The film begins abruptly, crimson text emblazoned over the dark stones of a castle wall. The boldness suggests brassy accompaniment, but the film was never scored. As is common on cheap film, the red is too bright. In silence it wobbles and bleeds into the shadows. The title is tacky. The silence is ominous.
Despite everything, I do think The Maidens of Midnight would have been my most interesting film. Not that there was much to measure up against . I remember sitting in this shitty van rattling through the mountain roads, reading this slapped-together script composed on a typewriter so cheap that the ink smudged on my hands and thinking about how I’d finally gotten a billing role—and it was, of course, with the hounds of bankruptcy breathing their wet breath down our necks . Before I’d boarded the plane, I’d threatened to find another studio— actually, my agent had already been looking, not that I told Paul that . But this one, Paul swore, this one would make it . Paul Pellou, he was the director, still thinking he could make another The Curse of Blood Swamp of Mars (Terror! In Technicolor!) . He was a sleazeball, but he had a good eye for talent and a way with words, and our cinematographer—Del, he was driving—he had just won some kind of award for his last movie, though Paul was the one who kept bringing it up .
I’m not sure I believed Paul about this supposed surefire success of Maidens . As far as we could tell he’d been a one-hit wonder, although at this point, we’d done eight films together, each more desperate than the last . Lower budgets, lower ratings, lower returns . In the end, it was only three weeks of my life, and even in the woods in the back of a van where I could see the road through the floor, I remember thinking that the script wasn’t half bad . Some of my scenes with Joelle were pretty hot . Room for improvement, sure, but improvements I could make . I couldn’t act if I had nothing to work with .
The truth was, my agent hadn’t gotten any leads, either . Horror was out, comedy and thrillers in . No one wanted to work with a second-rate horror actress getting on the older side . Older, bullshit—I was in my prime. But that’s film for you.
I’ll admit the other reason I agreed was that Paul promised I’d finally get to play a monster . A monster and a lesbian . That was the big thirdact shocker, though I’m sure it would have ended up on the poster . I don’t remember who wrote the script—maybe he did . It didn’t have a name on it . Anyway at some point that mandate had been handed down. The virginal sacrifice wanted to be a monster all along.
And there’s a visceral appeal to monsters, a thrill at hauntings, at the power they hold to take your breath and your life and, perhaps, your desire . I’d only been menaced by them so far, which was sexy in its own way, being frightened and desirable and certainly not intending to be ravished, but there was a sharp hot jealousy that ran through me any time I saw our famous villain in his makeup, pacing back and forth, muttering Shakespeare under his breath to warm up and sweeping his cape . An electric sort of energy . I wanted it . I wanted to be it—the shadow that held the room .
Half my life I’d told myself I was interested in men . I was only interested in their power .
What Paul didn’t say was that he wanted me on the film because our other big star, the famous monster man, had quit the series . Paul didn’t have to say it; I knew I was playing second string .
“Couldn’t have written it better myself,” I said, by way of half-assed compliment, shuffling the script back together. I had a nightmare of sheets flying out the window, lost in the grim pines of a tiny backwater country in Eastern Europe . Then it would be all-hands-ondeck recreating the thing from memory; or worse, improvising . My personal policy was to have as little to do with writing as possible . In high school, one time I’d tried to pay another student to finish an essay for me . I was almost suspended because the essay was ‘above my level’ . Acting had saved me .
Paul was sitting next to me, staring out the window, smoking—it helped his motion sickness, he claimed . Del hated it, but he hated puke more, so he put up with it .
“Yeah,” Paul said . That was all . Isn’t bad . Conversation over . I had no idea how he’d ever gotten a position as director . Whatever he was looking at, it was far beyond the trees .
We didn’t speak again until we arrived at the castle gates .
Pan up a muddy road so desaturated the film could be mistaken for black and white if not for the garish smear of the title moments before. Twisted pines reach towards the iron-riveted castle gates, shut against the forest. The camera lingers, uncomfortably. Shadows shift in the toss of branches to either side of the road. It is easy to imagine a person standing in the thick, hidden.
The gate is shoved open, and a blonde woman stumbles out, dressed in a sheer nightgown, her hair wild. The courtyard is black behind her; what she is running from, unseen.
When we finally reached the castle, long after I’d decided that we were hopelessly lost, the gates were shut and, despite shoving, locked or barred from the inside . After we’d given up on yanking on them and idled outside while Paul and his assistant-cum-financial-yes man Michael argued for a good twenty minutes, Paul jumped back out of the van and shouted up at the ramparts while Del rapped his fingers on the steering wheel . The night made a beautifully framed picture— our manic director pacing back and forth, veins standing out on his head through his buzzcut from the stress of not having a smoke for several minutes, his stooping shadow blown-out by the yellow headlights over massive gates that must have been a hundred years old at the newest .
I slid up into Paul’s abandoned seat . The cool air was refreshing on my face, pine-scented and free of stale secondhand smoke, sharpened with a hint of gasoline . God, I needed to wash my hair .
“You oughta shoot this,” I said, leaning around Del’s seat to watch . In the passenger seat Joelle was asleep or pretending to be, smart lady, and Hoyt—lead actor and Mr . Top Billing himself, heroic slayer of vampires—was passed out and snoring, which is why I felt safe shit-talking Paul . Hoyt liked to act magnanimous, but we all knew he was a narc .
The second van sat behind us, framing Del’s greasy mustache in the dancing light of unwashed windshield . The hair twitched when he frowned . “It’d come out garbage . And who the hell’d pay to see his mug on screen?”
“It is a horror movie .”
“Oh, shut up, Maxine, you’re gonna get us some trouble .”
Del was the only one on the crew who called me Maxine—I was Maxie to everyone else, and the billing on the posters—Maxie Madison . Picked the name myself . Liked how it rolled off the tongue . Intriguing—a little spicy, even .
I laughed . “I’ve got a question . Aren’t castles supposed to overlook villages? For the lords to feel superior about their lot, not like those dirty peasants, or whatever? Why make them so damn inaccessible?”
“Beats me . At this point I think Paul just picks locations to make my life hard .”
“Yeah, sounds like him . Do you think we’re even supposed to be here? Suppose Paul just found some abandoned castle in an atlas and drags out all our asses—”
Del groaned . Hoyt stirred beside me with a rattling snore, ending our conversation . At the same time, Paul paused in front of the gates . I didn’t hear anything, and there was no movement from above as far as I could see, but there was a terrible shriek of metal and the gates yawed open, inwards . Heavy, monstrous things . It was easy to imagine them repelling a siege .
Paul climbed back in, face red, about into my lap, and slammed the door shut . “About fucking time,” he growled . “Assholes . Tibor knew we were coming today and he pulls this shit .” Tee-bor was how he said it. New name to me, but you met all kinds in film.
I looked back towards the gates as our sad little procession lurched through, but there was no one there.
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