Mark of the Devil
Germany / 1970
Directed by Michael Armstrong
Herbert Lom
Udo Kier
Reggie Nalder
Color / 96 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Blue Underground
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Stomach Distress Bags
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    9   10 = Highest Rating  
Mark of the Devil, a German film made to cash in on the success of Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm, 1968), is infamous more for its sensationalistic American promotional campaign than any actual content. How could any movie hope to live up to the claim "Positively the most horrifying film ever made"? The film certainly falls far short of that boast — and I seriously doubt that a single patron ever needed to use one of the free "stomach distress bags" handed out (with much ballyhoo) to ticket buyers. Still, the film is pretty brutal and nihilistic even by modern standards... Mark of the Devil (Hexen Bis Aufs Blut Gequält) is also notable as one of the most successful European horror exports of all time. For that reason alone it should be of keen interest to Euro-Cult fans.
    Rural Austria, early 18th Century: Local witchfinder Albino (skull-faced Reggie Nalder, in his most notorious role) has quite a racket going... Anyone who crosses him is conveniently denounced for worshipping Satan; women he lusts after are branded as witches and imprisoned just so he and his pals can rape and torture them at will. Albino's victims those that survive 'interrogation', that is are then silenced by being burnt alive. The townspeople live in constant fear of him, dreading that they themselves might be arbitrarily singled out, but at the same time take a perverse delight in the public executions he stages. Thus news that a professional witchfinder, one appointed by the crown, is coming to assume Albino's duties is greeted with a measure of relief by the populace. Fewer citizens will be unjustly accused and they'll still have the occasional execution to keep 'em entertained. But it doesn't quite work out that way... The new witchfinder, Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), proves even more bloodthirsty than the brutish Albino. Whereas the latter took advantage of his position merely for personal pleasure and profit, Cumberland is on a mission to keep the population in total subjugation to the Church. Not that he's above enjoying his work in the same evil manner, mind you... a fact that eventually becomes clear to Cumberland's protégé, the handsome Count Christian von Meruh (a young, hunky Udo Kier). At first unswervingly devoted to his mentor, Christian slowly realizes that Cumberland is every bit as wicked and depraved as Albino
only that as an educated man, Cumberland should have a stronger moral compass and sense of justice. Ironically it is a peasant girl, buxom barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Vuco), who gets Christian to see the light. Falsely accused of witchcraft by Albino after she spurns the creep's advances, she's thrown in prison. Cumberland, who senses that the girl sees right through his façade as a highborn man of justice, refuses to release her. Christian, having fallen in love with her, knows full well she's not guilty. Gradually it dawns on him that everyone Cumberland has jailed and turned over to the less-than-tender mercies of the chief torturer (Herbert Fux) is, in fact, innocent including a young nobleman (Michael Maien) declared "possessed of the devil" so that the Church can confiscate his lands, and a nun (Gaby Fuchs) raped and impregnated by a bishop. (It's simply impossible for a man of God to commit such a crime, Cumberland maintains, so the woman must be a lying witch!) Searching his conscience, Christian decides to break with his master and rescue Vanessa from the dungeon, come what may. Meanwhile the townsfolk, having finally endured more brutality than they can stand, rise up in anger to destroy Cumberland and his cronies. But can a mob be any more successful in meting out justice than the corrupt officials oppressing them?
    Given the film's reputation, it's a bit surprising that
Mark of the Devil tries to place its exploitation elements in some kind of social/historical context. Director/co-writer Michael Armstrong (Haunted House of Horror) didn't set out to make a movie centered squarely on naked chicks getting tortured. The film certainly has its share of that, but what Armstrong claims he was aiming for was a more potent exposé on the barbaric excesses of the European witch trials than had been previously seen to show just how evil and corrupt those in power become when their authority carries the absolutist mantle of state-sponsored religion. This is personified in the characters of Cumberland and Albino. Stripped to their essence the two men are really cut from the same cloth. Only Cumberland's noble birth and education differentiates him from the crass, lowly yokel. Backed by the power of the state and acting on the auspices of the Church, both men murder people out of sheer, naked opportunism though Cumberland's sophistication allows him to successfully cloak his dirty deeds in piety. Reason and enlightenment is represented by Christian, who's forced by his conscience (not to mention the allure of Vanessa's heaving bosom) to take a true moral stand, ultimately rejecting all he's been taught at the feet of his mentor. Unfortunately as is the case with society as a whole he's just a bit too slow on the uptake.
    Now don't misconstrue the paragraph above to mean that this is Masterpiece Theatre with blood and boobs... It's not. While picturesque Alpine vistas and historically authentic locations do lend a sheen of respectability, Mark of the Devil is at heart a pretty sleazy movie. The nudity and gore is purely exploitative. Problem is, there isn't really enough of either on hand to satiate horndogs and/or gorehounds. Armstrong deliberately passes up numerous chances to pile it on. (The grueling torture of Gaby Fuchs comprises the majority of the film's nastiness, and she's purely a tangential character with very little to do with the plot. The famous tongue-pulling scene will definitely have you wincing.) Lom is quite effective as the evil Lord Cumberland (don't say the word "impotent" around him!) and Nalder supremely creepy, but most of the dubbing is poor and the goofy performance of Johannes Buzalski as the town Advocate undercuts a number of scenes. The first half-hour of the film is burdened by a sappy, ridiculously inappropriate music score that fortunately switches gears (for the most part) with Lom's arrival.

First issued on Region 1 DVD by Anchor Bay way back in 1998, that disc has long since gone out of print. Now, courtesy of genre specialists Blue Underground, the film returns to the digital format completely uncut. The print used for BU's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't exactly pristine, but all things considered I'm confident Mark of the Devil hasn't looked this good since its theatrical debut almost 35 years ago. There's a bit of dirt (especially during the opening credits, after which it clears up significantly) and some grain in evidence, but in terms of clarity and color balance the BU edition is far superior to any previous home video incarnation. A strong, clear mono audio mix complements the improved visuals nicely.
    Bonus features are plentiful: U.S. and European theatrical trailers, a selection of American radio spots (incongruously playing up the barf bag gimmick while announcing the film suitable for all ages!), a substantial image gallery (divided into various subsections), a director's audio commentary and four featurettes. The commentary, well-moderated by Jonathan Sothcott, finds a jocular Michael Armstrong covering just about every aspect of the production, including the shooting of the infamous torture scenes, his disputes with German producer Adrian Hoven, the scenes which Hoven wrote/directed and added to the final cut, and the political/social themes Armstrong hoped to underscore in the script. (Church and state shouldn't mix; who watches the Watchmen?, etc.) As for the featurettes, actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Ingeborg Schöner and Gaby Fuchs are showcased individually via recent interview footage. Their reactions to the film some 3½ decades later are generally amusing, from Kier's affected flippancy to Fuchs' distaste for her gore scenes (though she's able to laugh about it now). At 13 minutes Fux has the longest segment. Seated in almost complete shadow, his profile limned in candlelight, the now elderly gent is obviously much more proud of the film than his fellow cast members.