Michael Armstrong, 1970
Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Vučo, Reggie Nalder
In 18th century Austria, a witch hunter known as Albino abuses a local town, going so far as to rape a group of nuns. Due to his misdeeds, Lord Cumberland, the Grand Inquisitor, and his apprentice Count Christian von Meruh, travel to remove Albino from office and take up his witch hunting duties. While they are in town, Christian falls in love with Vanessa, a local girl who was unfortunately accused of witchcraft by Albino after she rejected his advances. Christian is also appalled to learn that Cumberland is even more of a fiend than Albino, using his position to torture and murder innocent people at will. Christian tries to save Vanessa, while the townspeople begin revolting against Cumberland and his sadistic ways.
Originally known as Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, meaning Witches are Tortured to Death, Mark of the Devil was advertised as being the most horrifying, graphic film ever made. It is sleazy, offensive, and nihilistic, but in many ways, Mark of the Devil is a typical ‘70s exploitation film. At times, it is ultra violent, focusing more on a scene where a young woman’s tongue is ripped out out than it does on many of its characters. It also suffers from the same problem as several of the other witch hunting films from the period, such as the superior Witchfinder General, Cry of the Banshee, or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, namely some dull scenes where little happens other than awkward, expository dialogue. The dubbing is awkward, the effects don’t entirely hold up, and there is some questionable acting.
If you’re used to this style of filmmaking and enjoy it or don’t mind it, there are some things about Mark of the Devil that hold up, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as it was when I first saw it in my teens. Herbert Lom (Pink Panther) is well worth watching as the sadistic Cumberland and all Udo Kier fans will want to check out a young, beautiful, and innocent looking Kier a few years before he appeared in Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. The ladies of the cast are lovely, but their acting is not particularly strong with lead Olivera Vučo as the weakest of the bunch.
The graphic nature of the film is a bit overemphasized, either that or I’m just really jaded by violence at this point. The historical context adds a bit of gravity, but it’s hard to get past the film’s reputation and advertising campaign, which included vomit bags in case the film got to be too much for theater-goers. There is rape, murder, and all kinds of torture, so while Mark of the Devil may not be overly shocking to anyone who has seen recent torture porn, it is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
There are a few elements that help this rise above other ‘70s exploitation cinema, such as the lovely cinematography from Ernst Kalinke and the oddly romantic score from Michael Holm. Clearly an attempt to cash in on Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General with Vincent Price, Reeves was allegedly intended to direct this before his early death. Instead, Michael Armstrong (The Image short, The Haunted House of Horror) directed the film, but dealt with interference from producer Adrian Hoven (Kiss Me Monster and several other Jess Franco films). The two allegedly did not get along on set and Hoven had originally hoped to direct and star in the film. Instead, he went along behind Armstrong reshooting and editing certain scenes. A few years later he made a poorly regarded sequel, Mark of the Devil II.
Mark of the Devil comes recommended for all fans of witch hunting and exploitation films. It is available on DVD from Blue Underground, but keep your eyes peeled for an Arrow Blu-ray, which should come out some time in 2014.