How frightening. I’m actually old enough to remember seeing ads for Mark of the Devil in newspapers as a kid and while far too young to see it, wanting to just because of the free vomit bag handed out to viewers. I recall either a cousin or other relative seeing it and showing off their unused bag while they bragged about how violent the film was. Hey, it was after all “RATED V FOR VIOLENCE”… just not by the MPAA. That snazzy bit of marketing was courtesy Hallmark Releasing, the films distributor that packed houses for years during the 70’s and 80’s by retitling all sorts of sleazy to amazing genre movies.
Flash forward maybe a dozen or so years and I finally got to see the movie thanks to a fairly lousy quality VHS tape copy that had a few other horror flicks on it (one of which was Twitch of the Death Nerve, another Hallmark released flick). I certainly didn’t need a vomit bag, but the film’s overall tone and torture scenes did get under my skin (pun intended). Over time, I’d almost forgotten about the film thanks to only seeing it that one time, but thanks to Arrow Video and MVD, here I am back in front of a television with a superior in every way possible Blu-Ray version.
While not as relentlessly gory as more modern horror films, Michael Armstrong’s classic and controversial film is more of a “you are there” trip back in time than a traditional fright flick. Shot in and around Austria, the film’s lush outdoor landscapes are contrasted by the brutal torture segments that won’t have you tossing your cookies at all, but maybe reaching for a pillow to hide behind or stuff in your ears as you avert your eyes from some onscreen nastiness.
While the film takes its inspiration from Witchfinder General, Michael Reeves’ 1968 film (known in the US for ages as The Conqueror Worm), Armstrong amps up the sadistic side of things considerably while making a film that’s undeniably beautiful at times. For all thee horrific poking, racking, burning and other mutilations going on, it’s hard to take your eyes off the actors here from the beautiful to downright ugly. Additionally, despite the grim tone throughout, there are brief idyllic moments that you know will sooner or later be spoiled by the cruelty and insanity of the witch hunters and their evil busywork. Of course, you’re not here to see bucolic splendor in the grass romance novel stuff, so that bit of the film is actually somewhat amusing in a “calm before the storm” manner.
Not that there’s much calm to begin with mind you. We’re introduced to a beautiful but not so lovely in character village where Albino (Reggie Nalder) has been a busy little witchfinder. He’s notorious for raping women, then accusing them of being witches before torturing and killing them in the name of the church. Wonderful. After having some poor innocent man tarred and feathered (after chopping four of his fingers off, naturally!), Albino sets his disgusting sights on raven-haired barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Katarina), who resists his “charms” and is almost a victim herself. Saved just past the nick of time (she’s tortured a bit beforehand) by Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier), the film almost fools you very briefly into thinking the two will have some sort of future together. Except for von Meruh just so happens to be a witchfinder himself… and apprentice to Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) a man just as wrong-headed and evil as Albino, just not as hideous and much better dressed.
Cumberland gets rid of Albino after being insulted by him and sets up shop in the village and for a hot second you almost think things will be better for the ladies in the village. Nope and double nope. Cumberland may be more handsome with his curled ends and snazzy duds, but he’s as morally bankrupt as Albino, set in his ways of accusing innocents and subjecting them to brutality so that the cycle continues when the tortured accuse more innocents. The film tees up its audience nicely and swings a very large and heavy club whenever it can. The numerous torture scenes are tough to watch even today because they don’t flinch away from showing not only the wounds inflicted on victims, but the sheer terror on their faces when certain things happen. That famous tongue removal scene is here and uncut, drawn out to the point where you know it’s coming yet can’t look away. Incredibly what happens afterward to the unfortunate woman is worse, but I’ll let you see that for yourself.
Things do take a slight turn for the better when the townspeople finally get fed up and take matters into their own hands. However, it’s not even much fun watching their revenge take place because they use the tools of the witchfinder’s trade in their bloodlust. Well, there’s a moral in there somewhere, right? Actually, if you’re in the proper mood, humor can be found in the strangest of places. Michael Holm’s score is great throughout, but if you go in expecting moody and grim, the main theme and a few other tunes may make you chuckle at how they sound better suited for a mall elevator circa 1986. There’s an initially shocking but eventually hilarious eye gouging scene with a surprising “pop art” climax that predates the shot Kubrick did in A Clockwork Orange of the murder of the old woman with the phallus statue. Finally, Herbert Lom’s hair is great for some unintentional laughs, as is some of the dubbed dialog in the film.
It’s best to watch this one if its original German cut with English subtitles, as the dubbing is of the era kooky. Then again, given that the film was shot with actors from assorted countries speaking whatever language they spoke natively on set, even the German dubbing can be off a wee bit. Still, the film is very highly effective visually no matter which language you catch it in and the special features do a great job of conveying a moment in horror film history where everything clicked to deliver an unforgettable classic experience. The audio commentary by director Armstrong is solid and quite interesting. The film had a rather intense production and he documents it quite well. Separate interviews with the late Herbert Lom and Udo Kier are here and it’s great to see these two icons one final time before their respective real-life demises. In addition, interviews with Composer Michael Holm, actors Gaby Fuchs, Herbert Fux and Ingeborg Schoner round out the cast and crew bonuses.
Michael Gingold discusses US distributor Hallmark Releasing and their advertising campaigns for Mark of the Devil, Last House on the Left and other genre classics of the 70’s and 80’s. There’s a fantastic documentary on British horror films of the 60’s and onward in the lengthy Mark of the Times feature that should get a longer feature-length version made at some point. Mark of the Devil: Now and Then shows locations from the Austrian shoot and how little the majority of them have changed. If someone wanted to remake the film in the same spots, they’d be off to a good start if they got permission to do such a thing from whomever they needed to contact.
As the review Blu-Ray I got was just that and had no packaging, like a tongueless, falsely accused “witch” I can’t speak a word about the DVD quality, reversible cover art or Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Adrian Smith and Anthony Nield, plus an interview with Reggie Nalder by David Del Valle. As noted in my Day of Anger review, I think it’s a safe bet to say Arrow Video didn’t screw those up at all. As with that film, this director approved restoration of one of the seminal horror experiences of the 70’s is the best version of the film to date. While not for every taste, Mark of the Devil is one of those movies that sinks it hooks into you and stays with you long after it’s over. If you’re feeling brave, this one’s a no-brainer to add to your collection.