Episode 19: The Vaults
Dave's Episode 19 notes on 'The Vaults' - set in Edinburgh's South Bridge Vaults
We’re following a guided tour as they are led down a sunny, cobbled street by a man waving some sort of stick to get their attention and directing them through an unassuming doorway in the side of a stone wall. It’s a steep, narrow old street – a close, in Scottish parlance - descending for some height and distance before meeting a small cross roads and continuing up the other side of a steep incline. The backs of tall buildings rear up on either side so all we can really see of the sky is the narrow slot above the distant rooftops.
As the last of the group enter the darkness of the doorway we follow three fellas with hardhats, high-vis and clipboards – surveyors - as they fall in behind the last visitors. All the while we can hear snatches of the tour guide’s explanations – these are the South Bridge Vaults, they date back to the 18th century and were built into the arches of Edinburgh’s South Bridge. ‘Sealed up for over 100 years… access only by these rare tours.. this group is one of a lucky few’
That’s all we get for overheard context before the hard hat fellas veer off from the tour group.. They’ve descended a dark, narrow, winding stone staircase, seemingly into the volcanic rock that supports most of Edinbugh’s Old Town. At the foot of the stairs we see what are vaulted ceiling tunnels leading off in all directions – narrow but high enough to walk in without bending. Down each vein of tunnels there are countless dark doorways, emanating sheer, pitch black, whilst the odd one appears to have been lit.
The surveyors turn down one and we hear the chatter of the tour group subside as we pick up some snippets of context from the surveyors. They’re here to see a crumbled section of vault wall in one of the off-tour vaults – reported by a previous tour guide.
They’re walking down increasingly narrow crumbling stone corridors and we get snatches of shots of the pitch black doorways they’re passing. Surveyor A asks one of the others about these vaults & things he’s heard about them but the senior chap there is dismissive and talks about their original use as businesses and storage.. None the less, Surveyor A is becoming visibly agitated at some of the doorways they pass, having a literal shiver at at least one of them.
The deeper they get the rougher everything gets. The corridors with their dirt floors and carved stone walls start to give way to rock floors and hewn rock walls. The lights are now nothing but old generator-fed worklights, casually attached at increasingly distant intervals.
Finally we see light emanating from a doorway ahead & the Surveyors turn into it. We see a massive vault spread out before us, its scale is immense in comparison to the tunnels that led here. About 10 metres wide and 3m tall with an arched roof, here they find a small transformer unit just inside the doorway with a couple of super powerful worklights set up.
None the less, about 10 metres inside the vault from the door, the light just doesn’t penetrate – we’ve no idea how long this vault goes on for and all we see is essentially a wall of black.
Two of the Surveyors make towards one side of the vault about 8 metres in – we can see a small pile of stone that appears to have crumbled from the wall, exposing a hole. The men talk amongst themselves, loosely speculating on whats on the other side whilst also tying off the structural concerns – is it safe, is it going to keep crumbling, is it structurally sound etc. One of the men is frustrated he can’t figure out where abouts they actually are in the vaults in relation to the bridge & streets above - which is what he needs to do in order to determine safety.
As they 2 are going about their business, the 3rd chap is wandering around the rest of the vault variously looking at the generator and then peering into the blackness towards the far end of the vault, right as the light flickers.
The two working the wall laugh about the lights and the idea of how creepy it would be down here without them, as they’re pulling away at some of the stones around this hole in the wall. The hole at this point is now big enough to fit someone’s head and shoulders through, and so one of the men gets his torch out and leans down into the hole, using his torch to see whats inside. We’re seeing this from inside the vault with them, so we just see his back and legs sticking out whilst he’s calling to the other guy.
The lights flicker again, but this time for a beat or two longer than the last. Just enough to give us a second’s pause as to whether they might come back on.
The second they flicker back on there is a horrific garbled scream and the torso of the man leaning into the hole shakes violently as the other fella pulls him out of the hole. As he slumps onto the ground and looks up, we see he no longer has a face, just wide-lidless eyes and a gurgling scream as he fights to crawl backwards away from the hole, blood soaking his collar and shoulders, and ragged skin around his neck and scalp where its been torn away. The other fella screams for the help of the 3rd guy, who, as the camera pans around, is sat on the dirt floor, crosslegged and staring with crooked head at the unfolding scene. However he’s inexplicably dressed in a tatty leather apron, filthy stockings and what looks like it used to be some sort of billowing shirt underneath, though its tattered and ragged – no longer in his hi-vis or hard hat gear. As he looks at the remaining unaffected HHatter, he grins a black-toothed grin and shuffles towards him on the dirt floor with his hands..
The no-face HHatter is still making horrific anguished noises in the corner as he convulses on the ground, and a glance back and forth is the mistake the final chap makes as the body shuffling across the floor towards him stikes his knee with a nasty looking rusted hammer, taking a huge chunk out with it, kneecap and all and as the man screams and drops to the floor writhing in pain.
The shuffling monstrosity moves with unnatural speed to the no-face gurgler and stoves in his head with the hammer. The lights flicker out and back in as the knackered knee fella starts clawing his way in the dirt towards the doorway. As he reaches out towards the door to pull himself a long, a huge iron spike drives down through his hand & the thin layer of dirt and into the rock below, immediately followed by the ‘clang’ of the hammer driving it further down.
In the screaming mess of blood and tears, the withered, tired face of the blacksmith leans in to into the eyes of our screaming, kneecapped Surveyor before inserting his two hands into the Surveyor’s mouth and pulling lower jaw and head apart in a final, grim, screaming fit of gore before we drop to black.
Final shot in this opening scene is a cut to the tour group we saw at the start, a few people at the back of the group suddenly turn their heads and look away down a corridor with flickering lights..
------------ ACT 1 ---------------------------------ACT 1------------------
Begins with scenes of the tour group. We get some exposition around those due to become key characters as well as some broad stroke side characters.
The tour guide’s name is Peebles and he’ll be showing you around the Vaults today. We also meet couple Marlin & Clive and friends Anne & Greg.
Much of the early scenes are vaults history including some details about the kind of people and work that went on down here before they were sealed. So we’re talking a large stone room with a stone ceiling of about 3 metres. Its lit by flashy worklamps situated around the edges, cables in neat lines along the edges of the stone floor, flowing down one of the lit corridors. Around the room are a series of arches, most of them pitch black but a few lit – we see an example vault and a couple of corridors. All rough stone, top and bottom.
The tour group move through some rooms & corridors, being drawn to various key historical elements of interest. As the group are learning of some particularly curious facts about one of the vaults they’re in, we hear the scream of the hard hatters from the intro, as the lights flicker and panic starts to set in.
The tourguide’s helper – Joe - who’s been bringing up the rear of the group as they’ve moved through the vaults volunteers to investigate & Anne & Greg offer to go with – in case Joe needs help with anything. The tone of the group changes from a lighthearted spooky tour to genuinely afraid and watching the shadows.. huddling and talking quietly and nervously.
By the middle of the act we’re essentially following two narratives, Joe, Anne & Gregg tentatively making their way down some narrow stone corridors in search of the surveyors & the source of the, by now multiple screams, and also the remaining tour group with Peebles the guide and Marlin and Clive interacting with the group, investigating areas around the group’s vault with their phone lights etc, discussing what might be happening. Of course the Clive group are increasingly scared by the additional screams they heard in the distance – not knowing at this point whether that is the same screamer as original or if its Joe, Anne or Greg’s little search party.
Peeble’s party had agreed a timeline – if they weren’t back in 15 mins, the group would head to the exit & regroup there. Its getting on towards 15 mins now..
Cutting back to Joe, Anne and Greg, we follow them down the flickeringly lit corridors with gaping black arches either side of them, as they nervously traverse their way down into the deeper bowels of the vaults to where Joe believes the surveyors were headed.
There’s a jarring scene as they’re approaching one archway in the corridor that’s lit – and Joe turns and whispers that this isn’t the room the surveyors were in, as they’re about to pass it – they slow down and as Joe stares inside he freezes.. we get a slow reveal alongside Anne and Greg of the inside of that vault as they stand in group in the corridor looking in.
On the face of it we see three men in hardhats and high vis, with their backs to us, illuminated by a large worklight in the centre of the vault.. We get long enough to drink in the differing heights on the men, one very tall – at least 7 feet – another only about 4 feet and the third somewhere in between but standing in an odd manner. Joe silently draws our attention to the cables running down the narrow corridor behind them, against the wall, feeding all the lights. At no point do any cables from that cross the threshold into this vault, so whats powering the light…?
The tall man turns to face the trio.. he bows slightly, leaning into the light so he can be seen clearly.. underneath the hard hat and high vis, he’s wearing a battered leather apron and workclothes befitting another era.. and he’s wearing the sheared face of one of the surveyors, stretched over his own like a fairly well functioning mask..
The other two turn and similarly they’re wearing the other two faces of the surveyors, slack, raggedy skin around the edges and what look a bit like iron rivets holding it tightly in place. “lets just get the fuck out” screams Joe & we get a panicky run through the maze of corridors towards the exit.
The end of the act is largely centred around Peebles & the group trying to find their way back to the exit. Cue a lot of flickering lights, disturbing things in the dark doorways, and someone getting snatched into the darkness. This brings a rise in tension with the conflicting need to get to the exit vs. try and find/retrieve the person who was snatched. Marlin & Clive and another group member that was with the snatchee do try and venture someway into the darkness where the person disappeared but with Peebles panicking because this route back to the exit shouldn’t look like this & in his general disorientation he bolts and everyone follows including Marlin & Clive.
Act 2 opens on Joe, Anne & Greg as they come to a stop in a larger carven to catch their breath, confident that nothing is following them at this point. Scenes here with them trying to comprehend what they’ve seen, figuring out they’re a bit lost and getting scared out of their wits by the lighting dropping in and out, with the outages lasting longer and longer..
They come up with the idea of following the power cables as they should, eventually, run back up to the exit. But as the lights drop out this time there’s a loud clang, sounding like a hammer striking iron, followed by Joe screaming and panic as one of them tries to fumble for their phone. As the lights come up its apparent a huge flat-headed iron spike has been driven through Joe’s foot into the stone floor beneath – unfeasibly deep and secure.
Cue further scenes of panic regarding discussions of escape, getting help, having their phone torches ready each time the light drops out & the concern over battery life etc. This all culminates in a heated argument that sees Anne go for help whilst a reluctant Greg stays with Joe.
Back to Peebles and his remaining tour group, at this point beside himself with panic at the seemingly changing layout of the vaults – unable to find the corridor that leads to the stairs that take them up to the exit, the group are maintaining a position & trying not to panic. Scenes here with Marlin, Clive trying to learn more about the vaults from Peebles, thinking other entrances, exists, anything useful they can discern whilst Peebles relays stories of odd things happening too frequently once the vaults were opened for tours initially, which is why they only allow them very rarely now for special groups. Half remembered stories of rumours of nasty things happening, people going missing, voices being heard etc.
We have a scene here where over the shoulder of Marlin we see another group member watching a doorway, through which they see a person pass.. clearly thinking its one of the group the group member follows through the archway & we follow Clive as he see this and shouts after them. Following the group member who’s wondered off we get a scene of them going down a long straight corridor before seeing the lights down the end start to gutter out, and one after the other they each light starts to gutter out getting closer and closer until they realise whats happening and turn to go back, only to be confronted by a short, firthy man in a hard hat and hi vis, look up at him through another man’s torn face, before a tall double-faced man appears behind and pours a smelting bucket of melted iron over his shoulders. Thus scenes with his grizzly death and discovery by the remaining group.
That group become super defensive and on alert – now experiencing the flickering lights themselves they get their phones ready and look for any defensive implements they can find.
Cutting back to Joe & Greg, Greg is getting increasingly uneasy about Anna having gone off on her own & being stuck here waiting, trying to keep themselves illuminated with their phones each time the lights go. Joe is breaking down a bit at the pain & his situation, so it’s tense.
A large chunk of this is scenes where Greg sees & hears things in the corridors that he think might be Anne, so he eventually leaves Joe to go and look – and as he does so the lights gutter again and Joe has his other foot nailed into the stone floor. In anguish he’s screaming for Greg to come back, which he does but this descends into Greg increasingly losing it and heading off to look down corridors and each time he leaves Joe another appendage is riven into the stone floor during a blackout – to the point where each foot and hand is individually nailed into the floor but at odd angles, breaking one of his arms and legs in the process.
In the final blackout, Greg returns to Joe to find his face torn off but still alive, before he runs screaming down a random corridor, leaving Joe to whatever fate awaits.
Act 3 opens with Peebles’ group still in the same location but in a mess, the lights are going mental and the remaining few people, inc. Clive & Marlin are trying to keep each other calm. As they’re watching down one of the lit corridors we see the lights guttering out again, starting from the far end. Building tension as the darkness draws closer and closer, Clive draws up an iron pole that was lying on the ground and stands to one side of the doorway ready to swing.. in the silence we hear the sound of approaching footsteps and as the final lights drop out Clive swings just as Anne appears from the mouth of the dark tunnel, and strikes Anne square in the face at full pelt.
As her body hits the ground the 3 twice-faced men appear in the darkness behind it & the group bolts in panic but not before the last un-named member is gruesomely dispatched in some fashion.
The lights go out, and stay out.
A fumble in the darkness and a spark of illumination light up Greg’s face. He swings it around so we get to see what he sees, only that illuminated by his phone torch. Cue classic scary sequence where he finds himself in a long wide vault and realises that its dripping slowly on his clothes.. As he continues down the vault he gets a sting on his hand which we realise, after a few more, is actually the moisture that’s dripping onto him.. it must be acidic. Checking out his clothes he discovers little holes burning through from the drips here and there.. He starts running in panic down the vault, and as the far wall hoves into view, we see it doesn’t have a doorway.. his hands and head are starting to get burns now from the drips and in vain he looks for any shelter from it before starting to run back the way he came in order to get out.. Its getting worse and worse and his exposed hand holding the phone actually has flesh burning in front of him and some of his outer clothes have become tattered as the acid starts to build up.. Panicking he reaches the other end only to reveal another wall with no door way and as he screams and beats the wet walls we see flesh pull away from his hands and during his ‘I’m about to get melted alive’ screaming, we cut back to Peebles.
3 lights illuminating Peebles, Clive and Marlin – each of their phones.
Essentially we get a series of scenes of them moving through tunnels, having also decided to try and follow the power cables in the hope they lead somewhere. Passing certain vaults and doorways the group are treated to a sequence of nerve jangling compositions each time of them shines their torch trough a doorway – they briefly illuminate some glimmer of something that came before. Brutish hunched men at work with grim looking tools.. Cadavers wrapped loosely in bloody sheets, a filthy, toothless, screaming child etc..
As they shone their torch on this last child, it stares right at them and as it does so disappears as one of the lights suddenly flickers back on. They’re no longer in a corridor but instead in the middle of a vaulted room and in the flickering half light we can see they’re surrounded by about 12 men of all sizes, all wearing the torn and riveted in place faces of each of the tour group and the surveyors, all still streaming blood down the filthy, almost green skin of their wearers. All staring at the group, including the one wearing Anna’s face which is such a mess the eyes are obscured.
After we’ve had time to fully appreciate the horror of the people surrounding the three of them, and Peebles has managed to point out the actual entrance to the stairwell that leads up to the exit, behind one of the grim figures, the lights drop out again. The film climaxes with the 3 of them headed for the stairwell doorway and I think probably only Marlin makes it. I reckon Peebles and Clive get messed up, Clive I think has some sort of episode having seen Anne’s face again – albeit on some ghoulish person’s face – having been responsible for her death.
Anyhoo, all up for discussion – there’s a lot of gaps due to time and such, and ultimately there is a whole load of stuff I could go into with the history of the place and the types of people and industry that were in there, but I;ve tried to stick to the major notes here for some semblance of brevity.