A Hollywood premiere for the most expensive horror film made in years has unintended consequences. 2,381 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was the one of the worst flu seasons on record and the shots turned out to be useless because they didn’t include protection against influenza A (H3N2), the particularly virulent strain going around. Public health officials were urging everyone to wash their hands often, with the CDC helpfully suggesting it should last as long as it took to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, or about 20 seconds. People were urged to avoid large gatherings, but no one who’d been invited to Prospero Studios’ screening of Masque was going to heed that warning.
There was a frenzy surrounding the movie, which at an estimated $270 million cost (a figure no one confirmed but plenty of people denied) was the most expensive horror film in years. Privately, Hollywood thought the bloated budget was missing the point considering the huge profits generated by cheap found footage scares like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
Publicly, nobody wanted to be like the naysayers who’d predicted Avatar would crash and burn as the budget headed north of an unconfirmed $300 million. So people were falling all over themselves to declare that Masque was going to be a gamechanger. “The next step in the evolution of horror films,” pontificated a New York movie critic in a Sunday essay.
Not that anyone knew much about Masque. Secrecy surrounding the project was so intense that few knew who’d actually been cast in the movie because of draconian non-disclosure agreements. To add another layer of camouflage, the studio set up several dummy productions filming simultaneously. One was called Argo because who doesn’t like an inside joke?
Only a single production shot ever leaked — a photo so blurry it could have been Bigfoot. And the fired crew member who’d been responsible found himself stranded in Greenland where he’d been shooting second unit.
All anyone knew about the enigmatic Icelandic director was that he’d made a movie called Draugur that studio boss Milo Prosper had seen on a visit to Reykjavik and brought back to Hollywood a week later. The director was known only by his first name Hallbjorn because Milo couldn’t pronounce the talent’s last name with the letter eth, which isn’t found in the English language. But that was just part of Milo’s charm, people said, along with his affable temperament, his lack of fear and his shrewd business instincts. And he gave great parties.
No one was going to miss the blow-out where Milo was introducing his new protégé and film to the world. Especially not when he’d hired French event designer Mirielle Lamort-Rouge and given her a million dollars to create a premiere party. Over 1,000 invitations went out and although Angelenos are notoriously bad about RSVPing, all but 26 had been accepted. (Those who declined were either out of the country adopting orphans or supervising green projects overseas and felt it would send the wrong message if they enlarged their carbon footprint by flying into L.A. for just one evening.)
The invitations were on individual thumb drives that were hand delivered. An added level of security was numbered custom-made wristbands crusty with hematite beads and red Swarovski crystals. The bracelets designed by Mirielle’s latest boyfriend had been intended for his Christmas collection until he re-read the fine print in his contract and realized the design belonged to Prospero Studios and not to him.
Guests had been given strict instructions to come in costume and wear only three colors — red, white, or black. Mirielle’s concept for the Masque event was wildly theatrical and, although eclectic, held together by a vision equal parts Cirque du Soleil and Arabian Nights as reimagined by Clive Barker, mingling the beautiful and the grotesque.
In collaboration with Hallbjorn, she’d micro-managed every detail, from the costuming of the valets (dressed like entertainers at a Venetian ball) to the decoration of the seven event rooms inside the former Downtown movie palace where the screening would take place.
The building was on the shabby side of chic but still had enough rococo gold cherubs and gilded mirrors to impress. Mirielle had to hire extra security to ensure none of L.A.’s homeless who populated the area would get near enough to make any guest uncomfortable. Because they couldn’t appreciate carpaccio of Maldivian long-line-caught yellow-fin tuna with avocado crème fraiche.
Had it been up to Mirielle, she would have locked the doors as soon as all the guests were inside. But the fire marshal had let her know he’d “shut her shindig down in a heartbeat” if she tried to do that. And he’d probably enjoy doing so, she decided because she’d gotten the distinct impression he disapproved of Hollywood glitterati.
She was already aware of at least one colossal screw-up. The seven party rooms were supposed to be painted different colors but when she’d arrived to check on preparations, she’d been aghast to discover that one room was purple and another a lighter violet. Her witless second assistant who’d been in charge of the painting protested that he’d had no idea both colors were in the same palette. Fortunately, her first assistant had discovered a cache of props in the theater’s basement and dressed the offending rooms so beautifully that they looked like jewel boxes. Mirielle was particularly taken with a gorgeous bronze brazier placed in the middle of the hallway that opened out into the party rooms like the center of a seven-pointed star. She would have dearly loved to put live flames in the brazier but she’d learned the hard way that you couldn’t trust people to keep their hands off the decor. The last thing she needed was some bad publicity or even a lawsuit. The designer was always aware she was one bad salmon mousse away from going back to Verdun and working in her father’s charcuterie.
The screening was scheduled to start at 9 p.m. with the pre-film festivities commencing two hours beforehand. At 6:15, Mirielle did her final walk-through of each room—the blue room with its faux classical décor meant to evoke a cinematic version of heaven, the orange room with its Egyptian motif and Middle Eastern appetizers, the white room where all the servers were garbed in gold metallic masks on their faces and gold gloves on their hands. In the green room, which was her favorite, she admired the fantastical underwater kingdom created, complete with holographic mermaids swimming in mid-air.
Just as Mirielle entered the last room, the grandfather clock that loomed opposite the entrance began to chime. The decoration of the black room had been the only point of disagreement she’d had with Hallbjorn. He’d wanted to go Goth but she convinced him it would be a cliché. “Instead, think Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête,” she’d said. “Disembodied hands holding candelabras. Unseen forces. Unfelt winds. Sensual black velvet draperies. Lamps with red glass shades.” He’d been pleased with the result, although to Mirielle’s critical eye, it came off a bit more Old West brothel than decadent fin de siècle.
She went into the lobby where the first guests were beginning to arrive. A string quartet was playing Brahms, but the music was soon drowned out by the buzz of conversation. Everything was going extremely well, Mirielle thought, and the guests seemed to agree as they gushed, like the movie exec hoping to book Mirielle for a Sweet Sixteen birthday not realizing that her rates were about to rise 90 percent. Artisanal wines flowed and succulent appetizers were passed. Hallbjorn had demanded that the menu include his favorite street food, baby octopus pops, a treat he’d acquired a taste for while living in Tokyo.
A fair number of the costumes were in poor taste, but that didn’t surprise Mirielle. At least this wasn’t one more Bollywood-themed event for people connected to that culture only by a fondness for lamb vindaloo. Just then, a guest dressed as a rajah walked by leading a baby elephant on a leash. That elephant better not poo at my party, Mirielle thought. She asked one of her staffers to follow the animal just in case.
An hour passed, and Mirielle found herself breathing a little easier. Then it came time for the guests to move toward the auditorium for the screening of the film. But to Mirielle’s dismay, the clock struck nine and kept chiming and chiming. The musicians, confused, stopped playing. Suddenly, it was very quiet in the lobby.
Because standing in the center of the room was a figure, tall and gaunt and shrouded from head to foot in a white winding sheet liberally streaked with what looked like blood. It flowed from the neck of a woman’s body-less head garrotted mid-scream. The stranger was carrying her dripping face, his own covered by a mask resembling a stiffened corpse and whose edges were so well disguised that it was impossible to see where the skin began. They made a gruesome duo.
Mireille could only see the mess, but around her whispers began. “That is so not funny,” chided one woman. “Disgusting,”’ agreed a man. Everyone seemed frozen in place until Milo Prosper emerged from the blue room, trailed by a phalanx of un-costumed sycophants. The studio boss took one look at the figure and a tremor went through him. Milo had a pathological fear of blood, and the sight of the shroud and head just set him shivering. But he was Milo Prosper, so he swallowed his fear and instead summoned his rage.
“What the fuck?” he demanded, and when the figure did not respond, he turned to the nearest security guard, who was dressed like a Templar Knight. “Get him out of here,” he ordered. “Lame-ass loser.”
The security guard drew his taser and approached the figure who raised his head but otherwise did not move. “Come on, pal,” the guard said, his voice more insistent now. The figure simply shook his head, No. Which was the exact moment a lifetime of junk food and smoking caught up with the security guard and he had a massive heart attack.
He was dead before he hit the floor at Prosper’s feet.
That broke the paralysis of the guests and a crowd closed in on the offending figure, who stood erect and motionless. A guest reached out to grab him, at which point the grave-garments and the corpse-like mask fell to the floor. A shocked silence followed, broken by Hallbjorn’s mad laughter. Without Mirielle knowing it, he’d paid the guy creating the hologram mermaids to put together this little shadow show.
“Bazinga,” the director chortled after binge-watching The Big Bang Theory in his hotel room all day. “You should see your faces.”
“Très amusant,” Mireille murmured, then wondered if anyone had called 911 because the security guard was really dead. She left another security guard standing watch over his fallen colleague and ushered everyone else into the auditorium where they settled into their seats with nervous laughter and over-articulated concern about the poor dead man whose name no one knew.
As Mirielle left to deal with the paramedics and the police, Milo welcomed the crowd with the message, “The show must go on.”
But the crowd wasn’t feeling it. And as the audience sat through the title sequence of the most expensive horror movie ever made, many of them began experiencing sharp pains and sudden dizziness. A few even found their noses bleeding. And as the closing credits rolled, the guests were already gathering up their belongings and the studio goodie bags and heading for the exit doors hoping their housekeepers had remembered to restock the TheraFlu on their last trip to the store.
Mirielle was sick when Masque opened two days later to the worst reviews anyone could remember, registering just four percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Mirielle’s deal to host a lifestyle cable show called Eclat! evaporated into the ether. So did her book deal. One of her long-time clients, an actress who’d married a politician, put her to work planning an election night extravaganza. Unfortunately, the other guy won, and the celebration became a wake. The next day, she flew to Texas with the loser, and an article in Politico noted that the politician’s focus had become a lot more international since the election.
Box office was so disastrous that Hallbjorn shaved his beard and couch-surfed in anonymity as he contemplated his limited options post-Masque. He told the women he picked up in Starbucks his name was Erik and that he was from Oslo. “Norway,” he always added helpfully.
Milo issued excuses from his bedroom where a private nurse administered fluids and drugs as needed. But dehydration was the least of Milo’s problems. The security guard’s husband was suing the studio for wrongful death and it seemed as if every actor, executive, or journalist who’d been at the party felt compelled to tweet their reaction to the movie and compare it to the physical effects of the flu. Projectile vomiting and non-stop diarrhea were frequent metaphors used.
Rumors that Masque was a cursed production refused to die. To avert bad luck, most actors wouldn’t even say the title aloud. Milo, who wasn’t superstitious at all, embraced the “jinx” talk and hired a spiritual counselor to do a karmic cleansing of the studio. His office stank of white sage for a week. Sure there was a hefty writedown but Milo used it to clean house, cancelling more deals than the writers strike.
Encouraged by the public’s curiosity about the “man in the mask,” the actor who’d been Hallbjorn’s partner in the prank stepped forward. He was tall and good looking and had a decent reel. A casting director looking for fresh faces to populate a new CW show grabbed him. When the show was a hit, he was the hottest TV actor in Hollywood. The following Halloween he disappointed everyone by showing up to parties in a costume that wasn’t the blood-spattered white shroud.
A graduate of Dov Simens’ 2-Day Film School For Writers wrote a horror script based on the Masque incident and financed its $90,000 budget with a crowdfunding campaign. It premiered at Sundance to rapturous reviews and was bought by Milo Prosper’s new low-budget banner. It went on to gross $194 million worldwide. For Milo, everything had come full circle: he had eradicated the biggest horror.