In the wake of Saw came a huge surge in the number of “torture” movies. Titles like Hostel and the like really pushed cinematic unpleasantness to all new extremes. The thing is though, this trend was nothing new. Mark of the Devil from 1970 for many years was a by-word in this regard; the original German title roughly translates as “Witches Are Tortured Until they Bleed”. It’s actually best known for the lurid advertising campaign, where every audience member would be given a free vomit bag, which would let them “view the first film rated V for Violent”. The thing is, not only is it a pretty violent film, but it’s understandable that the film is more remembered for that marketing than its actual content.
In Austria in the 18th Century, a town is in the grip of a fearsome set of witch trials. The local finder Albino (Reggie Nalder) is a brutal, sadistic man, and Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) is not happy with the way things are being done. He believes that his mentor, the Church appointed hunter Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), will do a far fairer, and truer work. Christian is only half right though; while Cumberland does establish his own authority well, his brand of justice is only different to Albino’s in its efficiency, it’s still as inhumanly barbarous. When Cumberland’s attention turns to a local girl Vanessa (Olivera Vuco), in more ways than one, Christian can stand by no more.
It should be stated that this really is an incredibly violent film. The first scene has nuns being ambushed and sexually assaulted and it’s all downhill from there. This is actually the first time the film has been released uncut in the UK, with the reinstatement of a scene of a tongue being torn out. In fact, it sort of got Video Nasty status here back in the day (it was one of the films police seized, but not one that was prosecuted against). There is very little story, and quite a lot of torture and death, from a rack, to burning, to the sight of literally lighting a fire under someone’s ass. But it’s definitely not exploitation cinema, the film says so. About eight minutes in there’s a title card that states some “facts” about the time period and that “This motion picture shows three cases taken from authentic documents from the time when witch-hunting had reached its peak…”. It’s the way they try to get around the censorship issues by seriously claiming this is in some way educational that’s hilarious here!
This very gimmicky nature though is the film’s big problem. It’s been no secret that the producer, Adrian Hoven, and director, Michael Armstrong were constantly at loggerheads. Hoven was originally in charge of the whole project, slated to write, direct and star, and even after Armstrong took over, he would do things like film extra scenes without his permission. The actions of the distributors, such as the aforementioned title cards and such didn’t help either. As such, the whole film, as well as having a fairly flimsy story, is all over the place and unfocused on anything bar the torture. The opening of the film says it all, with the most inappropriate music to start a horror movie with ever, sounding more like some sort of seventies travelogue of the German countryside, not one where the locals are being burned at the stake. It’s all a bit of a mess, but it does have some good cinematography and a bit of social satire about the state of the Church at the time (notably one accused of devil worship just so happens to be very wealthy, with a lot of land the church could use…). Performances are hard to judge, given the number of European actors dubbed over, but the only real stand out is Herbert Lom, who is far more dignified than anything else going on here.
The Blu-ray package itself though is very good, as one has come to expect from Arrow films. The film is probably the best it’s ever looked, with a beautiful transfer that far exceeds the old DVD versions. There’s a full commentary by Michael Armstrong, discussing some of the behind the scenes nightmares, a documentary on the distributor Hallmark (who also did The Last House on the Left with its famous “It’s Only a Movie” campaign), a feature length documentary on the wave of British “grindhouse” horror directors of the time and much more. About the only thing it’s missing is a free vomit bag!
Mark of the Devil is an interesting little curiosity of a horror film, only really a footnote in the history of the genre. It’s very obviously an attempt to cash-in on Witchfinder General, only even grimmer. However, this Blu-ray set is recommended, as with the extra features it does show an odd transitional period between eras of horror films and international film-making. It’s worth a look, but it’s only for those of a strong nerve though….
Oh, and as violent as it is, no a vomit bag probably isn’t all that necessary!