Camp David

CAMP DAVID MAY 2008: MICHAEL BERRYMAN & SAMSON DE BRIER

By • May 15th, 2008 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

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“THE HILLS HAVE EYES…And an open bar”

It has been my personal experience, having known more than my share of contemporary “Horror Icons” personally, that most of the actors who play monsters in the movies are the kindest of men in private life. Michael Berryman is certainly no exception to this rule; you will be hard pressed to find a nicer human being in our business than Michael, an intelligent and generous man with an informed interest in safeguarding animal rights.

Michael Berryman began his acting career in much the same manner as my friend the late Reggie Nalder (MARK OF THE DEVIL, Hitchcock’s 1956 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, SALEM’S LOT), by allowing casting agents to transform his social disadvantages (i.e. real life physical deformities) into life-long film careers playing sadistic madmen and yes, occasionally monsters.

Michael was born with a rare disease with the clinical name of Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia. This particular disease prevents the development of hair and fingernails which, coupled with a life saving operation of reconstructive skull surgery at the age of six, left him with a rather startling appearance to say the least. Before I recall my personal experiences with Michael at the Chiller Theater convention in New Jersey in 1994, let me elaborate a little on the film that brought him into the exalted realm of “horror icon”

As we look back at that bygone era of Grind house/drive-in films that populated the late sixties and most of the seventies, the name Wes Craven casts a long dark shadow against a landscape illuminated with directors like Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and George Romero.

Wes Craven had taken the drive-in circuit by storm with his first feature, the low budget, inventive, yet decidedly nasty THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, creating a grind house blockbuster in the process. This film did for oral sex what Hitchcock did for showers, but don’t take my word for it, see the film for yourself if your tastes follow this particular path.

Craven’s next outing, the now classic THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) would prove even more successful and much more polished than HOUSE, benefiting from a larger budget and upscale actors. This film, while still low budget and shot in 16mm (a decision not shared by the veteran AIP director of photography Eric Saarinen who begged Craven to let him shoot in 35mm), took full advantage of the hot house environment of a desert location, enhancing the atmosphere of dread and isolation.

The critical and box office success the same year of John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE gave substance to the growing urban myth, strong in American political and class issues, of the inbred primitive that preyed on hapless travelers in the backwoods of America. (Although Wes Craven himself has stated that the film was inspired by a real life cannibal family who preyed on travelers in the previous century in the wilds of Scotland.) Of course H.P. Lovecraft had already taken this territory and made it his own with several horror tales of backwoods folk and their ungodly rituals of evil. The stage was now set for something new to emerge from a blending of three movie genre’s: the western, the horror film and the road movie. The result became THE HILLS HAVE EYES.

Michael Berryman gave an iconic performance as “Pluto” (his character clad entirely in animal skins, while sporting a necklace made of human bones), a mutant cannibal, not to mention killer of dogs and children. He became an instant poster boy for the grind house/torture-porn generation that would follow
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I had met Michael at several of these “memorabilia” conventions in Hollywood, but just in passing, never having the time to have a conversation or really discover what kind of guy he might be behind all the “horror movie trappings” of his career. All of this changed one summer of 1994 when Martine Beswicke and I flew out to sign autographs as well as to do Q&A’s at Kevin Clement’s CHILLER THEATER, located in New Jersey just outside of New York City.

It might help to explain just a little bit about these conventions and how they tend to operate. Typically a hotel or University campus will sponsor such an event, allowing horror and Sci Fi fans to attend these three day conventions, usually held on weekends. The promoters then invite and pay the expenses of actors, writers and directors who have made their names in the field. This allows them the opportunity to promote whatever it is they are currently doing, as well as to make money selling autographs and books to the fans.

At this particular venue the convention guests were quartered at two different motels surrounding the campus where Chiller Theater was being held that weekend. I remember the convention with pleasure because traveling with Martine was like being time- machined back to my high school days and going on a field trip. Martine was at that time like my big sister while still maintaining a European teenage girl’s outlook on life, in others words lets party darling.

Among my fondest memories of Martine at that convention has to be sharing a ride with her and the completely over-the-top horror actor/director known to his countryman as Ze do Caixao, AKA ‘Coffin Joe,’ His real name is Jose Mojica Marin but his friends from Brazil simply call him “Mojica.” His interpreter explained to us how this little man with a beard and top hat, with fifteen inch finger nails, fathered 29 children while making some of the most outrageous horror films ever to come out of any third world country. I wound up giving him the Dracula ring Forrest Ackerman had given me years before, as I finally felt I had met someone who needed it far more than I ever did. Martine did not have a clue just how wild and sadistic his films were, and I felt it was my duty never to show her one of them as she was just not ready for a filmmaker as gonzo as Coffin Joe.

One of the highest moments that she and I had together was also a personal guilty pleasure. Returning to her room after the last day, we emptied the cash box filled to overflowing from three days of non-stop sales of photos and tapes from her films. Having tossed the lot onto the bed, we then rolled around in a sea of five and ten dollar bills like Bonnie and Clyde. After we finally got around to counting it all, she declared in typical Martine fashion “Darling, this calls for many margarita’s, and sweetie I have a heart on so let’s party.” (A note here – Martine always thought of the heart as her personal symbol and had several belt buckles and jewelry in the shape of hearts, hence the reference.)

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4 Responses »

  1. Thanks for the great piece about Samson De Brier.
    Since he left behind so much money, didn’t he make a provision for some of it to be used to publish his journals?

  2. What makes you say when Samson died there was 5 million dollars? How would you know this? Where is the money?

  3. To answer both questions about SAMSON…I was told about his will by curtis Harrington who knew Samson better than just about anyone in Hollywood as they saw each other regularly. Curtis was also a miser so it took one to know one. His nephew emailed that the sum was less but still well over 2 million.

    As far as the journals who knows if anyone but Samson could ever read them well enough to trascribe his spidery handwriting.

  4. ‘ve put a Video of an interview I did with Samson De Brier in 1995 on YouTube — if you;re interested, take a look.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhb2OTEKWIY

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