by Steve Habrat
If you’re someone who enjoys entering the sleazy land of blood, guts, and gore, certainly you’ve heard of the West German film Mark of the Devil, a film that was advertised as “positively the most horrifying film ever made.” Released in 1970 to cash in on the success of the 1968 Vincent Price classic Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil never even comes close to living up to its famous tagline. No, in fact there is barely a scare to be found in this stomach-churning tale of the European “witch-hunts” in the 18th century. Mark of the Devil does however live up to its reputation of being extremely violent, with prolonged scenes of torture that will make every grindhouse cinema fan beam. One would hope it would live up to its gory reputation, as Mark of the Devil is the only film to be (hilariously) rated “V” for violence (Personally, I think an X-rating is still more hardcore than a V-rating). A gimmicky rating apparently wasn’t enough, as Mark of the Devil also came with barf bags for the weaker stomached audience members, much like Lucio Fulci’s 1979 gross out Zombie. Despite all these wild taglines and marketing gimmicks, Mark of the Devil really isn’t that strong of a film. Sure the torture scenes are sickening enough, but a minor exploration of religious hypocrisy, a dreary ending, and a captivating performance from young genre-favorite Udo Kier are really the only postives this film has to offer. Well, there is also the famous tongue yanking sequence that will make you yelp.
Set in 18th century Austria, a vicious witch-hunter called Albino (Played by Reggie Nelder) has been abusing his power and terrorizing the small town he has been assigned to. After raping a caravan of nuns, the grand inquisitor Lord Cumberland (Played by Herbet Lom) and his young apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (Played by Udo Kier), come to the town to relieve Albino of his duties. Shortly after their arrival, Christian falls in love with a beautiful girl named Vanessa (Played by Olivera Katarina), who has been accused of being a witch by Albino after she resists his sexual advances. It isn’t long before Lord Cumberland reveals himself to be worse than Albino, who has also continued to terrorize the locals, but after Christian catches his mentor brutally murdering someone, his faith is shaken and he begins trying to break away from Lord Cumberland. As more and more innocent people are accused of witchcraft, Christian begins devising a way to save Vanessa from horrific torture and death. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are plotting to rise up and fight back against Lord Cumerberland and his bloodthirsty gang of witch-hunters.
Throughout Mark of the Devil, there are moments where the film flirts with the gothic flair of an early Hammer Studios production. You wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee emerged from the shadows to consult with Kier, Nelder, or Lom. Unfortunately, director Michael Armstrong never uses the gothic doom to his advantage and instead becomes overly focused on rushing from one torture sequence to another. Sure, they are gruesome enough and I’m sure that at the time, several audience members may have had to put those barf bags to work, but the torture sequences don’t milk any emotion from the viewer. There are a number of secondary characters that are suddenly introduced simply so that they can be stripped of their clothing and whipped, branded, and raped. Trust me, folks, it doesn’t stop there! There is also beheadings, tar and featherings, torture racks, Chinese water torture, people burned at the stake, and even that graphic tongue yanking. The special effects have held up and certainly could run with what we have today, but there were times were the sadism crossed the line into tedious territory.
For hardcore horror fans, it may be worth seeking out Mark of the Devil for some of the familiar faces that drop by to cause bloody mayhem. Kier will easily be the most recognizable face, and probably the most pleasant one (at least for the female viewers) next to Katrina’s. The young Kier certainly does a good job, but there are moments where he seems to be taking the project entirely too seriously. There is really no dramatic break from his mentor and in the final moments, he is asked to become a macho hero in the thick of a hectic mob. Katrina’s role begins to reek of a simple damsel-in-distress, but she puts her all into it. You will also get the sneaking suspicion that Armstrong enjoys showing off her curves. Then there is the vile Nelder and Lom, both of who do a solid job at making you dislike them. Nelder hisses and snarls his way through Albino, a man who just loves stomping through the town’s streets and accusing everyone he sees of being a witch. He is about as nasty as they come and frankly, I would have loved to have seen more from him. Then there is Lom, the impotent grand inquisitor who manages to be worse than Albino. He constantly explains that he is doing the Lord’s work, but his delusions have blinded him to the fact that he is the true monster, one that slips away to terrorize another day.
Mark of the Devil does threaten to explore religious hypocrisy, especially with the character of Lord Cumberland, but this exploration is far from complex and it certainly is never elaborated on. Cumberland claims to be a man of God, but then turns around and murders or rapes anyone who dares challenge him. Some man of God! Yet it becomes increasingly clear that Armstrong isn’t really interested in trying to make the viewer think, he just wants them to cheer along as one-dimensional characters are reduced to quivering bloody pulps. Bursting forth from the sea of blood and filth is a beautiful score conducted by Michael Holm, a soothing tune that could very well have inspired the Riz Ortolani’s hypnotic score for the grindhouse shocker Cannibal Holocaust. You can’t help but think the music was conducted for another film but somehow ended up in here. Overall, on a very basic level, Mark of the Devil is entertaining enough, but too often it is dull, repetitive, or just plain goofy. The poor dubbing alone will keep you giggling and some of the overacting, especially from the background characters, is flat out painful to watch. Mark of the Devil is immensely popular among grindhouse fanatics, but it failed to win this exploitation fan over.
Mark of the Devil is available on DVD.