MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: THE SCREENPLAYS. DEATH MASQUE. (1988)
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Michael Armstrong is creating history by being the first film-maker to publish his entire screenwriting output. With the original uncut screenplays in print for the first time ever and peppered with a mixture of wildly entertaining anecdotes, astounding behind-the-scenes revelations, creative and educational insights and brutal ‘no holds barred’ honesty, these books are guaranteed to provide a completely new kind of reading experience while offering a unique insight into the movie industry. Starting from his first professional screenplay written in 1960 when he was only fifteen and which he subsequently directed in 1968, the books will ultimately encompass a career that has spanned over fifty years. The books will include not only those screenplays which made it onto a cinema screen but, for the first time ever, all those that didn’t- and the reasons why…’
I’m super-excited about this new book of Michael’s. As some of my readers will know, for the past while I’ve had the privilege of reading and reviewing some of Michael Armstrong’s gorgeous script books which are now being made available to the reading public, with the weight of half a century of screenwriting knowledge and know-how and juicy gossip firmly behind them.
Incidentally, anyone looking for a really decent Christmas present for a loved one who’s obsessed with the cinema and related matters, these books would be ideal. Just saying, lol. Not trying to give you the old hard sell or anything.
So far I’ve read the script books for HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, THE IMAGE, THE BLACK PANTHER, GHOST TOWN, A STAR IS DEAD, BEELZEBUB, ESKIMO NELL and now DEATH MASQUE, all of which are for sale on Michael’s website (see above).
Each book comes with a glossy cover, the relevant screenplay in its entirety, a history of that particular screenplay written by Michael himself and also a chapter on the screenwriting style. For anyone interested in screenwriting who wants to learn to do it right, these books would actually make a terrific how-to guide. I’ll tell you one salient fact about each of the ones I’ve read so far.
HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was made into the enjoyably entertaining horror movie of the same name, starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine. It has the distinction of being the only film to star all four of these horror legends together and it has a really cracking storyline as well.
An American writer holes up in a supposedly deserted old English country mansion to win a bet against his agent, the bet being that he can’t speed-write a novel in a certain amount of time. The key phrase here is ‘supposedly deserted…’
Michael’s first movie was a short film called ‘THE IMAGE’ and, as far as I know, it marked the first screen appearance of a certain David Bowie, who later went on to make flicks like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, LABYRINTH and THE HUNGER. The book cover features an old ghostly picture of the now deceased star and the book is certainly a fitting and lovely memento by which to remember him.
THE BLACK PANTHER was the name given to Donald Neilson, the British armed robber, kidnapper and murderer whose abduction of wealthy British teenager Lesley Whittle in 1975 is the subject of Michael’s controversial screenplay of the same name. The 1977 film was even banned for a bit but a change of heart by the British Film Institute saw it taking its rightful place amongst other important British films of the period.
GHOST TOWN is a horror-slash-spoof Western which sees a group of handsome, reckless young outlaws, consisting of two groups of brothers, robbing a bank and then hiding out in a town that they don’t realise has its very own gathering of ghosts…
The moon is full.
The derelict buildings stand
Like towering black tombstones coldly bathed in the moonlight.
The only sounds to break the silence come from the Saloon,
From which lights are now flickering.
A STAR IS DEAD, though it was never made into a film, tells the fictional story of how the management team of notorious punk band The Sex Pistols tried to clean up their grubby image by getting them to star in a family film, a musical version of Alexandre Dumas’ book THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Enough said? ‘Nuff said…!
BEELZEBUB is a fantastic horror story about a haunted or possessed computer which could so easily have been made into a great ‘Eighties horror film, if only circumstances had been different. ESKIMO NELL is a rambunctious sex romp-slash-sexploitation comedy with a terrific cast.
It stars a young and dashingly handsome Michael Armstrong himself, Christopher Timothy before ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, Roy Kinnear who was Verruca Salt’s Dad in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Rosalind Knight from ABOUT A BOY (‘Are you a professional Santa?’) and porn star Mary Millington before she was widely-known.
Some of the lines in ESKIMO NELL are pure comedy gold. Here’s a sample:
‘I can’t do it, Benny, I just can’t do it! I’m just not capable of writing the first all-British pornographic Kung Fu musical western: least of all when three different girls and a drag queen all think they’re going to be playing the same part!’
‘Right then, the opening shot of the film is a big close-up of this bleedin’ great pair of tits…
but do it with integrity…’
‘Acting? Acting? You didn’t tell me I had to act! Listen, I don’t mind getting screwed but I’m not doing any of that acting stuff! What sort of a girl do you take me for?’
‘It’s all terribly wholesome family entertainment, like Hamlet… but nicer.’
‘Yes, but what’s my motivation for having an erection…?’
‘Oooooh, what lovely buns…!’
The superb and undeniably clever DEATH MASQUE is the latest script-book to roll off the presses at Michael’s publishers, PAPER DRAGON PRODUCTIONS. It’s a screenplay about opera, one of the arts about which I’m afraid I know only the old joke:
Kid: Mammy, why is that man threatening that fat woman with a stick?
Mammy: Don’t be ridiculous, dear. Of course he’s not threatening her.
Kid: Then why is she crying…?
I hope, therefore, that Michael will forgive me for glossing over the heavily operatic bits and concentrating as always on the plot and the writing, both of which are again top-notch and a pleasure to read.
The book, by the way, in case I’ve alarmed you with all the opera stuff, can be read just as easily by non-opera buffs such as myself as by experts or aficionados of the art, and there’s a full glossary of references at the back of the book if you want to know the meaning of some of the fancy words.
There’s a lot of fascinating information in there too about Masques, not the masks with which you hide your face but the other kind of Masque, which is defined in the book as:
‘a spectacular court entertainment involving music, dancing, singing, and acting, within an elaborate stage design, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron. They would end with a celebratory dance, led by the monarch and his favourite courtiers.’
There’s a ‘Masque’ in the book, in fact a Masque is pretty much the central feature of the book, so now at least we know what it is. Forewarned is forearmed, isn’t that what they say?
The twisty-turny plot sees two young holiday-makers, Carrie and Tim, finding themselves staying in the fabulous Italian villa of operatic legend Anna Morenzi after they have all their money and passports and airline tickets and stuff pinched by a couple of hitch-hikers. Here’s where they meet their slightly-less-than-gracious hostess:
‘But before anything can be said,
Their attention is directed upwards-
Where, at the top of the grand staircase:
ANNA MORENZI stands;
Resplendent in her shimmering golden dress and diamonds.
Although she may be in her-mid sixties;
Like the youthful beauty of her portrait,
She has remained undiminished by time.’
There’s kind of a Norma-Desmond-from-SUNSET BOULEVARD vibe about the splendiferous but undoubtedly ageing Anna Morenzi. Her household is no less curious than Ms. Desmond’s, consisting as it does of the following:
Miles, her devoted (but definitely not her first!) husband; Edgar, her stunning but much younger lover; George, the sort-of-butler and Miles’s step-brother, who has the misfortune to be wildly in love with Miles; Drake Cauley, a lawyer, and his alcoholic lush of a wifey, Helen.
Now there’s the Americans, Carrie and Tim (Tim’s a would-be actor), also and even the two hitch-hikers, once believed to be thieves, Sean and Dorothy, are all part of the big happy family now as well.
Anna should have more than enough bodies now to participate- whether they want to or not- in her enormous annual deathly ‘Masque’ in honour of her birthday. Although you’d think at her age, wouldn’t you, that she’d be better off not marking the passing of time quite so publicly…!
The screenplay begins most promisingly with a young couple running away, through a forest at night, from something so horrible that they’d prefer to entomb themselves in a crypt with the long-departed rather than stand and face it.
The pace never lets up once after that. As you might have guessed, there are some extremely strange goings-on at Anna Morenzi’s palatial villa, goings-on that can’t all be explained away by Miles’s and Edgar’s sick little game-playing in which they freely admit to indulging:
Edgar: It’s this crazy game we play. I screw his wife so he gets even by murdering me. That way I keep them both happy. At first, it felt kinda strange but now I’ve gotten used to it; it’s kinda fun and I enjoy it.
Tim: You enjoy pretending to be killed? That is seriously weird, pal.
Edgar: No more than all those business guys who go off for weekends where they dress up to play war games and shoot each other with little blobs of paint. What we do’s much more creative… and sexy. Sometimes I even get a hard-on.
Tim: You’re sick, fella.
Edgar: You think so? You should try it sometime.
DEATH MASQUE is intended to be read and enjoyed on three levels: as a mystery thriller (who exactly is Ulrica-ca, the Woman In Black, and what does she want?), as a comedy and, finally, as a social allegory. Me, my low-brow mind goes straight for the smut as always. I’ll leave you with my two favourite quotes from the screenplay, the first of which is spoken by the great and glorious Anna Morenzi herself:
‘Always give the audience what it wants. Lots of T. & A. Never fails, dear: ‘Tits & Art.’ If they don’t like the show, at least give ’em something to drool over. Helps keep the snoring down.’
I love it. This last one then is uttered by Tim, who has big dreams of being a Hollywood actor but you just know that a career as a bus-boy is all that beckons:
‘My God! He’s screwing his mother! The guy’s actually screwing his own goddamn mother… in the grass!’
A man who would screw his own mother in the grass- in the grass, mark you- is not fit to consort with decent civilised people. ‘Nuff said? I think so.
Michael Armstrong’s script-books are available from retailers, Amazon and direct online at:
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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