Mark of the Devil (1970)
By: Mr Intolerance on April 23, 2009  | 
Blue Underground (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 1.0. 96 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Michael Armstrong
Starring: Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder, Udo Kier, Oliviero Vuco, Herbert Fux, Michael Maien, Ingeborg Shoner, Johannes Buzalski, Gaby Fuchs, Adrian Hoven
Screenplay: Sergio Sasstner
Country: West Germany
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
It's not often that I can claim to possess a fine piece of film memorabilia, but my Mark of the Devil barf-bag will be one thing I would grab if my house was on fire. That's right kids, this is a film that for its time was so grotesque, so outrageously over the top that a) it billed itself as being rated "V" for violence (a nice bit of exploitation marketing right there) and b) audiences were handed barf-bags on the way in to the cinema. I hasten to add that mine, despite being an original, was never previously used.

Movies about the evils of organised religion have always been a favourite of mine, with this film, Witchfinder General and The Devils being particular hits and constant re-watchers. All three fims didn't so much court controversy as practically rape it due to their explicitness and their inflammatory stance towards the Church and the activities it sanctioned, and all three were difficult and problematic productions, often drastically taking their tolls on cast and crew physically, mentally and emotionally. All three also share a gritty black nihilism and ultimately a sense of despair that's hard to shake off once the film has finished. And people think the 70s was all disco, roller-skating and flared trousers...

Shot on location in the sinister castle and environs of Mauterndorf, Mark of the Devil is the tale of the 18th century witch-hunts endemic to Europe at the time, and probably the first film to really show an even vague approximation of the brutality of these church-sanctioned atrocities – even Witchfinder General baulked at some of the excesses on display here, and only Ken Russell's incendiary meisterwerk The Devils tops it in this regard, and also in terms of its outright coruscating blasphemy.

From the outset of the film, with its chintzy rinky-dink oh-so-70s soundtrack and picture-postcard look, you really wouldn't expect this movie to descend to the depths of depravity the way it does. With the idyllic rolling hills and peasants in the fields, it's like a Breughel painting come to life, but even more life-affirming. But you've got to have light to get shade, huh? And that shade starts almost immediately – cue: vista, ooh yes, looks gorgeous, what a picturesque scene, and then cue: the rape and murder of nuns. What?! It's a cheap sucker-punch on the part of the director, but it's an admittedly effective one – you flinch from the word go. Oh, you don't believe me? We cut straight from that disturbing, although thankfully brief and mainly implied, scene to a priest having been accused of sacrilege being bloodily mutilated, tarred and feathered and run out of town before a whole bunch of slack-jawed villagers – they're all quite happy to revel in the suffering of the accused; like Homer Simpson once said in his wisdom: "It's funny 'cos it isn't me." That's one very nasty bone this film picks with you – where do you, as an individual, stand up against the mob and point out the wrongs of their ways? And more to the point – what would they do to you if you did? Coming hard on the heels of the 1960s, Mark of the Devil certainly mines a rich vein of anti-authoritarianism prevalent to the time.

After the gruesome burning of two comely young lasses as witches, following the humiliation of the priest, we get that staple of exploitation cinema – the voiceover telling us that everything we see is based on historical fact. While both you and I know that "based on" is a pretty loose term, we also both know that the things that are spoken of here really did happen – that across Europe for four centuries hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people as claimed here, were executed for heresy and witchcraft. Seem ridiculous in this day and age? Look back 60 years at how folks reacted hysterically to the threat of Communism (after all, that was the obvious metaphor in Arthur Miller's witch-hunt play The Crucible), or say back to the 1930s and the ways in which the Jews were treated under Hitler's regime in Germany, or even how anyone even vaguely Arabic-looking was held in suspicion post 9-11. Society loves a scape-goat.

Anyway, young Christian (Udo Kier) has turned up in town to settle matters pertaining to witch-craft, as an advance party to Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), much to the displeasure of the local witch-finder Albino (Reggie Nalder, who you might remember from his truly terrifying turn as vampire Barlow in Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Salem's Lot). The local folk aren't happy with the way in which justice is being meted out on a village level, but they're equally mistrustful of the arrival of Lord Cumberland – but are any of them willing to do anything about it? Of course not; then they might be convicted of being witches. Can I just state that Reggie Nalder is one creepy looking dude? The poor fella was burnt terribly at a young age, which explains the haggard visage he exhibits, the scars and such, but he gives his role of Albino an absolutely fire-eyed intensity that makes him truly terrifying when coupled with such. It's a force majeure performance – not as gleefully camp as Price's Matthew Hopkins, nor as slippery and insidious as Dudley Sutton's turn as Baron de Laubardemort in The Devils – whereas those two characters were more the brutal mace and the shining poignard respectively, Albino is the caustic acid, a vitriolic, horrid force with no other purpose than to ruin. And he likes it – his zeal in hunting witches doesn't come from any kind of need for justice; it's all about the power it gives him in the town – and he doesn't want Christian, and by extension Cumberland, ruining that for him.

Albino tries to rape lovely young barmaid Vanessa, and when she slashes him a carving knife, claims that she is a witch. He tortures her in public, "searching for the witch's mark", but is stopped by Christian, who's worked out what Albino's game is, and has the hatchet-faced inquisitor publically lashed by Cumberland's executioner Hawkins (Fux, here heroic, later catastrophically villainesque) in the pub. The rest of the villagers fuck off quick smart – let's face facts – you head down to the tavern for a foaming mug of ale, not to be whipped within an inch of your life by a psychotic sadist.

Vanessa stays with Christian at the castle – not in the same room of course, that'd be naughty, and his inherent blindness to the horrors of the system are addressed. He believes Lord Cumberland to be a great man, and has been learning assiduously from him. The problem is that Lord Cumberland is every part the small-minded petit-bourgeois privileged arse-hole you'd expect a man of wealth and power to be in that day and age. His abuse of power is no different to that of Albino's, it's just more legal. Given the context in which the film was made, that'd make Christian like the German soldiers who followed Hitler – not necessarily bad people, but deluded into thinking what they were doing was right, even when it's patently obvious that it is so horribly, horribly wrong – objectivity is not a word these people are familiar with.

Albino's not too keen on Vanessa and Christian's friendship (and fair enough – the scenes of them cavorting in the meadows to the tune of some awful folky fol-de-rol are absolutely nauseating), and as will happen, his sexual jealousy leads him to immediately accuse Vanessa of witch-craft. Of course it's all a nonsense, but it's also legal. She must therefore be put to The Question both ordinary and extraordinary. Vanessa's world view is meant to mirror ours, Christian's that of the 18th century; she's a liberated free spirit, he's a stuck-up and repressed prude who wouldn't know what a good time was if it jumped up and bit him on the nose.

Cumberland arrives and the arbitrary nature of the justice of the day is even more exemplified than it was with Albino's kangaroo-court style activities. I mean, if this guy's method of determining guilt is anything to go by, then it's a sad look out for all and sundry, and if that's meant to represent our own judicial system, then I can't think of a more condemnatory vote of no confidence. Cue: torture scenes – oh, sorry, I meant "interrogation" scenes. And they're certainly quite bloody ones too – but then the Inquisition was never really known for its subtlety. The ludicrous nature of the crimes of which the victims are accused (since when did women being promiscuous lead to impotency amongst males? Would have lead to a good solid hard-on and a queue for their favours, I would've thought. Who didn't try to ride the town bike when they were at high school?) simply highlights the abuse of power, if indeed you hadn't seen it already, in which case you'd have to blind, deaf, dumb and stupid. And what happens to the belongings of the accused when they're found guilty? Surprise, surprise – everything goes to the Church.

After sundry tortures and more exposition about how the Church are a pack of complete arseholes, not to mention more flagrant proof that everything we see happening before us is morally contemptible and driven by power and greed, we come to one of the film's most iconic moments – where a pretty young thing (18 year old Gaby Fuchs) has her tongue torn out by the root. I mean, we've seen the rack, the bastinado, the strappado and a whole bunch of other Inquisition Top 40 hits, but this is really a difficult watch. Remember the bit in Blood Feast where Fuad Ramses tears out the girl's tongue? Well imagine that, but done well and realistically – it's a seminal moment for gore films, and a horrifying reminder of what can happen when the lunatics take over the asylum. Cumberland states, "For those who turn against our saviour, no punishment is sufficient" - and here was me thinking that Jesus was all about sweetness and light – the Old Testament god was a god of wrath, but the New Testament was meant to be a god of love, or so I thought. As for Testament themselves, well, I guess that's up to the individual listener...

Cumberland and Albino face off, Albino claiming that Cumberland is much like himself (true enough), and that they're both after the same ends (again, true) but Cumberland isn't too happy with that particular truth, and let's just say that Albino doesn't walk away from that meeting satisfied. Christian, who's an unwitting party to that conversation, isn't too happy with it either, and Cumberland loses an ally right then and there – and he knows it. This is not going to work well in Christian's favour in the long term, and when Christian sees Cumberland simply torture people for the sake of it ("Torture him harder!"), the scales really do start to fall from Christian's eyes – could the symbolism of his name be any more obvious? It certainly is at the end of the film.

The stupidity and hysteria of the witch-finders really culminates with the persecution of the parents of some small children who claim to know some "magic tricks" - apparently marionette puppetry is the work of the devil, too. Christian and Cumberland clash again – Cumberland knows that it's wrong to prosecute the puppeteers, but has to continue to do so for the sake of not wanting to lose face; the system loses again due to its own inadequacies, in the more enlightened view of the audience.

What this inevitably leads to the question of is: how much will the people take before the pressure exerted on them by authority leads to the pressure-cooker of fear, suspicion and hypocrisy boils over? Something will eventually have to give, and we see it happening tragically on an individual level, and more spectacularly on a larger one. The ending of Mark of the Devil is nowhere near as bleak (although admittedly realistic, given the shortcomings of human nature) as The Devils, but it's certainly no bed of roses for the major players, let me tell you. Following your conscience, either for bad or for good can lead to some terrible circumstances. The thing is, it's that free-will, according to the church's teachings, that make us the greatest of god's creations, if you believe in such things – what Shakespeare referred to as, "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals". Mind you, he also referred to mankind in the same speech as, "this quintessence of dust" - we see evidence of both views here. I guess that's one thing the film definitely shows, the best and the worst, the very and most abject worst of human nature. You pays yer money, and ya takes yer chances, kids. How strong is your courage in your convictions?

The directorial chair was a bit of a hot potato; apparently Michael Reeves, director of Witchfinder General was originally picked for the helm, then it passed before shooting began due to Reeves' death, as credited, to Michael Armstrong, Reeves' assistant on the aforementioned film (he's given sole credit here due to his contract), but was finished ultimately by Adrian Hoven, an actor and producer – the cast are almost unanimous in their support of Armstrong as being the more original and interesting director, but Hoven does receive praise for being efficient and keeping Armstrong's style – which to me is damning with faint praise; it's like when Marty de Burgi praises Spinal Tap as a rock group for their punctuality.

Oh, and for the fans, if you like a bit of metal check out Cathedral's song "Hopkins: Witchfinder General" on the LP The Carnival Bizarre for some samples from this film as well as from the Michael Reeves film it name-checks in the title.
Pretty good, basically, with a few moments that made me wonder if they were taken from alternate prints of the film; the extremely violent bits of the film, basically. Still, given its age, it's quite clear, and with a rich colour palette.
Again, this is generally quite good, although it is dubbed into English, which means that you're distanced a little from the acting. The score is quite intrusive, being often a little inappropriate, or rather overbearing, to the action at hand.
Extra Features
Plenty of them – to begin with, there's an interesting feature length commentary with director Michael Armstrong, then take your pick of interviews: Udo Kier (the least modest man alive, "I think it's my movie...I always thought that my close-ups were the single most attractive thing in the movie" - it's hard to tell if he's being serious or not because when he is being humorous during the interview it's a sense of humour dry to the point of aridity), Herbert Fux (a notable bad guy in German cinema), Gaby Fuchs, and Ingeborg Shoner all get their own two cents worth on screen, and then of course there's the inevitable theatrical trailer, poster and stills gallery and not so inevitable radio spots. The commentary and interviews are worth the price of admission alone – it was interesting to learn about the alternate ending; I'm glad it wasn't used, and I'll hope you'll see why you watch it yourself. And if you haven't seen the film before – DON'T watch the interviews first; spoilers abound.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Mark of the Devil is not an easy film to watch. There are few characters of any real note to sympathise with – they all have either a shocking naivete which causes the audience to groan in disbelief, a blind trust in the system which makes us despise them, or an innate love of cruelty which makes us fear them, and those like them in our own world. The level of violence is high – don't let the Hammer-esque production values fool you; the torture sequences are gritty and nasty, even if not always completely credible in terms of the special effects – it's more the gleeful sadism on the torturer's faces and their disregard for the humanity of their victims that appals, that and the almost constant screaming (it's no Alucarda in that regard, but there's certainly some wailing and gnashing of teeth going on here) create a deadening, downbeat atmosphere emphasised by the complete absence of any kind of justice, as well as an arbitrary system of authority that has only contempt for its lessers. If you like a bit of period piece horror that's got an edge so sharp you could shave with it, Mark of the Devil is for you. The subtextual commentary on the abuse of religious and wordly power was just the icing on this mildewed and fly-blown cake for me. A product of its' time? Certainly, but one that still retains its relevance in terms of themes and issues to this day.

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