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Mark of the Devil (Dual Format Review)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Dual Format BD/DVD
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Michael Armstrong
Herbert Lom
Udo Kier
Olivera Katarina
Reggie Nalder
Herbert Fux
Bottom Line: 
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This West German produced exploitation shocker – “Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält” in German-speaking territories -- was the brainchild of producer and former actor Adrian Hoven, starting life as a flamboyantly gory cash-in on Michael Reeves' classic British folk historical horror "Witchfinder General", bizarrely entitled "The Witch Hunter - Dr Dracula". Young British director Michael Armstrong was contracted to direct the film, but made it a condition of his involvement that he also be allowed to rewrite the entire 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 — was already quite a chaotic production, shot in an authentically furnished medieval castle cum museum, high up in the Austrian mountains. As the film’s self-appointed assistant director and production manager, Hoven was even able to go so far as to shoot and insert into the movie scenes of his own devising, many of them starring himself, which Armstrong refused to have anything to do with and in some cases knew nothing about. The movie was also shot without sound and later dubbed in post-production when Armstrong no longer had control of the outcome, with the idiosyncratic score by former German pop singer Michael Holm -- composer of the ballad “When a Child is Born” (later made into a smash hit when it was covered by Johnny Mathis) – adding yet another oddly jarring yet defining euro-lounge element to this inimitable potpourri, with its out-of-place romantic orchestral cues.

Perhaps it is all this which accounts for the finished article's peculiar euro pudding mix of exploitation silliness and acute socio-political commentary — with Armstrong's focus on abstract themes such as the horror of institutionalised violence bumping up incongruously against Hoven's rather hammy, melodramatic soap-opera approach. The one area in which "Mark Of The Devil" leaves Reeves' film standing is in its graphic depiction of violence, which is certainly far more explicit than anything which had been seen up to that point — with burnings, brandings, eye-gouging, rack-stretching and spiking --  outside of Armstrong's own oeuvre, particularly thanks to its most infamous scene, in which an accused woman has her tongue pulled out with a pair of tongs! This led to a great marketing campaign in the States, concocted by Hallmark Releasing, that included vomit bags being handed out to cinema punters, and a poster campaign which rated the film a 'V' for violence! So successful was Hallmark’s campaign that they approached Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” in a similar fashion, thereby changing the face of American horror. Luckily this weird brew of approaches resulted in a film which, although nowhere near as effective as "Witchfinder General", is always involving and extremely entertaining.

Set somewhere in a non-specified mid-European location in the early-eighteenth century, the film begins with facially scarred, evil looking self-appointed local witchfinder Albino (Reggie Nalder) busy running riot with his public witch burning spectacles in a small, picturesque mountain 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 still rules for witchfinders, apparently!) and simply arrests and tortures anyone he feels like abusing at the time, using his position of authority as a pretext for indulging his sadistic rapin’ & pillagin’ 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), in the company of the court executioner (Herbert Fux). Christian is a trainee witchfinder and an assistant to Cumberland, so the village peasants feel sure that this revered representative of state authority will soon put paid to Albino's unsanctioned reign of terror.

Christian does manage to stop Albino raping local barmaid Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Katarina), and the two begin to fall in love with each other against a “Sound of Music” backdrop of sparkling mountain lakes and snow-capped mountains, just before Count Cumberland and his entourage at last turn up. Albino is not about to let his position as local witchfinder be jeopardised so easily though, and as Christian and Cumberland begin reviewing his somewhat dubious practices Albino has Vanessa arrested and imprisoned in an act of callous revenge. When Vanessa is finally brought before Cumberland, the Count is quick to pronounce her a witch and Christian, at first numbly accepting of the vicious practises lurking behind the greed and corruption of the Church, 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 he sets out to free Vanessa and as many other prisoners as he can. But, as the villagers rise up against their oppressors, there is an ironic twist waiting in store for the young apprentice!

Filmed against the idyllic backdrop of a lusciously forested Austrian countryside, and with a sweeping score which ranges from wildly inappropriate romantic themes to a more sonorous western-style marching piece or a doom-laden motif that's played on a skittering, scrapping gypsy viola  "Mark of The Devil" manages to capture the spirit and contradictions of euro-exploitation at its best. There is bad dubbing in ample abundance, and a very dodgy script which requires the cast to deliver some real howlers, but most of said cast also give some wonderfully full-on performances, with Armstrong's script also bringing a measure of emotional depth to the film through its exploration of the triangle relationship between Udo Kier's idealistic character Christian, his corrupt boss Count Cumberland (played magnificently by Herbert Lom), and the nature-loving tavern maid Vanessa. Kier is a naive and idealistic young man, yet also a true believer who thinks that the witch trials and impromptu torturings must be necessary (although he takes no pleasure in the vile practices that inevitably result, his bland acceptance of them are in some ways even more disturbing than the sadistic pleasures of Albino) since that is what the institution of the church apparently teaches must be done.

But Christian is torn between the rule-bound inhumanity which has taken root in Church doctrine and the anti-authoritarian earthiness embodied in the field-frolicking buxom charms of Vanessa. The Count's austere front of disinterested professionalism meanwhile turns out simply to be a mask for his inner depravity: while Albino merely practices a localised form of violence against the population, with his sexual abuse and mutilation being carried out on a whim, the state machinery under control of the Count turns persecution and superstition into a money-making industry -- its torture dungeons filled to brimming with thumb screws, branding irons and all manner of horrific devices used for extracting confessions. The two men are obviously meant to symbolise the tendency of religious institutions to start out with the best of intentions but to eventually slide towards corruption: Kier is the doe-eyed apprentice — just starting out on the witchfinder 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 not only to steal money for the Church, but to satiate perverted sexual needs which have grown out of his secret impotence. The two have a father/son relationship (with a hint of incestuous homo eroticism behind it that was far more pronounced in Armstrong’s original script), 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 strutting red-coated evil local witchfinder, Albino -- happily making no bones about the true, nasty reasons for his crusade, and not even bothering to draw up the indictments before he lets loose with the pricking fork!

Besides the interesting 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 finds herself stretched on the rack, has the thumb screws applied and is horrifically branded and mutilated before ending up with her tongue ripped out … only to finally be burned alive on a raging bonfire. Other tortures include a spiked chair bestowed upon the derriere of a rich Baron (Michael Maien) with the aim of getting him to give up his inheritance to the Church, and a fair dose of whipping and stabbing. Disturbingly, most of the torture devices that are seen being used in the movie were authentic museum pieces taken straight from the dungeon collection at the castle Moosham: the twelfth century building on the outskirts of Salzburg in which most of the movie was shot. Also known as Witch’s Castle because of its association with the persecutions of the late 17th century, it also provided all the pre-furnished interiors which, with their heavy adornment of carved religious icons, period paintings and intricately carved sculptures, help to give the film its uniquely convincing, baroquely embroidered sense of place. The only inauthentic torture scene was one involving Chinese water torture added to the film by Adrian Hoven. Hoven also filmed some scenes involving his own infant son and which star Ingeborg Schöner, adding a bit of sentimental soap-opera cheese to the proceedings with a segment in which a well-to-do family who put on a puppet show in their own parlour are accused of performing magic by Cumberland’s coterie of oafish officials. Armstrong’s auteurist proclivities (his heavy use of eye level hand-held cameras amid the castle’s claustrophobic cloisters and corridors; and his insistence on emphasising the theme of voyeurism during the exploitation torture scenes by focusing on those watching as much as those taking part in the practices) clash against the shameless enjoyment of bloodletting and boob-baring that’s evident throughout, but all the best exploitation revels in just this kind of contradiction and hypocrisy, and this is one of the best exploitation flicks of all time -- all the more effective for Armstrong’s intention of having it become something far more profound than Hoven and Hallmark between them could ever have allowed it to be.

In its day “Mark of the Devil” has been one of the most censored films of all time. Its original encounters with Britain’s regulatory body the BBFC in the 1970s resulted in 24 minutes of cuts that rendered it incomprehensible and thus un-releasable. Even re-submissions for previous VHS and DVD releases by Redemption and Anchor Bay resulted in cuts being imposed, although by then they involved seconds rather than minutes. Only now, with Arrow Video’s excellent new extras-packed special edition dual format HD release, does the film finally find itself on UK shelves completely uncut, with all its gaudy tortures fully intact.

 Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the HD master was produced in Germany using the original negative, although previously censored scenes had to be restored from a dupe negative, resulting in a degree of unavoidable inconsistency in the presentation. A choice of English and German mono audio tracks are provided, with an English subtitles option available after you select the German mono audio track from the set-up menu.

Michael Armstrong previously recorded a commentary for Anchor Bay’s DVD release back in 2003 with Jonathan Sothcott, but the one included here is a brand new session moderated by Calum Waddell, which largely manages to avoid covering the same ground again in detail (which means it’s worth holding on to the Anchor Bay disc if you still own it) and instead covers more generalised issues about the filming and reception of the movie, and its subsequent reputation. It’s well worth a listen, with Armstrong still proving himself to be a loquacious and opinionated interviewee.

A theatrical trailer, and three minutes of scored outtakes mostly involving the filming of a beheading from near the end of the film can be accessed from the special features menu (with a cunningly hidden extra forty minutes of silent outtakes available as well if you right click the outtakes option!). There is extensive stills gallery of posters, press books, lobby cards and VHS sleeves to provide historical context, while nearly ninety minutes of filmed interviews with cast and crew add to (and in some cases contradict) the anecdotes that have come out of Michael Armstrong’s insistent claims to have directed the majority of the movie and to be responsible for most of the content.  Udo Kier talks about what this early role meant for a career which has since been dominated by work within the horror genre (10,45); composer Michael Holm gives an honest assessment of his infamous score, discussing what he believed worked and what didn’t (24,19); the late Herbert Fux, villain of German cinema, talks extensively  about his career and working on the film during difficult circumstances caused by the feud between Armstrong and Hoven, in an interview recorded in 2007 not long before his death (23, 06); Gaby Fuchs remembers her memorable role as the topless blonde torture victim, and is amazed all these years later to see hear of the marketing gimmicks developed by Hallmark, such as the free vomit bag handed out with her face emblazoned on it! (10, 26); Ingeborg Schöner fondly recalls working with Herbert Lom and considers the censorship issues raised by the movie’s graphic violence (9,04) while Herbert Lom attempts to recall his involvement in the movie in a four minute audio clip taken from a German interview tape. Also interesting is a seven minute ‘then & now’ gallery of stills comparing the locations in Salzburg and Lower Austria which are used throughout the film, to how they look today. Aside from the preponderance of modern vehicles and street signs, virtually nothing has changed since the late-sixties when the film was shot.

These ample extra features would be enough to satisfy any fan of the movie in of themselves, especially as the HD transfer presents the film looking better than it has ever looked before (as well as uncut for British audiences) -- but Arrow Video have gone the extra mile with this release and included a context setting feature-length documentary, created by High Rising Productions, that looks more widely at the sort of directors and films that came to prominence in Britain during the late-sixties and early-seventies. “Mark of the Times: The New Wave of British Bloodshed” features critics Professor Peter Hutchings (author of ‘Hammer and Beyond’) and Kim Newman discussing the subject of the British filmmakers who followed Hammer when its brand began to show signs of weakness in the early-seventies and who came out of the independent sector that was based in Soho at the time. Directors such as Norman J Warren, Pete Walker and Michael Armstrong, and the screenwriter primarily connected to Walker’s cinema, David McGillivary, discuss the films that came out of this period such as Pete Walker’s gritty, misanthropic terror pictures “House of Whipcord” and Frightmare” and Warren's homage to Dario Argento “Terror”. Armstrong’s “Haunted House of Horror” is mentioned as being a watershed in the depiction of graphic gore on screen and an early anticipation of the later Hollywood slasher movie boom; while “Mark of the Devil” combined a European sensibility with British ‘folk horror’ subject matter and was able to push boundaries much further than any film actually made in England would ever have been allowed to. One-off classics that have had an incalculable influence on future filmmakers, such as “The Wicker Man” and “Death Line”, are also examined. This is an enjoyable in-depth look at one of the most fascinating periods in British Horror, when independent movies still had a chance of giving the majors a run for their money by concentrating on exploitation and strange off-kilter subjects which had the capacity of producing oddball flicks such as “Goodbye Gemini” or “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly”. (47, 37)

Finally, in a mini-featurette, Fangoria journalist Michael Gingold discussed Hallmark Releasing, the US distribution company responsible for coming up with the vomit bag promotional gimmick as a way of drawing attention to “Mark of the Devil” -- and looks at its various marketing ploys down the years, such as selling Mario Bava’s “Bay of Blood” as a sequel to “The Last House on the Left” (12, 12).

The dual disc package includes a full colour booklet in which film lecturer Adrian Smith writes in detail about the film’s UK ratings and distribution woes, Anthony Nield profiles actor Udo Kier, and David Del Valle’s 1993 Video Watchdog interview with cult actor Reggie Nalder is reprinted. The Reversible sleeve option presents a choice of the original poster artwork or a new piece by Graham Humphreys.

“Mark of the Devil” remains one of the most significant exploitation pictures of the 1970s, even though it is rarely mentioned in the same company as “Straw Dogs”, “The Devils” or “A Clockwork Orange”. It arrived on the scene at the same time as these more highly critically regarded movies and was even more belligerently unwilling to compromise in matters of taste and decency than any of its peers, helping to establish the new permissiveness by pushing the limits of acceptability way beyond what could be tolerated at the time, but contributing to the new climate nonetheless by forcing the issue. The fact that it has taken this long for the BBFC’s policy to catch up with it and only now allow this once notorious flick to appear in its uncut form, tells us just how far ahead of his time Armstrong was in his attitude to the depiction of sex and violence -- even if some aspects of the movie have inevitably dated it to a period when its system of financing international co-productions produced some of the most eccentric pieces of work in the cinema of any period. Still, this most complete and comprehensive release is a must-have for cult movie enthusiasts.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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