Tuesday, April 7, 2015

MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) Blu-ray Review

Mark of the Devil (1970) d. Michael Armstrong (West Germany)

In a small rural township, fear and hatred spread as accusations of witchcraft and devilry fly like so many sparks from a raging bonfire. Of course, any place where Justice wears a face such as that of the wicked Albino (Reggie Nalder), any citizen one might fear for his/her soul. However, upon the arrival of Lord Cumberland’s attach├ęs, in the persons of Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) and Jeff Wilkens (Herbert Fux), it seems that sanity may reign once again when they rescue the beautiful Vanessa (Olivera Vuco) from Albino’s cruel and unlawful clutches. Christian and Vanessa share a brief romance, only to have their love crushed under the unwavering foot of Cumberland (Herbert Lom). Seems our all-powerful witchfinder has a problem with the ladies, or rather with his limp willy’s lack of response to them, and is prepared to stretch, bleed, and burn every last buxon lass in recompense. Will Christian be able to stand up to him without being called a servant of Satan himself?

In the wake of Michael Reeves’ devastating 1968 feature Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), director Michael Armstrong and Austrian producer Adrian Hoven quickly cobbled together a similar scenario, populated it with an international cast, and bumped up the exploitation element by about 50. Less a thoughtful condemnation of historical injustice, Armstrong focused long and hard on the dark side of human nature, lingering upon the bloodletting and victims’ suffering with an undeniably prurient gaze – is it any wonder that Mark of the Devil became an enormous box office hit?

While subsequent filmmakers tackled the same subject matter – including Ken Russell’s The Devils and Otakar Vavra’s Witches’ Hammer – the focus was on the dark hearts of man and the corruption of justice. For Armstrong and Hoven, the agonized screams and torn flesh of lovely, innocent women was the order of the day, and for this reason that Mark of the Devil continues to be held in lesser esteem than its loftier brethren. Of course, the fact that it’s a technical train wreck doesn’t help matters, in particular the editing (I won’t hold credited Siegrun Jagen entirely responsible – the great whacking thuds and shifts smack of post-post-production interference) and the slipshod dubbing.

But the lashings of flesh and blood, not to mention a brilliant marketing campaign complete with an invented “V for Violence” rating and accompanying vomit bags (yep, I’ve got one!), kept distributor Hallmark Releasing in the black for years, thanks to extended runs and return engagements. Ernst K. Kalinke’s cinematography also merits mention, as does Michael Holm’s haunting musical theme (which is uncomfortably similar to Riz Ortolani’s famous melody from Cannibal Holocaust; it’s a little surprising that the Italian composer wasn’t held up to a bit more scrutiny considering that the two are almost identical and Holm’s hit screens a decade earlier).

Performance-wise, there’s nothing revolutionary to report, but everyone acquits themselves without embarrassment. Lom is sturdy and reserved as the corrupt official, though he peels back layers of his officious veneer to show the insecure and petty man beneath. Kier’s voice is dubbed, sadly, a curious choice considering his natural Teutonic tones would have been completely appropriate to the setting, but his natural odd charisma shines through.

Vuco is undeniably attractive, but her dub job is similarly flattening, and her heightened acting choices only twist the knife. (One more girlish giggle at the opulence of Kier’s domicile and I was going to lose my mind.) Nalder is all sneers and glower, which serve his nasty turn nicely. Producer Hoven shows up in a brief cameo as a tortured nobleman, arrested for putting on a children’s puppet show with his wife (Ingeborg Schoner). And then there’s poster girl Gaby Fuchs, who endures the most onscreen suffering as a wrongly accused witch – skewered, stretched, prodded, poked, branded, de-tongued, and ultimately incinerated, all for your viewing pleasure.

Extras-wise, Arrow delivers a bountiful array of supplements, including an audio commentary track with Armstrong sharing the mike with genre expert Calum Waddell. The engaging banter between the two reveals a number of informative and surprising anecdotes, leaving the viewer with a slightly higher estimation of this trash classic. The disc’s assortment of interviews are a mixed bag indeed: composer Holm chats for about 20-odd minutes, while Kier, Fux, Fuchs, and Schoner each get about half that, with Lom afforded a mere four via a vintage radio spot. Since there is precious little overlap in stories, one wishes that perhaps the individual pieces could have been edited into a cohesive whole.

Waddell's 45-minute doc “Mark of the Times: The New Wave of British Bloodshed” celebrates the early ’70s heyday of young English horror directors such as Reeves, Norman J. Warren, and Pete Walker, and “Hallmark of the Devil” has Fangoria managing editor and all-around good guy Michael Gingold lifting the curtain on Hallmark Releasing, showing how the film’s success led to the partial funding of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, another shocking and depraved drive-in classic. “Mark of the Devil: Now and Then” is only mildly interesting, comparing the 1970 locations to their modern day setting, and a few outtakes and photo gallery round out the lot. The packaging features new artwork from Graham Humphreys, and the illustrated collector’s booklet features new essays from Adrian Smith and Anthony Nield, as well as David del Valle’s interview with Nalder.

Mark of the Devil is available now from MVD Entertainment and can be ordered HERE.


--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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