Monday, 27 November 2017

Review #1,269: 'Mark Of The Devil' (1970)

Michael Reeves' horror classic Witchfinder General made an impressive turnaround at the box-office in spite of its modest budget. Following the witch-hunting exploits of Matthew Hopkins in 17th century England, the movie was disturbing, gruesome, and neatly disguised as a history lesson in an attempt to dodge the censors. The success of Witchfinder naturally led to more witch-trial horror films, most famously being Ken Russell's The Devils, although he denies he was inspired by a film he called "nauseous." It was a big hit in Germany, and their own stab at the folk horror sub-genre came in the form of Michael Armstrong's Mark of the Devil. Using clever marketing (posters warned of a V for Violence certificate and theatres handed out vomit bags to the audience), it was a runaway success, although it has spent the past few decades caught up in the video nasty storm and hacked to pieces in the editing room.

In a small town in early 18th-century Austria, residents are routinely treated to public executions of those accused of dabbling in the dark arts. In charge of finding the witches hiding in their midst and torturing them to confess is Albino (Reggie Nalder), an ugly man who accuses any unfortunate young woman who spurns his advances of performing witchcraft. Albino enjoys and abuses his position of power, until the dashing Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) arrives in town, quickly catching the eye of beautiful, buxom barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Katarina). He is there to announce that famed and highly-respected witch hunger Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) will soon be joining him to put an end to the folly carried out by Albino and his cronies. But when Vanessa stands accused of false charges of baring the 'mark of the devil', the Count starts to question his master's methods and motivations, as well as that of the Church.

Mark of the Devil is one of those few horror movies that actually lives up to its reputation. While it certainly isn't the most horrifying film ever made and won't upset your stomach (as the poster claims), it revels in the many scenes of torture and death. Joints are ripped from sockets, digits are squashed, a tongue is removed, and many are burned alive, and almost every torture device imaginable is employed. These scenes initially have the desired effect, but the narrative quickly falls into a repetitive cycle of violence and badly handled love scenes between the Count and Vanessa frolicking on the grass, made all the worse by some atrocious dubbing. It does make a legitimate point however, and points a finger at the hypocrisy of an institution who torture and murder 'by the book' while looking down on the likes of Albino for doing the same for sexual gratification. It would be difficult to admit to 'liking' Mark of the Devil, but it sits as one of the more intriguing entries into the short-lived sub-genre.

Directed by: Michael Armstrong
Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux
Country: West Germany

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

Mark of the Devil (1970) on IMDb

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