Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a November 23, 1975 WHPL interview with French filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins prior to the American release of his final completed film. Des Jardins’ film, Le fantôme de la lande (released internationally as The Ghost of the Moors), was a major success in France and a minor success elsewhere. Critics usually regard it as a “lesser” work when compared to Des Jardins’ other films (most notably his masterpiece Les trois Juliets), but its immersiveness and potent psychological horror profoundly influenced later filmmakers’ own horror efforts. Notable proponents of the film who cited it as an influence include Kubrick, Carpenter, Craven, and King. Des Jardins died suddenly four months after the interview was recorded leaving a number of incomplete projects; it was his last public appearance and one of only a handful of times he was interviewed in English.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve constructed a–such a really effective, one might even say horrifying in the most flattering possible sense, ghost story. So the question, ah, suggests itself: do you, yourself, believe in ghosts?

DES JARDINS: I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe in humans, fantastic creatures who tirelessly search for the answers to impossible questions, who cannot resist a good story, and who are so adept at seeing things that aren’t there they’ve made it a billion-dollar industry.

INTERVIEWER: And yet you’ve created a–well, directed a film which features them–ghosts, that is–in a starring, ah, role. Would you care to speak to the, ah, apparent contradiction of a man who does not believe in ghosts directing a ghost story?

DES JARDINS: You believe the film is about ghosts? Perhaps you should watch it again.

[gentle laughter from DES JARDINS, INTERVIEWER, and AUDIENCE]

DES JARDINS: That knock on the door late at night, that spectral form prowling the ancient halls? They are as much in our minds as one’s imagination, one’s soul, one’s neuroses. Oh, there may well be some slight external reinforcement–a gust of wind here, a reflected shaft of moonlight there–but it’s the human mind that provides the essential pieces.

INTERVIEWER: So the film is, well, about as much about what’s in the character’s heads a-as what they experience supernaturally?

DES JARDINS: It is entirely about what is in their heads, my friend. Think about it: our minds are the lens through which we must experience all the world has to offer. Yet we know from dreaming that the mind has no inherent rules, and that it is certainly not bound to any of the petty laws of the outside world. The central assertion my film makes–that all of my films make–is that we exist in a strata of rules and laws imposed from without. The film, the book, the painting, even the brightly painted schoolbus–all represent chinks through which we can glimpse a purer world from which all constraints have been removed.

INTERVIEWER: So you, ah, see your work as having a somewhat…a somewhat wider context than a single story, is that it?

DES JARDINS: If I can take viewers to a place where, for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism, they are able to make their own laws of nature, motion, and time, then I will be happy.

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“I’m here to see The Sacred Cenote,” but I seem to have misplaced my date.”

“Misplaced?” Marcus laughed. “is that a recurring problem with you?” He meant it as a good-natured jab but it keened a bit.

“Yeah, I think this is the third time I’ve been ditched at the movies,” I said. “I’ll learn my lesson one of these days.”

Marcus shifted his weight uncomfortably, feeling he’d touched a nerve. “So, The Sacred Cenote, huh? I heard the movie took five years to make and that you can only see it as the original dead director intended in New York, LA, and here at the Mackinac. NY, LA, Hopewell…one of those things is not like the other, eh?”

“I think it’s because the new director graduated from the SMU film school,” I said. “I’m certainly not complaining; I’ve never seen the Mackinac this full and I had to buy the tickets online through a lottery. Of course the whole date situation and missing the first quarter of the film already isn’t helping.”

I meant that as a hint that I’d like to slink into the specially modified Marguiles Theatre at the Mackinac and finally take my seat, but Marcus was clearly in the conversation for the long haul, oblivious: “Yeah, I thought about seeing it, but there aren’t any reviews online and I’m more in a mood to laugh today. So I’m going to see Two Brides and a Groom with some friends.”

Enough was enough: I liked Marcus but I was intent on escaping he afternoon with a shred of my dignity intact. “Well, I’m going to the theater to see if my date abandoned me or just went into the movie without me.” My tone (and my past experiences with girls, if Marcus had any inkling of that) made it clear that I strongly predicted the former.

I bid him a curt goodbye and entered the theater, my armful of popcorn and soft drinks (meant for two) shifting and leaking uncomfortably along the way. The theater was very avant-garde, with leather benches almost like pews instead of seats; to my surprise it was lit up and the screen was dark, despite the fact that the movie must have started ages ago. People were milling about, most of them dressed for the occasion like a night at the opera, making me feel very conspicuous in my business casual slacks and polo.

I went to the front of the theater to try and see if my date was in any of the seats, but I couldn’t get a very good look at half of the seats due to a bizarre divider that (I thought) ought to be in the way of the mover projector and cast a giant shadow on the screen (then again, perhaps it was the projector). Disappointed if not surprised that I couldn’t see Aimee, I made my way back into the middle of the theater…only to hear Aimee’s distinctive liting voice call for me from above.

To my shock and extremely pleasant surprise, she had been saving me a spot on one of the upper benches by laying bodily across it, something made possible only by the pew-like layout (I saw a lot of sorority girls in other nearby “pews” doing the same once I knew to look for it). Aimee sat up as I approached; I took in that pretty red dress, the same dress she was wearing when we reconnected. I feel awful for assuming the worst about her.

Turns out that I came in during an intermission. I put the soda and popcorn where Aimee can reach them just as the lights dim. The “pews” all move forward on silent hydraulics as they do so; I realize that everything is designed to move about as the movie plays.

The posters promised a revolutionary degree of immersion at the Marguiles, and they certainly weren’t wrong.

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French avant-garde filmmaker Auguste Des Jardins had committed a script and production plans for his masterwork to paper and blueprint before his untimely death in 1976, but he freely admitted that the technology to bring his rough vision into reality did not exist. Rumors persisted for years that he had actually finished the film but it had been suppressed by jealous peers of censors, mostly begat by a few staged and altered “production stills” Des Jardins had set up as visual aids in searching for investors willing to back a project that, by his own estimate, was “20-30 years from fruition.”

When the American director Anthony Marguiles was poring through Des Jardins’ personal archives in Lyon, looking for notes on his remake of Les trois Juliets, he stumbled across the plans for the untitled project. After Three Juliets swept the Academy Awards and won the Big Five statuettes, Marguiles had the clout to pitch the project. He presented a complete script and production designs in Des Jardins’ hand, written in English, to the bigwigs at RKO Republic, the third largest studio in 2000s Hollywood. The late director had written in English, according to his surviving notes, to achieve the same effect that Beckett had writing in French: an economy of word and style that stripped away all artifice.

The script was simple: a disparate group of people (teachers, students, professionals) found their way to a realm where the ordinary rules of existence no longer applied. The means for doing so varied, from the first journey in a dilapidated old bus to later ones hidden in a grove of orange trees; the script hinted that the world was full of such chinks to a more fluid reality, and that each one had some deep and hidden meaning for viewers to decipher. Once there, danger and freedom seemed to mix exhilaratingly in the script: the characters altered the rules of reality simply by invoking new ones, usually by association with a familiar concept. For example, being underwater and invoking the “power of Poseidon” would allow one of the travelers to breathe there; the production notes contained details of a long, loving tracking shot which started at sea level in a cenote and went straight down hundreds or thousands of feet to where an actress lounged with a mermaid tail, breathing underwater, having invoked the “power of Poseidon.” The shot continued with her awaking and swimming upward as the camera followed, breaking the surface in a flying leap that also dispelled her altered form.

Obviously the introduction of digital technology would greatly facilitate the making of Des Jardins’ film, but there were other considerations that made it astonishingly difficult to realize. There were, for instance, the dark and unpredictable entities with the same power over natural law that emerged later in the narrative, which the script hinted might be anything from natives of the strange land to projections of the sojourners’ hidden fears a la Forbidden Planet. As the tone shifted from liting and verdant to dark and urgent, the darkness was scripted to “be on the verge of escaping into our ordered world.” There were scenes which called for *the environment of the theater itself* to be altered as this came to pass, everything from dimming or undimming the lights to changing the physical arrangement of seats and walls (something which could only be achieved with a Disney-esque level of animatronic sophistication).

Marguilles struggled mightily with the technical challenges, insisting that he stick as closely as possible the Des Jardins’ original designs despite howls of protest from the distributor and theater chains. Eventually they reached a compromise: three theaters would be modified to show the film as intended, with Marguilles’ personally covering half the expense and agreeing to produce documentary films through his company to help the space turn a profit in the long run. The theaters were the IndieTastic Beverly Hills, the Avant-Garden Brooklyn, and the Mackinac Theater in Hopewell, Michigan.

The film, officially the Untitled Auguste Des Jardins Project but referred to in marketing and promotional materials as The Sacred Cenote, opened in those three theaters five years after production began and expanded to 3000 theaters worldwide one week later.

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Sunset Time was a boutique home video manufacturer famous for tackling Betamax, VHS, and later DVD releases of rare and unusual movies. Never produced in large quantities, many Sunset Time products were the only available source for older movies from 60s and earlier making them sought-after collector’s items. Especially valuable were the Sunset Time Solar Club releases, in which movies were (due to rights issues) produced only in limited runs of 1000-5000 copies.

When Sunset Time went out of business in the Great Recession of the late 2000s, its stock was liquidated by wholesalers and bought by the Dollar Party chain of discount stores. Mixed in with other stock, a pile of DP DVDs or VHS tapes (yes, they still sold those, mostly in rural areas) might yield Sunset Time products or even Solar Club items worth $100-$500 to the right collector. Or they might yield 50 copies of From Justin to Kelly.

Tom Speckler was in it for the movies. A long-time cinema buff, he had begun methodically visiting every Dollar Party he could find in an attempt to unearth Sunset Time gems for $2 apiece. The fact that the ones he already had could be eBay’d for hard cash was a side benefit. As a result, Speckler was often arms-deep in discount movie bins at far-flung rural Dollar Party stores.

The employees were not always understanding.

“Sir, could you please stop taking the DVDs out of the display and putting them on the floor?” Cynthia Mudwaddie of Dollar Party #8734 in Gristle Mill, Missouri, asked him. Speckler had been digging to the bottom of the bin and had stacked rejects around him like a kind of crude movie fort.

“How else am I supposed to see what’s at the bottom?” Speckler asked without moving. “These really should be on shelves. Do you really expect people to dig to the bottom of a pallet-sized bin?”

“Sir, we do not put the merchandise on the floor,” Cynthia said. “Unless you want to buy it, then you can put it any old place you want.”

“Do you ask an archaeologist not to put his dirt on the ground?” Speckler said. “Do you ask a picker not to put the useless junk between him and a 1902 Buick on the floor?”

“That’s it,” Cynthia fumed. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Speckler protested, comparing Cynthia unfavorably to Benito Mussolini, whose first act as Il Duce had no doubt been to keep Italian patriots from rooting around for movies in discount bins. But after Cynthia called “Ox” Bunker, Dollar Party cashier and amateur professional wrestler, as backup, he relented and left.

“What was that about?” said Petunia Lavos, who was on break in the back. She’d heard the ruckus and accosted Cynthia as she hung a security camera picture of Speckler to the “banned for life” wall.

Cynthia sat down next to her on a sealed box labeled “Sunset Time Solar Club Limited Editions.” “I have no idea,” she sighed.

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