Blu-ray Review: Mark of the Devil

Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Vuco
Director: Michael Armstrong
Rating: 8/10

As has often been pointed out, it’s not at all easy to say where and when Mark of the Devil (1970) is set. All we really know is that it’s some little town where Tyrolean fashions and low-cut bodices are all the rage, where everyone is dubbed and where if you’re a fit bird the chances are you’ll be catching the eye of the local witch hunter, a ferret-faced bloke who goes by the name of Albino (Reggie Nalder). Heaving her bosom more than most is Vanessa (Olivera Vuco), a comely tavern wench. Inevitably she stirs Albino’s lustful interest, but she finds a temporary protector in the handsome form of Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier), assistant to Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), the great witch hunter who is due to arrive at any moment. Hopefully Lord Cumberland will clear her name. Will he ever!

The script is at pains to draw a distinction between Christian, who hunts witches because he thinks it’s his, er, Christian duty, and Albino, who does it for kicks. As for Cumberland, we quickly discover (and how it is that Christian hasn’t?) that he’s running a racket. Diedre (Gaby Fuchs), who gets the brunt of the torturer’s attentions during the movie – yes, that girl, the one who has her tongue ripped out – is simply a poor, innocent nun who has only been accused because a bishop has gotten her in the family way and it has fallen to the witch hunters to hush up the scandal. Similarly, a young baron who has his bottom shoved on a bed of nails is only suffering this indignity because the church is eager to swell its coffers with his inheritance.

No doubt this sort of thing did so on, but it’s hard to take the film seriously as a hard-hitting exposé because the plot has so obviously been cobbled together on the back of an Austrian beer matt. And yet Mark of the Devil achieves its own kind of crude vitality. The movie teems with the sort of feral, grotesque characters who would be right at home in a spaghetti western, especially the splendid Albino and Herbert Fux’s Jeff Wilkens, executioner, torturer and deliverer of sinister leers. The trial scenes apparently drew on contemporary documents for some convincingly cracked-sounded allegations and testimonies. Visually, the film consistently holds your attention. The cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke employs extreme angles and looming close-ups, tilting the camera 360 degrees during a stylized rape scene. The use of locations in and around Salzburg and Lower Austria (with priceless antiques in situ) gives the film a rich texture than draws you in almost against your better judgement, and the same goes for the torture scenes, which benefit from all kinds of authentic-looking contraptions that were apparently lying around on set just begging to be put to use. Even the rather choppy editing works to the film’s advantage, giving it a roughness which feels like sincerity.

Fans will be delighted with the HD transfer. The film stock is very much of its time but, bar a scattering of grain here and there, it has buffed up to be impressively bright and gaudy. Reggie Nalder looks amazing, his red tunic clashing violently with his chorizo-brown skin tones. When Christian goes for a walk beside the river, his azure trousers are almost blinding. The scene where Lord Cumberland’s coach arrives at the castle is beautifully clear and fresh, as are many other shots throughout.

Another piece of extremely good news is the presence of the German audio. It’s a definite improvement over the English version. Although everyone still looks as if they’re dubbed, it’s altogether less jarring, with much better voice acting, and the script seems that little bit more subtle and intelligent too.

The Blu-ray comes with a whole mass of extras. There’s a 47-minute documentary looking at the New Wave of British horror films of the ’70s, With contributions from Norman J. Warren, Michael Armstrong and others, and with a good section on Peter Walker, it’s a very welcome introduction to an era that’s still comparatively neglected.

We also get a 12-minute piece on Hallmark Releasing, the movie’s US distributor, early purveyors of bad taste who specialised in confrontational material and flashy publicity gimmicks – audiences for Mark of the Devil were given sick-bags that have now become collector’s items. There’s a 7-minute featurette revisiting the movie’s Austrian locations, and a 24-minute interview with the film’s composer, Michael Holm, a charmingly camp character who gives his honest opinion of his own score and also goes on to tell some anecdotes which will be of great interest to aficionados of the German pop scene in the 1960s.

The shooting of Mark of the Devil was an unhappy experience for director Michael Armstrong, who was removed from the picture and replaced by producer Adrian Hoven (who also appears on screen as the ill-fated puppet guy). The remaining extras are fascinating for the differing accounts they offer as to how, why and when this happened. In a 10-minute interview, Udo Kier intimates that Hoven didn’t care for some of Armstrong’s ideas or for his slowness in making decisions. Gaby Fuchs says that the scene where her tongue was ripped out (using a calf’s tongue, none too fresh) was directed by Hoven, and a behind the scenes photo would seem to support that. During the course of a 23-minute interview, Herbert Fux – who seems very well informed – suggests that it was less a personality clash with Hoven than a loss of faith on the part of the production company, and then when Hoven took over (about a third of the way into the shooting schedule, according to Fux) he did his best to keep to the style that Armstrong had established. (He also claims that the big metal pliers, etc, that they used for the torturing scenes were authentic originals that happened to be in the castle where they filmed, and that the sword he wields to lop off a few heads had actually been employed in real executions.)

Michael Armstrong’s audio commentary paints a picture of an immediate clash with Hoven, who didn’t want to make the film in the first place, and he blames Hoven for the lack of a distinct period setting and the peculiar mix of British and Germanic names in the cast list which has caused much scratching of heads ever since. He also states that he shot the majority of the movie himself, with Hoven’s contribution being limited to post-production and some second unit and assistant director work. Sorry if you were hoping for a clear, definitive account of what went on, but at least there’s plenty more ammo here to keep the argument running and running.