Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Number 13"

Some people collected stamps, others collected coins. Greg collected VHS tapes. That was his passion. He scoured eBay and Amazon, he browsed used bookstores and garage sales. He specialized in movies that had never been transferred to DVD. He had Wim Wender's director's cut of Until the End of the World. He had the 75th Anniversary restoration of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. He had Orson Welles' Ghost Story.
He was visiting one of his usual used bookstores when he came across a VHS tape simply labeled Number 13. The proprietor didn't know what was on it, but offered to sell it for a dollar. Greg accepted. When he brought it home, however, and began to play it, he noticed with surprise that the title card listed the director as "Alfred Hitchcock."

He realized that this was the Holy Grail of lost films: the very first Hitchcock film. The funding for it had run out; production had shut down the set and all the scenes that had been shot were supposed to have been destroyed, melted down for their silver nitrate. But someone must have found them and later converted them to VHS. Why they didn't come forward, he had no idea.

He sat down and, with excited anticipation, began to watch the film. The plot was ostensibly about the low-income residents of a building in London, but Greg soon realized that the plot didn't really make any sense. People appeared and disappeared randomly, sets changed, dialogue referred to events that never happened. These scenes had been preserved, but they were just random scenes.

He wondered how many scenes had been preserved. Certainly not many. The scenes began to get weirder and weirder. Cats started to appear in the building, but nobody commented on why they were there. They appeared on staircases and bookshelves. One quick scene had the main actress surrounded by six cats. She looked terrified. The cats themselves looked somewhat strange, though Greg couldn't put his finger as to why. In the next scene, the actress and the actor playing her husband were eating dinner, with no cats around. Still, Greg noticed that they both looked nervous and kept glancing towards the camera.

And then finally Greg came to the last scene. It took place in the same room where the cats had surrounded the main actress. Now, there seemed to be dozens and dozens of cats on the ground. They looked dead. Alfred Hitchcock himself walked onto the set, winding around the corpses of each cat, carrying a large gas can. He carefully tipped the can and poured the gasoline around the entire set, making sure not to leave any surface untouched.

Greg watched, enraptured, as Hitchcock pulled out a lighter and then looked directly into the camera. He said something, but there was no sound, so Greg couldn't make it out. Then he flicked on the lighter and dropped it on the set, then walked away as it burned. The set burned and the tape ended.

Greg quickly rewound the tape and watched Hitchcock talking again and tried to see what he was saying. He rewound again and again, until finally he figured it out:

"No one must watch it. Burn it all."

Greg wondered why Hitchcock had ordered the entire set burned. And, if he was willing to destroy the set, why hadn't he destroyed all copies of the film? Had someone just taken off with these scenes before he could destroy them? As Greg got up, he felt something brush his leg and jumped. He quickly looked down.

It was just a cat. Only a cat.

It purred as he petted it. He rewound the tape and wondered how it had gotten in. He was sure he hadn't left the door open.