Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Mark of the Devil - Review (Frightfest Halloween)

It’s impossible to review Mark of the Devil (1970) without comparing it somewhat unfavourably to Witchfinder General, the 1968 classic starring Vincent Price who delivers his finest screen performance as Matthew Hopkins, the titular hunter of unfortunates suspected or accused of dabbling in the black arts.  The success of the earlier film spawned a short lived trend for copycat movies with Mark of the Devil being the most famous of these along with Jess Franco’s  The Bloody Judge.  (Ken Russell denies that The Devils was in any way inspired by Witchfinder General and famously described the movie as nauseous).

Throughout the 60s the output of studios such as Hammer, Tigon and Amicus had been constantly at odds with the notoriously scissor happy UK censors due to the increasingly lurid nature of their movies.  Perhaps film-makers thought that by “hiding” the violence beneath a transparent veneer of historical and therefore educational value they could avoid becoming victim of the restrictions imposed by the BBFC.  Not a chance.  In the end Mark of the Devil was heavily cut and didn’t see an undefiled release until Intervision issued it during the video boom of the early 80s.  Even that was a short lived victory as the movie was soon withdrawn in 1984 when the Video Recordings Act was introduced in reaction to the tabloid fuelled video nasty controversy.  When Redemption released the movie to video in 1994 it was trimmed of an impressive 4m 27s with the movie having entire scenes ripped from its run-time.  Mark of the Devil’s beleaguered history has a happy ending though with the movie having been submitted earlier this year by Arrow Films and finally being passed entirely uncut by the BBFC on 5th August.  But what about the movie is so contentious that it should have been subjected to such treatment during the decades since it first saw the light of a projector?

Part of the problem no doubt lies with the movie’s predilection for showing torture in as gleefully explicit a fashion as possible.  Witchfinder General featured numerous scenes of sadistic violence (and was shorn of 3 minutes by the censors for its troubles) but Mark of the Devil goes all out to present as many different forms of torture as it can pack into its 96 minute run-time.  The plethora of devices and methods on display were no doubt inspired by the location the film-makers chose to film this often vicious slice of grand guignol; an Austrian castle which had once been the scene of witchfinding interrogations and now functioned as a museum.  Many of the torture implements on display there were utilised by the film-makers and this as much as anything provides an impressive level of authenticity to the brutality on display.  Along with the various witch burnings and beheadings tongues are ripped from heads and bones wrenched from sockets.  Victims are forced to sit on benches of nails and have their fingers mangled with thumbscrews.  The accused are branded, beaten and one poor individual is subjected to excruciating torture by dripping water.  By the end of the movie there can't be many forms of torture employed during the witch trials that haven't been explored.

Although the effectiveness of many of the performances is hampered by some of the most atrocious dubbing I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness I still came away impressed by Udo Kier who is his usual reliable self in the role of the hero, Count Christian von Meruh.  Austro-Hungarian actor Reggie Nalder lets his distinctive features do most of the work and the end result is Albino, one of the most repulsive, irredeemable villains ever to grace a movie.  Herbert Lom does most of the heavy lifting acting wise as high ranking witchfinder Lord Cumberland who is, ultimately, no less a monster than Albino.  He’s just clever enough to hide his aberrant nature and base desires behind a veil of authority and false gentility.  The beautiful Olivera Vuco is also impressive as Vanessa, the object of Christian’s affections and Albino’s lust (oh you lucky girl).

Just as it's impossible not to compare Mark of the Devil to Witchfinder General it is likewise impossible not to mention the inspired marketing campaign that surrounded its release.  A marketing campaign that was likely responsible to a large extent for the success of the movie (it did very good business in the US where, unlike in the UK, it was released to cinemas uncut).  Leading up to its release posters for the movie screamed that is was "positively the most horrifying movie ever made" and stated that it was the first movie to be rated V FOR VIOLENCE.  Punters arriving at cinemas were presented with vomit bags without which they would, according to the poster, not be admitted.  Was it, at the time, the most horrifying movie ever made?  It is pretty grim but lets not forget that Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs) had been throwing body parts and assorted viscera around with wild abandon for 7 years before Mark of the Devil arrived and Romero's game-changing Night Of The Living Dead had arrived in 1968.  Which doesn't detract one bit from the genius of the way in which Mark of the Devil was marketed.

Ultimately this is a movie that mainly functions as a nasty piece of exploitation.  It’s possible that by the time the end credits role you’ll have long since grown weary of the relentless scenes of torture and (more likely) the equally relentless scenes of Christian and Vanessa frolicking in the fields and streams like a couple of teenagers who just discovered love for the first time (it doesn’t help that they seem to fall for each other overnight).  The movie is also hindered by a script that leans drunkenly in the direction of out and out comedy at times and a score that veers from teeth grindingly annoying to reasonably effective.  Another problem is that the lead up to the ending is a bit of a damp squib with a poorly staged peasant uprising that may have read as exciting on the page but translates, complete with poorly organised extras, to tedium on the screen.  In the end what we are left with is a flawed but nonetheless interesting movie that doesn’t come close to the achievements of the film that undoubtedly inspired it but remains quite watchable.  If sometimes for the wrong reasons.



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