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A low-budget horror director wishes he was creating a masterpiece instead of schlock in this horror tale from writer Michael Moreci.

The Final Shot

The corpses were getting restless.

Jolene had just staggered out of the back of the house, an oversized cottage so worn down it looked like it could fold in on itself at any moment. The dingy screen door slammed in Jolene's wake; she pressed the knife wound that tore across her belly, hopelessly trying to stop the bleeding. Hopelessly trying to stop the inevitable. She barely made it to the spot where her friends, Edward and Janice, had been cut down earlier that same night. There was no escape from this particular backwoods cottage, a fact the vacationing friends now understood. Jolene dropped between Edward and Janice, the trio of teens the latest victims to fall prey to Ricky Thompson, Ax Splatterer.

But Jolene's eyes were no longer lifeless and still-they danced with the laughter she was trying to suppress as Edward grazed on the dry grass in front of him. Janice was smoking a cigarette-Nick could tell even with her back turned to him, even from this distance, which was a good 20 yards away.

Nick needed to frame this final shot, and to do that he needed absolute cooperation from his cast. Whatever happened to character acting, after all? To immersing yourself completely in your art?

"I need you people to be corpses!" Nick yelled. "Corpses don't move, they don't laugh, and they don't smoke!"

The closing sequence had to be perfect to deliver the impact Nick had envisioned. Taking cue from Hitchcock's methodology, Nick shot the film in sequence. No bouncing around in the story or shooting one location at a time. It was all about total immersion, total dedication. Nick had a vision, and he was sticking to it. This final shot, the last moment of the film, was supposed to echo throughout the audience's psyche, causing a deadened hush to descend over the theater as the credits rolled.

At least that's what Nick had in mind when he began filming Ax Splatterer. It was going to be the low-budget horror masterpiece that hadn't been experienced in over 30 years, not since Hooper and Carpenter scared the wits out of people with scares the felt captured, rather than staged. What Nick ended up with, after three weeks of rushed filming, an unprofessional crew, and an untested cast was something completely different. Nick had seen the dailies and felt a certain doom in what he saw. It was the same faint sensation he had, at times, while shooting, a sensation that forced a shiver throughout his body, like some cruel spirit was hanging over the production. Nick couldn't pinpoint where this dread came from, this feeling that something was simply wrong, though he could see it in his footage as well. As he watched the dailies, alone, Nick knew the truth everyone on set joked about behind his back: The movie was a complete and total mess.

And it wasn't an endearing mess like Troll 2, or an ambitious mess like Southland Tales; it was an incoherent jumble of badly framed, poorly lit shots strung together by what now seemed to be a threadbare plot. Nick knew he's crossed the Rubicon; no editing in the world could save his footage. It resembled the work of someone who had never even seen a movie before, let alone made one. 

"All right," Nick said, looking out on the expanse of lawn, which was cloaked in the night's black stillness. "This isn't working, this isn't right. With everything that's happened, Jolene should be coming out of the house at dawn. Let's break for two hours and come back at first light."

The crew-which consisted of four other people: a makeup artist, sound mixer, key grip, and production assistant-all groaned. Edward, who had a fatal head wound from where Ax Splatterer had nailed him with a hatchet, stood up and pronounced, "fuck this shit, man!"

"Look, we'll get Ax Splatterer coming out of the house and frame him against the rising sun," Nick said. "It'll be great, trust me!"

"Seriously, man? Seriously? You really think it even matters at this point?"

Nick felt the deep cut of vulnerability as the dream he was clinging to suddenly grew thorns. It was a fear he privately held, that one day he'd be exposed, chastised, and thrown out of the industry. He wasn't a budding filmmaker perfecting his craft; he was a dolt running around with a camera, smearing foul viscera all over cinema's proud history.

 "Well, it matters to me," Nick said, fumbling to slide a mask of confidence over his insecurity. "It matters to the other people who have dedicated their time and talent to this movie."

"Oh yeah, this is a real Scorsese production. I'm sure the AFI will look back on this and-"

At that moment, Janice rose to her feet and rushed off scene, bumping Edward along the way. "God, you're way to shitty of an actor to pull this Val Kilmer bit," she said.

"That's rich coming from a-"

"Lalalalala," Janice said, covering her ears. She kept them covered until she reached Nick. Edward gave up his protests and plopped down on the grass, his back to Nick, pouting.

Nick began raveling up a cord, absent-mindedly. He felt the cool grass beneath him, beginning to dampen with morning dew. Resiliency, he reminded himself, was key. You had to have it in this industry, or doubt would feast of your innards like a pack of rabid jackals. Still, there was a fine line between being resilient and being delusional, and Nick wondered if he was beginning to mistake the two. Since graduating film school, he sputtered while classmate after classmate broke through, getting their foot in the door with major production companies. Nick hadn't tasted the nectar of success since his final film school project, a staged documentary about a community of werewolves called Wereabouts

"Pretty crazy, right? Being almost done with the movie and everything," Janice said. She was standing next to him with her hands tucked into her back pockets, rocking back on her heels. A smattering of fake blood was caked on her hooded sweatshirt and jeans. She had a nervous energy, and it was one of the reasons Nick cast her. "Hey, so, I spotted this diner not far from here. If we have two hours to kill, you wanna, I don't know, grab some coffee or something?"

Nick had a crush on Janice, there was really no way around it. Although he wanted to ask her on one of those dates that really wasn't a date (something innocuous like getting coffee as a way to test the waters) his judgment prevented him from doing so. Or at least that's what he called it. He told himself it was never good to mix romance with work, that being an artist came first. Yet he also told himself that Kubrick met his wife on the set of Paths of Glory, and that relationship lasted four decades-and he ending up making The Shining, so that worked out all right. It wasn't that conflict that stood in Nick's way, though-it was his fear. One more failure and he'd have to run away and live in the woods as a means of coping with his shame. 

"Well, I should run some light meter tests and…the equipment, I can't just leave the equipment."  

"We're gonna stick around," Walter, the key grip said. "We gotta pack up some equipment we're not using and see if we can track Ricky down. Where'd that weirdo go anyway?"

Nick didn't pay much attention to Walter; he interpreted everything as 'you go ahead while me and the crew get high in the woods.' Janice shot him a playful expression that said checkmate, you're out of excuses.

"Well, sure then. Let's, um, okay. Lead the way."

Directors and writers and actors and actresses, they all thanked God when accepting an award. Nick found this strange, confusing and, quite frankly, it really pissed him off. It was as if these people were acknowledging that God loved them more than everyone else. "Now you, you're going to be charming and witty, and you'll be able to sing, dance, act, and you'll be as beautiful as the best of the best. People are really going to love you." And to the following soul: "Did you see the one that just passed through here? Good luck keeping up with that!"

That's where slashers came in, Nick supposed. Why he was so fixated on them. They were the chaotic antithesis to God's inequities; they upturned the world we're supposed to buy into. Young, old, pretty, rich or poor, the slasher didn't discriminate; he did what he did, and no one could stop him.

Yet when he explained this to Janice, it came out really, really weird. Like he was approving of murder as a way to keep the existential playing field level, or that he had some serious beef with the Man Upstairs. As their order of French fries came to the table, he felt painfully and horribly awkward.

"So," Janice said, diving into the basket of fries, "is that why your movie has no survivors? Usually the hottest chick makes it through these things."

"I never thought about that, but it makes sense. I mean, take the Scream movies. Neve Campbell's character--she's like one of those anointed few. No matter what shitstorm crashes through her life, she comes out on top. Look at all the misery she's caused, the people who died and the lives ruined because someone wanted her dead. If she had any conscience at all, she would have tossed herself out of a very high window and spared everyone else's suffering. And yet-and yet-the audience is still supposed to root for her, we're supposed to watch all these innocent people get mowed down just so she can live. How messed up is that?"

"So, no survivors then?"

Nick laughed-"no survivors."

"Okay, now, I have to tell you something," Janice said. She twirled a French fry and pointed it across the table in Nick's direction for emphasis. "I have a confession for you."

"Shoot," Nick said, feeling more comfortable-if Janice wasn't totally scared off by his slasher rant, maybe he had an actual shot here.

He looked at Janice, who was smiling with nervous anticipation. Behind her, their waitress was seated on a stool at the counter, looking at them over the corner of her newspaper. She sighed disapprovingly. Nick realized they were the only people in the diner and he assumed the waitress pegged them to be drunken kids. There wasn't a sound in the diner-no music, no clinking of coffee mugs, not even the hiss of food being tossed on the grill.

"Ready?" Janice asked, drumming her fingers on the table. "Okay, here goes: I'm not an actress. At all. This movie is the first work I've ever gotten. Ever. I've never even been in a high school play."

"But your resume-"

"Lies. Lies, lies, lies."

"Huh," Nick said, thinking back to her audition where, at the time, he considered her to be over-qualified. "Good thing we didn't follow up on resumes or do background checks. Regardless, you fooled me, so bravo."

"Yeah," Janice said, falling back into the booth. "But I feel like I ruined your movie, like my deceit jinxed the set or something."

Nick laughed, a self-conscious laugh that stung a little, deep down. "You ruined the movie? You? That's rich."

"Let those assholes talk-we're not even done filming, how can they even know?"

"Trust me, I know," Nick said, tearing away the strips of a napkin he had been nervously toying with. "I know. And that's cool. Maybe I don't have that 'thing,' the anointment that makes people great and allows them to be whoever and whatever they want."

The waitress appeared at the table, holding a pot coffee. She stood there, not looking at either one of them, not saying a word. Her loose-limbed posture gave Nick the impression that she could collapse at any moment; then someone would come along and scoop her up and fold her into the wall, like a Murphy bed. A cigarette, nearly burned down to the nub, hung from her mouth, barely holding on. Nick and Janice both declined refills and she shuffled off, mumbling a string of curses.

"You're wrong. I don't think you need to be great in order to do what you love," Janice said. "Look at me-I'm not really passionate about anything. I just bounce around, doing whatever. And when I get bored with that, I do something else. But you, you actually care about something. You know how rare that is?"

"Yeah, but-"

Janice cut him off. "Listen, I want you to close your eyes. Close your eyes and think back to before we started filming. Seriously, close your eyes."

Nick sat up straight; he took a good, long look at Janice and closed his eyes. He felt her looking at him, intently; he heard the sound of a car skidding the pavement as it sailed past the diner.

"Before you started making the movie, what did you have in mind? What did people say when they saw Ax Splatterer?"

Nick didn't have to dig too deep to recall his wistful daydreams, however tainted they may now be. That glimmer of possibility-that something big could actually happen to him, that he could get what he wanted-was the only thing that kept him going. "It's epic. People seriously lose their shit when they see it. They're terrified, and they like it. There's something therapeutic about visceral fear, you know? But Ax Splatterer is more than just a bunch of cheap thrills and scenes of people getting butchered; it's about evil and chaos and how out of control things really are. Watching it is an admission of disorder; you allow yourself to be consumed by the chaos of life. That's what the movie is, and making it is everything I want from life."

Nick opened his eyes. He was almost surprised to see Janice still sitting across from him, surprised to feel such relief.  

"And if you stop, you'll never find something to replace that experience," Janice said. "That hope and excitement will extinguish forever."

"Maybe," Nick said, "but I'll also never feel the pangs of failure either."

"Even better: You'll feel nothing at all."

They remained silent, yet comfortably so. Nick gazed over to the counter and noticed the fry cook had come out from the kitchen. He and the waitress were standing there, staring at him and Janice.

"It's almost sunup," Nick said, slowly pulling his eyes away from the pair. "We should get back."

At the cottage, the crew was nowhere to be found.

"At least nothing got stolen," Janice said.

Nick took a quick inventory-Janice was right, from what he could see, nothing was missing. "I had a feeling they'd bail. At least Edward's in position-eager to be done, I suppose."

An uncommonly frigid wind rustled through the trees, causing Janice to huddle into herself. The sun was just breaking over the horizon, casting everything in a dull gray pallor. The day was holding its breath.

"How'd you find this place anyway?"

"Oddly enough, Ricky knew about it," Nick said, turning the camera on and pressing record so he could capture the entirety of this final moment. "Don't tell anyone, but it's what got him the…the, uh…it's was got him the pa..." Nick trailed off as he began taking absent steps toward where Edward was situated on the ground. There was something about how he was splayed on the ground, something unnatural. Nick wanted to call out but, for some reason, couldn't. His voice wouldn't form, like a dream where you have to run but cannot command your body to do so.

A voice was formed, though: The sound of a woman screaming decimated the morning's stillness. Screaming for her life, sobbing, unable to articulate any words. Jolene crashed through the back door, staggering just like the movie, but much different. This wasn't the slash makeup had given her-this was a gaping wound, a cavity the likes of which human souls escape out of. Her body was jolting in rhythmic spasms like a wind-up toy, holding out her arm toward Nick and Janice, reaching. 

"Ohmygod!" Janice said, and rushed toward her. Before Nick could move to stop her, it was too late. Ricky, as Ax Splatterer, had burst through the house, throwing the back door of its hinges. He was in the same costume he had worn all of shooting, a pair of dingy overalls covering a worn flannel shirt and a burlap sack over his face. Before Janice could think to react, he was on her, digging a miniature ax into her neck, causing blood to shoot from her mouth.

Nick turned and looked at the cluster of trees that separated the clearing from the highway. He spent hours scouting the area and knew it as well as anyone. But when he turned back, he caught a glimpse of the camera; in it, Ax Splatterer was framed perfectly against the setting sun, raising his arms to the sky in grotesque triumph. The camera had caught the scene, and it was absolutely perfect.

The Ax Splatterer let out a horrific yell that clawed its way through his burlap mask; Nick gazed through the viewfinder and saw him charging, but didn't move. He gave himself over to the chaos and got exactly what he wanted as the camera continued to roll.

About the Author

Michael Moreci's work has never unleashed a slasher into the world. He thinks. This past year saw the release of his zombie graphic novel, Quarantined, and the beginning of his ongoing series with Image Comics, Hoax Hunters. His short stories have appeared here and there, and in 2010 he was nominated for a Spintetingler Award. He's currently working on a novel.