The Film: 4/5
The best exploitation movies, the ones that really stick with you long after the end credits roll, often conceal within their hard-coated shell of violence and sex the sweet, nurturing candy of the ugly truth. That's how I see it anyway. Mark of the Devil, infamous for its U.S. marketing campaign that promoted it with the rating "V for Violence" and offered vomit bags to ticket buyers just in case they tossed their cookies, is a film that will leave you burning with fury and aching with sadness. What happens in Mark is still occurring in this nation and throughout the world; it has just taken on an ever-evolving series of alternate forms.
At the turn of the 18th century, an Austrian village lives under the persistent fear of witchcraft and those among them who practice those darkest of arts. Their designated witch finder is Albino (Reggie Nalder), a cruel and lecherous monster who uses his authority to take revenge on the women of the village who reject his sleazy advances. His inability to secure a mounting body count but not a single ironclad confession brings him under the close watch of the village's new lord executioner, the regal Gadshill Cumberland (Herbert Lom) and his apprentice Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier). Upon his arrival prior to Cumberland's, Christian witnesses firsthand Albino abusing his power by falsely accusing local barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Katarina, credited as "Olivera Vuco") of consorting with the Devil after she fights him back for trying to rape her. Albino is none too thrilled about having to answer to Cumberland, but he must resign himself for the time being lest his crimes be exposed. Meanwhile, Christian and Vanessa secretly fall in love even though her free-spirited attitude to living conflicts with his devotion to God and Cumberland. When his mentor reveals himself to be just as corrupt and full of hate as Albino, Christian's faith in his mission from the Lord(s) faces its greatest challenge, and the idealistic crusader must make a choice between love and ridding the world of Satanic evil.
"Positively the most horrifying film ever made", trumpeted Hallmark Releasing's U.S. theatrical release poster. Perhaps it was seen that way at the time it was made and released, but the films that emerged in the late 60's and early 70's were determined to not play around. Mark of the Devil isn't 100% based on fact, but throughout history there have been witch hunts and persecution and prejudice of every conceivable form. Usually they took the form of a self-righteous holy crusade, from the Spanish Inquisition to the current "religious freedom" laws being enacted around the U.S. that allowed private businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians. The people behind these horrific and inhuman assaults on human rights can talk all they want about how their true aim is always to proselytize rather than persecute, but there is always a much darker motive lurking between their hollow pleas for a reconciliation of faith and freedom. You might notice it whenever one of these servants of God passes around the collection plate in church or gives you a toll-free number or website where you can also make donations.
Mark of the Devil makes it clear from the start that the men tasked with rooting out and executing those accused of witchcraft, with the exception of Christian, are hardly defenders of the faith. Even Christian doesn't seem to find his inspiration from religion, but rather from the bond he shares with his mentor, the dastardly Lord Cumberland. One of the film's B-plots involves Cumberland putting the squeeze on young Baron Daumer (Michael Maien), the son of a recently deceased friend of the lord executioner who has been suspected of being a sorcerer. Cumberland constantly appeals to Daumer to sign over his inheritance to the Church in exchange for being exonerated of the charges against him. There are other examples of the witch finders' going mad with power, with the slimy creep Albino being the most abhorrent in the way he uses his authority to impose himself sexually on the women of his village. Reggie Nalder, who has played villains for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much) and Tobe Hooper (Salem's Lot), is perfectly cast as the depraved lunatic you will enjoying despising, but he is surpassed in his character's evil by the late, great Herbert Lom (The Dead Zone) as the pathetic hypocrite Cumberland. The lengths these vile bastards go to in order to assert their superiority on the helpless villagers provides Mark of the Devil with its most horrifying scenes.
It's in those scenes where Mark earned its sordid reputation, but director Michael Armstrong (who replaced original helmer Michael Reeves and reportedly battled with producer/co-writer/co-star Adrian Hoven all throughout the production) keeps the blood and gore to a minimum, deploying them when necessary. The most extreme violence is saved for the torture sequences, but even then the blood content is low and Armstrong achieves the intended effect of these scenes through the agonized expressions and screams of his actors, particularly the lovely Gaby Fuchs (The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman). Fuchs' character Deidre von Bergenstein endures so much suffering in Mark of the Devil that in her final scene she can't help but look exhausted and dead inside. The dominating male hierarchy of the Catholic Church and their downright evil treatment of progressive, liberated women is one of the driving themes of this film; both Albino and Cumberland are motivated in their crimes by their fear of women that make them feel sexually inferior. Even when there's substantial evidence in favor of Vanessa's innocence, Cumberland still insists she be imprisoned and made to stand trial. His hatred of women who refuse to submit themselves to him is further illustrated in a chilling third act scene where he forces himself on the wife (Ingeborg Schöner) of a nobleman (Hoven) who were both arrested for the crime of putting on puppet shows. Seriously.
Udo Kier's performance as the decent but perhaps too virtuous (and therefore not very interesting) Christian is a good show despite the production's insistence of using a different actor to dub his voice. His leading lady Olivera Katarina provides the film with a lovely lady who is strong in body and soul and makes for both a spirited heroine and a capable romantic interest for Christian. The supporting cast is rounded off with fine turns from Herbert Fux (Woyzeck) as Cumberland's chief torturer and executioner and Johannes Buzalski (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) as the toadying advocate and accomplish to Albino. The cinematography by Ernst W. Kalinke (Swedish Playgirls) brings life to the authentic Austrian filming locations and Max Mellin's production design. Michael Holm's lush music score has many moments, but its finest has to be the main title theme that is so good it's gladly reused several times during the film. Listening to it for the first time during the opening credits I realized I had actually heard it before at the beginning of the modern exploitation classic Hobo with a Shotgun. I can imagine Riz Ortolani watching Mark of the Devil and getting Holm's lush main theme stuck in his head when he sat down to compose the brilliant theme for Cannibal Holocaust.
According to the booklet included with this release, Mark of the Devil was "digitally restored by Turbine with all work done at DigiSite and Imagion Facilities in Germany". Arrow Video's MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer was created using the original negative as a source, but for a few scenes a dupe negative was required to restore sequences of graphic violence previously removed by censors. This resulted in the occasional inconsistency in the overall presentation. Framed in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the 1080p high-definition transfer is a solid effort only flawed for the reasons already listed. The amount of grain is healthy and consistent, with a vivid color palette and vastly improved texture. English and German soundtracks are presented in 24-bit PCM mono audio. Due to the amount of post-dubbing the film needed, the English track fails to sync properly at times. Plus the voices often sound muffled and the volume level of the music score is inconsistent with the rest of the sound mix, leading to frequent instances of distortion. The German soundtrack, with its cleaner-sounding and dialogue and balanced volume levels, is the superior audio option, and it also offers a more spacious and better synched mix. English subtitles are also provided.
Arrow Video has ported over most of the extra features from Blue Underground's 2004 Region 1 DVD, but replaced that edition's commentary with director Michael Armstrong in favor of a new one exclusive to this release where the director is joined by moderator Calum Waddell. Though Armstrong's comments are a little dry and his recollection of the filming of Mark of the Devil isn't always the sharpest, his interplay with Waddell and the moderator's incisive questions on a variety of relevant topics keeps the track from lapsing into boredom.
From the Blue Underground DVD we have interviews with Udo Kier (11 minutes) and his co-stars Herbert Fux (23 minutes), Gaby Fuchs (10 minutes), and Ingeborg Schöner (9 minutes). The first three are presented in German with English subtitles, while Schöner's interview is in English. In these interviews we are given a great many interesting behind-the-scenes anecdote, with Kier's revelation of a spooky alternate ending filmed by Armstrong but deleted by the producer and now possibly lost forever (it is recreated here partially with stills) offering a sobering reminder of the chaos that went on when the cameras weren't rolling.
Now on to the new stuff, starting with "Mark of the Times" (47 minutes), an excellent High Rising Productions documentary on the "New Wave" of British horror that flooded theaters throughout the 1960's and 70's. Among those interviewed are directors Armstrong and Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid), screenwriter David McGillivray (Frightmare), and film journalist Kim Newman. Fangoria's Michael Gingold takes center stage in "Hallmark of the Devil" (12 minutes), a discussion of Hallmark Releasing and the seedy exploitation classics it was famous for distributing in theaters across the U.S. In "Rated V for Violins" (24 minutes), composer Michael Holm talks in depth about the creation of his beautiful original score for Mark of the Devil. A brief audio interview with the late Herbert Lom (5 minutes) touches primarily upon his involvement with Mark and the conflict between Armstrong and his producer. "Mark of the Devil: Then and Now" (7 minutes) takes a look at the filming locations in Austria today and how they compare to their appearance and condition at the time of production. The disc-based extras conclude with some silent outtakes set to selections from Holm's score (3 minutes), a still gallery, and the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes).
Arrow has also included a reversible cover sleeve featuring the original poster art and a newly commissioned image by British poster artist extraordinaire Graham Humphreys and a collector's booklet that contains a detailed new essay on the production of Mark of the Devil and its censorship history by film lecturer and historian Adrian Smith, an essay on Udo Kier called "Fuck You! I Made 200 Movies!" written by Anthony Nield, an interview with Reggie Nalder conducted by David Del Valle that first appeared in the May/June 1993 issue of Video Watchdog, and information about the video and audio transfer. A DVD copy with a standard-definition presentation of the film is also provided for this edition.
Mark of the Devil wears its exploitation badge with pride, but it also offers a chilling and thought-provoking viewing experience in which its portrayal of self-righteous religious crusades and its corruption and evil manages to resonate even to this day. It's a riveting film with fine performances and a hauntingly melodic soundtrack that Arrow has treated to a terrific Blu-ray release, complete with extensive bonus features and a solid new high-definition transfer.