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Mark of the Devil (1970)

Mark of the Devil (1970)

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.

Mark of the Devil (1970)

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.

Grade: D+

Mark of the Devil is available on DVD.

Attack of the Remakes! Halloween (2007)

by Steve Habrat

I think everyone remembers where they were when they learned that there was going to be a remake of John Carpenter’s 1978 flawless horror classic Halloween. I remember I was at my best friends house playing around on his laptop when we happened upon the news. We were in shock, unable to process the fact that there was going to be a remake of one of the scariest films of all time. While half not surprised that Hollywood was going to tinker with a great thing, it still made me sick to my stomach because I figured they would hand the film over to some John Doe director who would screw it up royally. My anger turned to intrigue when I learned that the film was being written, produced, and directed by shock rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie. Rob Zombie! While I was a fan of the 2005 splatter flick The Devil’s Rejects, I was so-so with his day-glow Texas Chain Saw Massacre wannabe House of 1000 Corpses. Well, opening weekend came and me and my chums piled into a car and headed to the local theater to check out Zombie’s remake and I must say, we were all fairly impressed with what we saw. Just as nasty, mean, and brutal as I figured it would be, Zombie’s Halloween was actually a surprisingly eerie slasher film that was equally parts new and familiar at the same time, striking just the right balance. It also helps that Zombie populated his dingy remake with a slew of familiar B-horror faces that would make most gore hounds grin from ear to ear. But the most astonishing thing of all remains the fact that the film isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Whew!

Halloween 2007 introduces us to young Michael Myers (Played by Daeg Faerch), a ruthlessly bullied boy who already suffers from deranged tendencies. Michael shacks up with his stripper mother Deborah (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), her deadbeat boyfriend Ronnie (Played by William Forsythe), his older sister Judith (Played by Hanna R. Hall), and his baby sister, only finding affection from his loving mother. On Halloween night, Michael finally snaps from his relentless torment and brutally murders a school bully, Ronnie, Judith, and Judith’s boyfriend Steve. With no recollection of the murders, Michael is taken into custody and sent to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium where is put under the care of kindly Dr. Samuel Loomis (Played by Malcolm McDowell). As the years pass, Michael becomes more and more fixated on papier-mâché masks that he makes in his cell. Dr. Loomis begins to suspect that Michael uses the masks to hide from both himself and the world. Fifteen years pass and Michael (Played by Tyler Mane), now a hulking adult, has stopped speaking to everyone. On the night before Halloween, Michael escapes from his cell and begins making his way back to Haddonfield to find his baby sister, now named Laurie Strode (Played by Scout-Taylor Compton). As Dr. Loomis rushes to contact the authorities, the body count rises as Michael ruthlessly searches for the only person he loves.

The argument has been made that Zombie misunderstood what made the original Halloween such a terrifying experience. It was the fact that we didn’t know anything about Michael or why he is killing anyone who crosses his path. Over the years, he has become known as the “Shape,” the Boogieman walking among us in complete silence. With Halloween 2007, Zombie is forced to dive into Michael’s background and in the process; he explains literally every single aspect of the character. We learn why he wears that legendary mask, what made him snap, that he demonstrated psychotic behavior before he went on his killing spree, and that he is pretty close with that old Dr. Loomis. All of this is complimented with heaping amounts of gore and profane dialogue that does get a bit ludicrous at times. Trust me, I’m no prude but at points you can’t help but picture Zombie hunched over a computer straining to think of the most repulsive dialogue he can. He certainly succeeds. Even though Zombie explains everything, I argue that he had no choice but to explain away the character. What else was he going to do? Hardcore Halloween fans would have grumbled if he would have done a shot for shot remake and thankfully, he didn’t resort to that. I give Zombie credit for daring to try something new with the character and taking a peak behind that legendary mask rather than doing what has already been done. I can certainly say that he does make Halloween his own to an extent because he leaves the ending relatively the same.

The acting of Halloween 2007 ends up being a mixed trick or treat bag of sugary sweets and bitter sours. Sheri Moon Zombie is better at the big-hearted mommy than I ever thought she’d be. She is sort of hit or miss with me but here she proves that she possesses some dramatic depth even if she is forced to spit out cliché lines of dialogue. I really enjoyed her bickering and fighting with Forsythe’s abusive boyfriend Ronnie. He was a real piece of work but he doesn’t stick around long. Faerch is so-so as little Michael, a little too forced but he is creepy when he finally slips into madness. Tyler Mane plays Michael Myers exactly how you would expect him to. He cocks his head from side to side but he stabs, hacks, and slashes just a little more violently than he did in the 1978 original. McDowell was a welcome presence as Dr. Loomis, an interesting choice to play Michael’s psychiatrist. McDowell gives it his all and he comes out with the best performance in the film. Then there is Scout Taylor-Compton as the slightly annoying Laurie Strode, a buttoned up teen with a dark edge according the skulls on her black hoodie. There isn’t really anything that particularly stands out about her and that is precisely her problem. She does prove to audiences that she is a hell of a screamer and her cries of terror could wake the dead. Kristina Klebe and Danielle Harris are on board as Lynda and Annie, Laurie’s friends who lack the fizzy magnetism that they had in the original film but they provide a little eye candy. Brad Dourif is second to McDowell as the skeptical Sheriff Lee Brackett and boy, does he come close to stealing the film from the good doctor. For fans of B-horror, keep a look for cameos from Ken Foree, Udo Kier, Danny Trejo, Clint Howard, Sid Haig, and Sybil Danning, to name a few.

Zombie also makes the wise choice of including the iconic Halloween score, sped up and layered with a few more electronics by Tyler Bates. He adds a few new little synthesizer warbles here and there while paying tribute to the little electronic jolts that Carpenter threw into his film. Zombie applies (unsurprisingly) a grainy and aged look to the film with costumes and sets that are reminiscent of the late 70’s and early 80’s with a gloss of modern caked on. Where the original Halloween sees little to no gore at all throughout its runtime, Zombie brings buckets full of blood and guts to his hillbillies-from-Hell party. I will warn you that the film is exceptionally brutal and grotesque so be prepared and plan accordingly. While I do feel Zombie’s exhausting explanations do take away from some of the horror, I still have to give him credit for staying true to the original film’s story while also daring to add on a fairly engaging prequel. Is the film perfect? Oh no, it certainly isn’t. If someone asked me if I wanted to watch Zombie’s film or Carpenter’s, I’d go with Carpenter’s classic in a heartbeat. Overall, Halloween 2007 could have been much worse but it actually turns out to be a pretty entertaining slasher film with a filthy, razor-sharp edge. I’ll take this ugly beast any day over most other tired and hollow remakes.

Grade: B

Halloween 2007 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

by Steve Habrat

What an idea it was to produce a film about the making of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu while infusing it with a fictional, supernatural side. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a refined vampire drama that miraculously pulls off this incredibly wild and inspired idea. F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece is a film that has carried with it rumors of the occult, largely stemming from Murnau’s producer and production designer Albin Grau, who was also an artist, architect, and occultist. Merhige takes these dark aspects of history and uses them to ask us, “What if Nosferatu was made with a REAL vampire?” But Merhige doesn’t stop here; he then transforms his vampire, Max Schreck, into a difficult and greedy star who pushes Murnau to the brink of madness, madness for perfection in his art. Infinitely better than his visually striking but infuriatingly cryptic debut Begotten, Shadow of the Vampire has all its major components (acting, writing, and direction) in synch, creating a clear, concise vision that we can actually wrap our heads around. It seems that maybe Merhige learned that accessible core meanings have just as big of an impression as petrifying images.

Shadow of the Vampire takes us right onto the set of F.W. Murnau’s (Played by John Malkovich) Nosferatu, an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau and his crew have tweaked Stoker’s story ever so slightly, altering names and places so they can still make the film. He drags his crew to places like Slovakia and Poland for on-location shooting, snapping at any crewmember that dares try to make any suggestions or attempt at slightly altering his vision. As filming in Czechoslovakia commences, Murnau’s loyal producer Albin Grau (Played by Udo Kier) and his photographer Wolfgang Mueller (Played by Ronan Vibert) have to consistently keep the eccentric Murnau grounded in reality. Soon, his “method actor” Max Schreck (Played by Willem DaFoe), who is portraying the vampire Count Orlok in the film, arrives to the shoot in full make-up and consistently in character. Murnau tells his impressed crew that Schreck will only mingle with the crew when filming and that he will always appear in character. It turns out that Schreck is actually a real vampire, one who Murnau has made a sinister deal with. Muranu promises Schreck he can feed on their vampy leading actress Greta Schroder (Played by Catherine McCormack) when they are done filming only if Schreck completes his work on the film. As the shoot unfolds, Schreck becomes increasingly difficult, threatening the entire crew and the outcome of the project.

While Shadow of the Vampire sounds like a horror film, it is actually more of a character drama and is often times surprisingly humorous. There are a few chilling moments, mostly a handful of exchanges between Dafoe’s Schreck and Malkovich’s Murnau and the final fifteen minutes. In fact, I would classify the film as more of a drama rather than a full-blown horror film. Shadow of the Vampire is chock full of must-see performances, particularly Dafoe’s transforming turn as Schreck. Much like Klaus Kinski’s unglamorous turn as Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s faultless 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dafoe makes his vampire a grotesque oddity that is so old he can’t quite recall how he was turned into a vampire. You will be bowled over every time he enters the screen, the highlight moment coming when he snatches a bat out of the air, bites its head off, and then sucks the blood out of it while his eye roll around his skull in ecstasy. Dafoe successfully mutates his character into more of a creature than a man and disappears behind bulging eyes, understated fangs, pasty fake skin, and pointing ears. He really does take on a life of his own.

It may be Dafoe’s show but Malkovich makes damn sure he is remembered long after the credits have rolled. You may emerge talking about Schreck but your conversation will turn to Malkovich’s Murnau. Malkovich makes his determined director out to be pompous and pretentious, demanding but bursting with vision that he can’t quite convey unless he points a camera at something. He is as much a method director as his “star” is a “method actor”, willing to stop at nothing to capture an unmatched realism within his film. He will sacrifice any and all of his crew to achieve this and make something that is remembered for years to come, even running himself into the ground for greatness. Was the real Murnau like this? That is anyone’s guess but it could be said that Murnau did make something that is still popular today, still frightening, and contains one of the greatest performances (Max Schreck’s Count Orlok) ever filmed. Malkovich also gets the film’s best line, coming at the last second of the film.

Compliments should also go to the way Merhige approached the overall look of the film. He mixes German Expressionism, surrealism, black and white, and silent film techniques together to create a consistently alluring piece of cinema. After seeing Begotten, we know that Merhige is a stylish artist, at times getting carried away with the visuals over the story. Here he applies each technique to drive the work forward. He even goes so far to add some footage from the original Nosferatu into Shadow of the Vampire, blending his actors into that specific film. The film could almost double as a film history lesson the way he applies little qualities (gothic atmospheres, use of shadow, intertitles, kaleidoscope images, and even behind-the-scenes Easter eggs) of the genres listed above and it becomes a real treat for cinema fans, allowing them to spot and identify the traits.

All the supporting actors do fine work in Shadow of the Vampire. The best behind Dafoe and Malkovich are Udo Kier’s occultist and producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Over the years, much has been made over the minor occult touches in Murnau’s Nosferatu, specifically the way he used shadows, which were supposed to symbolize the dark side of reality and occult symbols that were stamped on a document that Count Orlok reads. Well, in shadows lie demons, NOSFERATU, the undead, and what if the undead were really used in the making of the 1922 classic? Shadow of the Vampire is a dramatic and entertaining “what if” that is also a great exploration of method acting and dedication to one’s own art. At least Shadow of the Vampire can spark clear conversation over the bewildered head shaking that Begotten lured out of its viewers. There is nothing to fear in Shadow of the Vampire, only much beauty to drink in and delectable performances to savor.

Grade: A-

Shadow of the Vampire is now available on DVD.