This West German produced exploitation shocker was the brain child of producer Adrian Hoven, and started life as a crass cash-in on Michael Reeves' classic "The Witchfinder General" bizarrely entitled "The Witchfinder Dr. Dracula"! British director Michael Armstrong was contracted to direct the film, but made it a condition of his involvement that he be allowed to rewrite the script (and presumably change the awful title), which led to much behind-the-scenes tension between himself and Hoven on what — according to Armstrong's account on this DVD's commentary track — was already quite a chaotic production. Hoven even went so far as to film and insert scenes of his own into the film (which Armstrong refused to have anything to do with) and perhaps it is this which accounts for the finished article's peculiar mix of exploitation and social comment — with Armstrong's focus on abstract themes such as the horror of institutionalised violence bumping up incongruously against Hoven's rather hammy, soap-opera approach. The one area where "Mark Of The Devil" leaves Reeves' film standing is in its depiction of violence: which is certainly far more explicit — with burning, branding, eye gouging and an infamous scene in which a woman has her tongue pulled out with tongs! This led to a great marketing campaign in the states in which vomit bags were handed out to cinema punters, and a poster campaign which rated the film as a 'V' for violence! Luckily this weird brew of approaches works well to make a film which, although nowhere near as effective as "The Witchfinder General", is always involving and extremely entertaining.
Set somewhere in a non-specific European location, the film begins with evil looking, self appointed local witch-finder Albino (Reggie Nalder) busy running riot with public witch-trials in a small village — which according to him, is literally overflowing with Satan's followers. Albino isn't too concerned with the protocols of indictment (Yes! There are rules for witch-finders apparently!) and simply arrests and tortures anyone he feels like, using his position as a pretext for indulging his sadistic impulses. In this climate of fear, the people of the village are more than happy when Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) turns up ahead of his boss, Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom). Christian is a trainee witch-finder and an assistant to Cumberland, so the village people feel sure that this revered representative of state authority will soon put paid to Albino's reign of terror. Christian does manage to stop Albino raping a local barmaid Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Vuco), and the two begin to fall in love with each other just before Count Cumberland turns up. Albino is not about to let his position as local witch-finder be jeopardised so easily though, and as Christian and Cumberland begin reviewing his somewhat dubious practices, Albino has Vanessa arrested and imprisoned. When Vanessa is brought before Cumberland, the Count is quick to pronounce her a witch and Christian begins to question everything he has been previously taught. When he witnesses the Count commit a shocking atrocity, Christian realises that Cumberland is little better than Albino and sets out to free Vanessa and as many other prisoners as he can. But there is an ironic twist in store for the young apprentice!
Filmed against the backdrop of an idyllic looking Austrian countryside and with a lush score which ranges from wildly inappropriate romantic themes to more sonorous pieces, "Mark of The Devil" manages to capture the spirit and contradictions of euro-exploitation at its best. There is bad dubbing in abundance and a very dodgy script which requires the cast to deliver some real howlers, but most of said cast also give some wonderful performances, and Armstrong's script brings some emotional depth to the film by exploring the relationship between Udo Kier's idealistic character Christian, and his corrupt boss Count Cumberland, played by Herbert Lom. Kier is a true believer and thinks that the witch-trials are necessary (although he takes no pleasure in the torture that inevitably results) while the Count's austere front of professionalism is simply a mask for his depravity. The two are obviously meant to symbolise the tendency of religious institutions towards corruption: Kier is the doe-eyed apprentice — just starting out on the witch-finder career-path from a point of fervent religious conviction — while Lom, who was once very similar to Kier's character himself, is now using his position to steal money for the Church, or just to satiate his perverted sexual needs. The two have a father/son relationship, which makes Kier's eventual realisation that everything he has believed thus far is a sham all the more disquieting. Also, Reggie Nalder, who's wizened features had seen him play villains for Hitchcock and Dario Argento in the past, gives a particularly noteworthy performance as the evil local witch-finder Albino -- happily making no bones about the true, nasty reasons for his crusade, and not even bothering drawing up indictments before he lets loose with the thumb screws!
Besides the subtle character portraits, the film gives us plenty of exploitative sex and violence (although it's quite tame by today's standards). Most of the torture is dished out to Gaby Fuch's character who gets stretched on the rack, has the thumb screws applied, is branded, has her tongue ripped out, and is finally burned alive on a bonfire. Other tortures include a spiked chair and a fair dose of whipping. Disturbingly, most of the torture devices used were authentic museum pieces; the only inauthentic scene is one involving Chinese water-torture added to the film by Adrian Hoven. Hoven also filmed some scenes involving his own son which add a bit of sentimental soap-opera cheese to the proceedings.
Although quickly filmed on a low budget, "Mark Of The Devil" is an essential piece of quirky, exploitation sleaze with a social conscious! Anchor Bay UK have given us a brand new widescreen transfer of the film which is a significant improvement over the previous US release by AB. Although that version was advertised at the time as uncut, there were several snips made which, happily, have all been restored for this release. Unfortunately though, AB UK have found themselves at the mercy of the dreaded UK censorship board the BBFC once again, and a total of 31 seconds of cuts have been made to a rape scene and a scene of nude torture on the rack. Annoying I know, but luckily, not overly detrimental to the film, and not even noticeable if you aren't already aware of them. With typical BBFC logic though, some of the cut nude torture scene is still on the trailer for the film which is included on the disc!
Other extras on the disc are a commentary by director Michael Armstrong moderated by Jonothan Sothcott and a short featurette which features an interview with the director. Both cover mostly the same material which includes his feud with Hoven and his memories of working with Lom and Kier, but the featurette condenses the main points into a handy bit-sized chunk. Armstrong seems a jovial enough character and isn't afraid to point out faults with the film; the production seems to have been filled with enough trauma to make the commentary quite an entertaining listen.
"Mark Of The Devil" is a great piece of early seventies euro-horror brought to us from Anchor Bay UK .