“The Image”: David Bowie’s rarely seen first onscreen role was in this short X-rated horror film

By on March 11, 2016

In 1967, David Bowie made his first onscreen appearance in 14-minute short horror film, The Image, which was apparently so graphic, it was the first short film to ever receive an X-rating due to its violent content.

The 14-minute horror film originally screened between two sex films at a London theater.

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Bowie (who had already changed his name from David Jones) was paid around £10 a day to appear in the film, along with Michael Byrne, who plays “The Artist.”

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The film’s director, Michael Armstrong, managed to keep the film offline until recently, who recently spoke with the Wall Street Journal, who made the film available to watch online:

“Whether David had gone in on his own, I don’t know, but he said he felt really strange sitting there on his own, in this cinema with all these guys in their raincoats,” recalls the film’s director, Michael Armstrong, speaking from his flat in central London, a home adorned with posters from a fifty-year career that began with “The Image.”

On occasion, “The Image” surfaces on YouTube, where the 14-minute film is intercepted by the director, something that happened again following news of Bowie’s death on Jan. 10. The David Bowie Archive, which has a master tape and paperwork in storage, granted The Wall Street Journal permission to publish the film.

“It got an X-certificate. I think it was the first short that got an X-certificate. For its violence, which in itself was extraordinary,” says the veteran writer and director, who’d go on to make horror nasties including 1970’s Mark of the Devil, for which vomit bags were dished out to the audience upon admission.

In 1967, at age 20, Bowie had just released his debut album on Deram Records. Armstrong loved the album, but it hadn’t been well-received by the public. It would be the release of “Space Oddity” two years later that put Bowie on the map, and the birth of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust in 1972 that would reserve him a place in musical history.

Armstrong, relaxed on his leather sofa, recalls clicking creatively with Bowie. Armstrong, now 72, described the young Bowie as “very pretty” and “flirtatious” and remembers him doing a wonderful Elvis impersonation.

But he says when the opportunity to make The Image came up it wasn’t, “Oh, he’s perfect for the role. It was really to give him a job.” While Armstrong can’t remember how much Bowie was paid for his part, he believes “it was probably around 10 quid a day.”

At the time, Armstrong, then 22, had just finished training as an actor at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and had written the screenplay for a 30-minute ghost story called “The Image.”

It was picked up by Border Film Productions (London) Ltd, a company which funded new movies, including several directed by Michael Winner such as 1960’s Climb Up The Wall and 1961’s Out of the Shadow.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.