came easy to us and before everything blew up we would stay after school every day, sitting behind the bleachers and talking about our dreams until it was time for the activities bus to take the students home.

It was my dream to work in radio, to be a DJ, and have a talk show. It was hers to become a police officer, but first, she wanted to tour around Europe. She would do it, she said, on a yellow motorcycle. She even had the make and model all picked out. When I playfully asked if I could come along she said she could get a sidecar installed. Yeah, we were gonna have adventures.

“As soon as we graduate,” I said.

Allay grabbed my hand, “Why wait?”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s go now, let’s go somewhere else, anywhere else.” She said, “Let’s make it happen.”

“That’s crazy.”

The movie now showed a scene set in a high-ceilinged stone room. The corpse of a noblewoman lay on the floor and a king was impaled by a long-bladed sword onto the wood. There was blood everywhere. A man with long blonde hair knelt beside the woman, his features were gentle but he wore elaborate makeup to give his face the appearance of a skull. His tears streaked the black and white grease paint.  Then there was another man, older, bald. His expression was grim and deadly serious. The two men spoke without looking at each other. Then the blonde-haired man stood and drew his sword.

I felt a strange lurching, like that feeling you get when you are just about to drop off the sleep and suddenly get the sensation of falling. Ally and I blinked at each other in confusion

And when had we started watching the movie again? I couldn’t tell really but we could see the sky had darkened and the night air had the heavy smell that always signaled the beginning of a thunderstorm.

“What happened?” She asked me.

“Did we fall asleep?”

Her voice became waspish, “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s going to rain,” I said.

“Do you want to leave?”

“What’s wrong?” I reached for her only to have my hand swatted away.

“I asked you,” her eyes were bright with tears, “if you wanted to run away with me.”

“We…” Somewhere nearby a car started up, someone had had enough of the movie. I continued, “We can’t just run away.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re just kids!”

She sighed, “My parents were just kids when they got together. Dad was sixteen, Mom was eighteen. They made it work.”

Neither of us noticed it had begun to rain. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the image on the big screen now showed a cave set on the side of a mountain. The sounds of the siege were faintly audible. but so was the sound of the goat men half-chanting, half-singing "O friend and companion of night, thou who rejoices in the baying of dogs and spilt blood, who brings terror to human kin, oh Beast of September, oh Chosen of Ezerhodden, look favorably on our sacrifices at walk among us!”

Something growled from the depths of the cave making a sound like a great stone door sliding open. The chanting grew louder and faster drowning out our voices.

Why was that chant in English when everything else was in Italian? I don't know, I'll probably never know but it is one of the many things that I find myself thinking about when it’s late at night.

I’m not surprised you’re never heard of Harvest Fiend otherwise known as  La Bestia Di Settembre. It’s a lost film there’s barely anything written about it and barely anyone has seen it. It gets mentioned in Otterson’s book Films That Witness Madness. According to him the movie was made in 1971 by a man named Mendell Boggs and filmed it in the town of Abalone, Arizona. Somehow Boggs convinced the townsfolk to finance and take part in all aspects of the production; they built the sets, they made the costumes and they acted in it. Mendell himself was in the director, creator of the special effects, and screenwriter.

Why did he make a cast of inexperienced American actors perform their lines in Italian? I don’t know. How did the citizens of a desert town manage to build a faux fortress on the outskirts of their town only to tear it down when filming wrapped?

I can’t tell you that. I can tell you that it turned out that one of the materials used to build the majority of the sets was laced with asbestos and by now most of the production team and cast died of cancer. As for Mendell Boggs, he disappeared shortly before his entire home was mysteriously swallowed up by a sinkhole.

Yes, it is hard to believe, and speaking from a filmmaker’s standpoint it is really hard to believe what happened next on the screen.

The camera lingered for a long time on the entrance to the cave, slowly zooming in until it filled the screen. The chanting of the goatmen had become hypnotic, Ally and I couldn’t look away. A cold wind rose up to join the rain, rain that was almost sleet. People were beginning to put the tops of their cars up on their cars and roll up their windows. Engines rasped to life as some prepared to call it a night.

A giant hand reached out of the cave mouth. It was this grasping, clawing six-fingered thing with flesh that was jagged like volcanic stone. A second hand gripped the other side. Ally pulled me close. “My God.” She said, “What is it?”

One of the cars preparing to leave turned on its headlights. The yellow beam illuminated the screen revealing that the great hands were gripping the edges of the screen itself, intruding on our world. The growl became a roar. And with that roar, the power to the drive-in died, and everything went black.

But the screen was still illuminated and something impossible and terrible was pulling itself free.

Then the storm began, torrential rain beating down on us. Wave after wave of it. Soaking us to the skin. Nearly driving us to our knees. We started to run, Ally’s parent’s car was closer but we couldn’t see clearly. All we could see was the day-for-night glow bleeding off the big screen as the creature pulled a slender, bony head into view. Its tongue lapped out testing the air. Then its second head came into view.

I was so busy staring that I almost backed into the path of an oncoming car. It was Ally that pulled me to safety. Panicked drivers were throwing their cars into gear and racing towards the drive-in’s only exit. Speakers were torn off their posts as vehicles clipped and crashed into one another. Ally and I weren’t the only ones caught out on foot. We saw one shadowy figure blunder out into the path of an oncoming truck. The driver either didn’t see them or didn’t care.

By the time we had reached the concession stand the Creature had pulled itself fully out of the screen. It bayed with delight, the thick reverberation of its voice causing all the glass in the concession stand to shatter, the windows, the counters, the framed posters, everything. Ally and I weren’t the only ones that had taken refuge there. A dozen of Yottle’s Grove’s citizens were huddled there, parents, teenagers, and children. The storm intensified. There chorus of car horns and grinding metal as more and more vehicles bottlenecked at the exit to the drive-in.

Still holding Ally’s hand I stepped closer to the crowd of terrified people. Most of them were crying, praying, or both. More refugees made their way inside, huddling on corners and sobbing over what they had seen. Someone was shouting that the exit to the drive-in was blocked but none of them could agree as to what the obstruction was. Some said fire, some said thorns. Another man, I would later realize it had been my gym teacher, said that there was something wrong with the sky, that the clouds were moving like the waves of the ocean.

Looking back to the lot I saw the Creature straddling a car. It reached down peeling open the roof to pull a wriggling screaming shape free.

Then my brother’s friend Carson came stumbling in, he was covered in blood but wasn’t injured. “It ate him up,” he said, “It ate him up!”

I thought of my brother and his other friends out there in the back of his truck. Mom had always said he didn’t have the sense to come out of the rain. It all settled in, I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t think. There were tears in my eyes.

Ally tugged at my hand, “We have to go.”

“What?” I said.

“My parents. We have to find them.”

“No.” I said, “No. No. No. We can’t go back out there.”

“Please,” She was pleading but there were no tears in her eyes, “Come with me.”

"No,” I repeated, taking a step backward.

And in that moment the way she looked at me, the way she had always looked at me, changed. I wanted to take it back, but I couldn’t. I had been brave enough to hold her hand in public, but this? I wasn’t brave enough for this.

She let go of my hand and I just watched her go. I watched her disappear into the storm. The Creature roared again, it was so close. I could see the flesh of its leg, jagged and bark-like. Beneath that its feet were thick like hooves and, caked with gore.

“It ate him up,” Carson said again.

“Please God, make it go away,” someone prayed.

“This can’t be happening,” another voice said. “This isn’t real.”

The concession stand shook and the ceiling split as the Creature brought its fists down again and again on the building.

I fell to my knees and buried my face in my hands. There was a crash like thunder and everything went black.

You’re still listening. I’m flattered. I expected you to have made a run for it by now. Do you believe me? It’s all right if you don’t. The official story is that a freak tornado tore through Planet Pictures leaving four hundred and twenty-two dead and one missing. My brother and his friends were among the dead. I was one of the thirty survivors they pulled from the rubble and the only one that came out raving about a monster. Of course, there was no trace of that thing but I still don’t know why none of the other survivors wouldn’t say what really happened. They all said I was crazy. Everyone said I was crazy.

It’s probably a good thing my injuries left me in a full-body cast, if not I am sure I would have ended up in some asylum somewhere.

A fourth of the high school senior class had been in the drive-in, and there had been plenty of families with kids so as you can imagine the town was never the same after that. By 1981 the place was practically a ghost town, nowadays it’s even emptier and I doubt there is a single person living there younger than forty. Keeler Enterprise Management set up a corporate retreat on one side of Tatro’s Pond and a summer camp on the other, business from those places is the only thing keeping the town going.

These are all the things that were in my head when I wrote the script for The Beast Of September. It’s about that night but it isn’t. There are no goat men or giants but it is a story about the parallels between coming of age and being under siege. If I got the story right, and if the studio doesn’t cut the film to ribbons, then maybe, just maybe, some young idiot out there will see it and realize that if you’re in love you have to be brave because sometimes there are no second chances.

Pretty deep huh? Hope to see you at the premiere, you can tell me what you thought.

What about Ally? Remember how I said four hundred and twenty-two dead and one missing? She was the one missing. They figure the tornado picked her up and either dropped her into the New Brunswick River or deep into the forests of Mitchell’s Peak.

That’s what I pray for. Because otherwise… otherwise that means she was dragged off into wherever Creature came from. The ugly world that somehow La Bestia Di Settembre allowed to bleed through to our own.

And that is why my movie will never play at a drive-in.

But it will be playing at Sundance in three weeks. It’s just a test screening but I can’t wait. I’ll get you a ticket if you want.

***

It is a matter of record that The Beast Of September premiered at Sundance on January 18th, 2014 at the Jade Pagoda Theater. Cinema Hounddog reporter Gina Brannen as well as a dozen other critics handpicked by the director were in attendance along with members of the cast and crew. The roof of the Jade Pagoda collapsed forty minutes into the showing much to the horror of onlookers on the street.

The incident left four hundred and forty-three dead and thirty-two wounded. The body of Willard Katz was never found.

All rights to the film were obtained by Boggs International holding group who have stated they have no plans to release The Beast Of September to the general public anytime in the foreseeable future.


-from ‘Films That Witness Madness Volume 2’ by Christopher Otterson