Blackout-grade darkness spills out as I nudge open the door. I cushion it and grip the handle as it swings shut. In quiet scenes, the punters in the back row can hear it slam. A final chink of light disappears behind me. The five steps up a narrow staircase lead me to a tiny, sacred space where showbiz magic is made.
Dave looks up from his desk, an unlit rollie hanging from his mouth. His machine hums and whirrs. A strip of acetate runs around what looks like an overgrown tape deck and passes between his fingers as he checks for scratches and faults.
'How's it going?' I ask.
'Getting there. This lot arrived late from London. Bit of a rush, to be honest.' Dave nods at a pile of six battered metal tins with Dawn of the Dead (1978) scribbled on white labels running round their sides. 'We should be okay. I think.'
One large reel is already mounted on the projector, ready to go. Dave must be working on the later parts. He will splice together the three smaller ones for the second large feed reel before loading. Then the final segment of our Halloween Triple Bill will be ready to roll.
Although Dave is working full speed, time is running out. It is Friday, 31st October. Midnight is approaching. Fear is in the air.
In the streets around our small cinema, housed in the old art school, the pubs will be emptying out and queues for clubs forming. With holiday-level excitement and alcohol flowing, it could get wild. I can picture the marauding gangs of living dead staggering around out there, looking for action, looking for trouble. The perfect scary backdrop for our show, as long as they don't find their way in here.
We already have our own full-house of drunk, slightly out-of-control costumed characters. I reassure myself they are mostly harmless film-buffs, here for the art. The familiar faces of our club members plus the horror fans have been with us since early evening, through the first two features. Getting into it. The rest are rabble, in party mode and fancy dress, running around like it is their last night on Earth.
In the breaks, the regulars come over to chat. I am a permanent fixture — the Front of House Manager; a grand title, but no contract, and zero hours. I am not complaining. It is a boost for my flaky CV, and more importantly, my job surrounds me in movie magic. Movie horror, tonight. I listen and soak up the superfans' enthusiasm and knowledge. The others have been in and out – to the pub, for cigarettes, drugs, sex, up to no good. Taking advantage. The usual rules are out the window tonight. That is the idea, I suppose. You can be naughty. I know the porter downstairs is drunker than usual. My staff has definitely had a few. I have been covering for them during the breaks.
It feels as if it is only me and Dave, the projectionist guiding the ship through the storm. Or more like driving a train, hurtling full-on towards its destination. Arrival should be about 2.00 a.m. after the zombies have gone to bed, or more likely for a kebab and on to a house party. If he is still standing, Mike, the porter, will help me lock up, and we will hope no one is asleep in a cupboard somewhere. That is the plan.
'Looks like a good crowd out there. Lively,' Dave says, smirking. He has seen it all.
'That's one way of putting it. I've just cleaned up some sick.'
'Oh, gross, man.' Dave pulls a face, so he nearly loses his rollie.
'We're just a few seats off full. The bar's busy. Hope we don't run out.'
'I might just run the trailers now. I thought of starting bang on midnight,' Dave says.
'Cool. I wonder if they'll notice. I was going to announce a few things, but they're too tanked up. They won't remember anything. And I don't fancy it much.'
I glance through the tiny porthole to check the auditorium. The backs of heads of ghosts, witches, Frankensteins, mummies, Addams Families, and a few axes-in-heads are jumping up and down on the back row.
The old projectors loom by me. The projection box resembles below-decks in a ship's engine room. Cold metal, cogs, levers, tiny lights. I have had it all explained, but I still don't understand much. They could be massive sewing machines to me.
I leave Dave to it and visit the crowded bar. Mel is dressed up in all black, in the spirit of the night. She looks good in it.
'Busy, busy,' she says. 'Could you open that, babe?'
I open a bottle of red wine. Mel probably calls everyone babe, but I don't care. I'll take it every time. I help her out for longer than I need to.
As I leave, she goes, 'Come back soon, unless you're too scared.' Mel has totally got me.
I run down the stairs to the ticket office, feeling like a teenager, not a manager. Rhona, an old pal, is on the tickets tonight. Like Mel, she is in black, but that is her everyday look and has been since our schooldays. You would think she would love all this, everyone dressing like her for a day. If she does, Rhona is too cool and deadpan to let on. She says things are going okay. She doesn't call me babe. Fair enough. Pedro, another staff member, is not working tonight, just keeping Rhona company, here for the vibe. They probably have a bottle behind there. A cheap night out.
Back upstairs, as midnight approaches, I check the crowd, then head back to where the action is. Dave is on it. Ads are out, the trailers are done. We are going straight in.
We laugh as we count down to midnight. Three, two, one. Literally, with a flick of a switch, the credits roll, and we are away.
I stay to watch the first few scenes through the glass while Dave goes out for a smoke. The movie looks so bright and seventies. I can hear the laughs from the audience already. It is so noisy in there, the dialogue is peripheral.
When Dave returns, I head out. The foyer is quiet. As if everyone is in class. Down in the office, Mel and Rhona have cashed up and left.
I go up to see Dave. It is thirty-five minutes in — time to change the big reel.
'Could you flick it over? It should be coming up soon,' Dave goes.
As the flickery white circle of the cue-mark appears in the top-right of the screen, I lower the lever for the changeover. I was terrified the first time I did it. The projectionists seem to enjoy seeing others do it. It is too important a task to be so casually handed out if you ask me. If I messed up, all sorts of things would go wrong.
As I peer out at the start of the new spool, I see a real, bigger problem is unfolding.
Up on the screen, there are humans that I am certain used to be zombies. This is not how the genre usually works.
'Dave, come here. Look.'
'Oh, shit. I was rushed for time back there, but I've never done that. Not in thirty-six years. It looks as if it's running: part two, then five, then six. So, the ending will be right, at least. That first half must have been wrong too. No one said anything?'
'Not much we can do now,' Dave goes, drawing on a lifetime of showbiz ups and downs to get this one in perspective.
'They're so out of it – most won't notice,' I say. 'I'll stick my head in and see.'
We are all right. We get away with it. The show goes rollicking along till everyone piles out. A couple of the sober regulars see the funny side. They get it. Movie magic. Showbiz.
When I get my coat, I find a note from Mel with an address of a house party.
I get out alive. It is dry, cold, and windy. The clouds are flying around. A group of zombies are screaming and lurching around a corner up ahead. The party flat is on my way home, so why not?
I hear the music from the street. The front door is open.
I go through the swaying bodies to the kitchen, then the living room. Mel, Rhona, and Pedro are in a witches' huddle by a lamp in a corner, passing around a bottle of wine. The red uplight is fantastic on them. They have become three cool, beautiful horror-show actors.
We chat and joke about the movie having been spooked by ghouls. Soon we are dancing. Another bottle appears.
'Halloween kisses,' Mel goes with a mischievous grin.
Mel instructs us to 'give a proper kiss' to the person to the left, then the right. For me, that's Rhona, then Pedro, which gives Pedro the giggles — kissing his boss. Then it is swapped, and I am with Mel.
Mel pauses for a moment, then rests an arm on my shoulder. She has a drink, gives me the bottle, then nods.
She places a hand on the back of my head and says, 'Come here, babe.'
It is a long one. She is soft and sweet and not at all scary.
The horror show is over.