The Yellow Film: Gary McMahon

Sarajevo, 1993

The city is a warzone. There isn’t much time. He must retrieve what it is he came back for and then go. If he stays here too long, he will be discovered, and he will pay for what he has done. There are forces at work here that even he cannot understand.

He walks across the bombed-out ruins of the building and stands at its centre, staring up at the sky. The clouds are low and black, obscuring the moonlight. Directly above him, the atmosphere seems charged with energy: a slow-spinning vortex, perhaps created by the bomb blast, has created a vague whirlpool in the sky.

He smiles.

Then he picks up the camera and inspects it. The case is damaged, but the apparatus itself seems to be okay. The film, it appears, is safe inside.

Still smiling, he makes his way to the outer perimeter of the bomb site, where a jeep is waiting with its engine running. The driver does not look at him; the man is silent; his face does not move beneath his balaclava mask.

He sets down the camera on the rear seat and climbs into the jeep, resting one hand over the camera as he puts on his seat belt. Glancing one last time at the bombed-out wreckage, he nods. The jeep pulls away, wheel-spinning in the dirt.

Moments later, something in the bomb-debris stirs. A shattered piece of concrete shifts, a shard of glass breaks, what looks like a thin yellow-skinned hand emerges from the rubble and clenches into a fist against the night.

For James Fontaine, it started with pictures of other people’s tattoos on the Internet.

He was planning to make a documentary about tattoos inspired by films. Portraits of characters, actors, inked text from film quotes… whatever he could find. It was a vague idea, admittedly, and one that he was starting to think might not have much mileage. And when the hell had he ever taken a personal project to completion, anyway? It seemed like he spent his whole time researching and never actually creating anything of value, just the dull work projects he took on to pay the bills.

But then he found a photo of the tattoo titled “The Pallid Mask” and something inside him shifted, like a lever moving or a switch clicking gently into place to set off a chain of mechanical events towards an unknown purpose.

It was a single jpeg image, used as part of a brief blog article written a long time ago about a short film made over two decades in the past. There was a photograph at the end of the piece, and it showed a small man—was he a dwarf, or a midget? —with a disturbing, almost featureless yellow face tattooed across the skin of his chest. The tiny man was naked, pictured from the waist up, and standing in the time-honoured bodybuilder pose, flexing his guns. The camera lens must have been focused explicitly on the tattoo because the detail showed up so well while the man’s face was blurred by shadow. The inked image depicted a torn and tattered face wreathed in smoke, the flesh peeling away to reveal nothing but more smoke beneath. The eyes were blank. The mouth was just a gaping hole.

There was something powerful about the image. James was unable to look away. The caption under the photograph said “Tommy Urine, actor/inmate.”

“What the hell kind of name is that?” It was amusing but for some reason he didn’t feel like laughing. He dragged his attention away from the tattoo and began to read the article.

In 1993, during the Bosnian War, an underground filmmaker calling himself Phantomas Ulna apparently used the inmates from a Bosnian asylum to create a short film called “The King in Yellow,” which was an adaptation of a fictional play invented in a book of short stories by the cult author Robert W. Chambers.

Ulna (whose real name is not a matter of public record) used his (probably bribed) connections in the war-torn city of Sarajevo to gain access to an unnamed mental institution and the patients kept there. Over one weekend, he shot a reel of footage that came to be known as “The Yellow Film.” The footage has never been seen, and has in fact taken on an air of legend. Phantomas Ulna was never heard of again—many people say that he vanished, or was killed as he made his way across the city after leaving the asylum (which was bombed a few hours later). Nobody involved in the filming has ever come forward to tell of what actually happened over the course of that weekend. It is rumoured that everyone who appeared in the film died in the blast or disappeared into the chaos of the city, but it is impossible to substantiate these claims.

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