Camp David


By • Jul 1st, 2006 • Pages: 1 2 3

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MARKED BY THE DEVIL – “Till it’s not true”

This is a cautionary Hollywood tale of a screenwriter/director who fought to stay visible while hustling for projects in a town where failure can gather like a cloud until there are no career choices left at all. At the very beginning of 1985 I received a phone call from my friend and client, actor Reggie Nalder, who informed me that he just confronted one of his former directors at the corner market and it turns out he was living right across the street from me.

Michael Armstrong is best remembered today as the director of MARK OF THE DEVIL, a decidedly infamous film banned in several countries due to extreme violence. When this film arrived stateside it made a fortune on the drive-in circuit with the ever-tasteful gimmick of a vomit bag given to each patron just in case the visuals proved too much. Sadly Reggie’s image was on every one of those bags, a constant reminder of a youthful accident which scarred his face forever, typecasting him to a lifetime of playing villains and monsters.

MARK OF THE DEVIL was filmed in Austria with an international cast headed by Herbert Lom as the witchfinder, a very young Udo Keir as his assistant, not to mention our dear Reggie as Albino, who relishes the torture of innocent maidens in the most appalling ways imaginable.

Since this was Michael’s first film abroad he spent the first day of shooting looking through the wrong end of the camera. By the second week things were in such a state that Adrian Hoven took over the film, relieving Mike of any more embarrassment with a predominantly German crew. Michael’s screenplay was left alone except for two very important details: first, Herbert Lom’s character was to have been a latent homosexual whose desire for Udo Keir makes him torture the young women of the village out of frustration. This was removed by Hoven, which unfortunately took away any real motivation for the lead characters.

Michael had also dreamt up a nightmarish ending where all the dead come to life and rise up at the films conclusion to torment the survivors. This ending was actually filmed and then cut from the final print. The experience would traumatize Michael as he still had not been allowed to finish a film by himself either in London and now abroad.

Michael Armstrong had been in Hollywood a little less than a year when Reggie brought him round to meet me. He had sold all his personal belongings in England and said a momentary farewell to his parents as he made his way to Hollywood to finally justify the hopes and dreams that had evaporated in the changing climate that ended the swinging sixties scene in London, and with it his self esteem.

In the late 60’s he had enjoyed a bit of attention with a small independent company called Tigon, who except for their involvement in Polanski’s REPULSION were known by their output of sex comedies and horror films. Michael had been an early supporter of David Bowie’s career, casting the then-unknown singer in his first screen appearance as “The Boy” in the experimental short THE IMAGE (1967), a study of illusion vs. reality, about an artist who destroys his creation.

Julien Barnes and Jill Hayworth listen to wrtier/director Michael Armstrong during filming of

Michael hoped to star Bowie in his first horror film, then known as THE DARK, however by the time AIP got involved, the pop star role was recast with Frankie Avalon. Neither the film nor the director survived the result, which became THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR. The head of Tigon, Tony Tenser, hired Michael to direct his dream project and then allowed the American distributors to recut the film and add scenes rendering the finished product unwatchable. One should mention that Michael’s original screenplay was quite avant-garde, with a strong sub-text of homosexuality involving the Bowie character, so chances are this would not have gotten by Tenser in any case.

In just the last couple of years, a boxed set of Tigon horror films was released in the UK with an audio commentary from Michael, who gloomily sat through the film explaining that perhaps three scenes remained that were actually directed by him.

Michael was a riot, a real funny, charming guy as I got to know that personality of his over the course of the next several weeks. Perhaps a bit camp at times, especially after a few drinks, yet it was obvious this fellow had a heart of gold, not to mention bags of talent. Michael was also a man-child who, like Peter Pan, refused to grow up. He was terribly in touch with that inner child of his, but rarely did we ever get to see the man, if he was really there at all.

He was very bright and well read in the classics, adored Opera, especially Puccini and Wagner. Michael loved to create miniature theater sets that he made in great detail by hand. He made me a three-act recreation of the Edward Gorey “Dracula” which I have to this day.

One of the things that bonded Mike and I at once was the connection to ‘Films and Filming’ magazine. Mike had written for it early on, creating a very close and personal relationship with then-Editor Robin Bean. I, on the other hand, came on after Robbie had left, with John Russell Taylor, the art and film critic from The London Times, taking charge as Editor in 1979.

Now one must explain just what was going on with ‘Films and Filming’ under Robin’s Editorship, which represented the magazine at its peak in popularity. Originally ‘Films and Filming’ was highly regarded as a serious film journal, with such respected critics as Raymond Durgnat or Sheridan Morley turning in essays and reviews with substance and style

Robin Bean saw an opportunity to create within the magazine a gay agenda that was obvious if you looked for it, and believe me the readership looked for it as sales increased with every new issue

Profiles on Warhol films, underground films like PINK NARCISSUS, FORTUNE IN MEN’S EYES – even the ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN became a film about Leonard Whiting’s codpiece. If I could count how many covers were devoted to Helmut Berger, Joe Dallesandro, Alain Delon and especially Udo Keir (who lived with Robbie at different stages of his career). The conga line of pretty boys and studly ingénues seemed never-ending. The scholarly approach quickly went out the window, which does not mean it was any the less a film journal, it just became a bit more like an American Theater and Arts magazine called “After Dark,” which followed the same line of thought in New York.

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