Mark of the Devil is Michael Armstrong’s attempt at a witchfinder movie after the success of films like Witchfinder General in the late ’60s; interestingly enough, he succeeds in crafting a coherent and mostly impressive movie despite the intervention of production with the addition of uncredited director Adrian Hoven. Mark of the Devil is brutal and grim, not a starry-eyed depiction of witch-hunting but an unfiltered and – let’s face it – somewhat exploitative look at the medieval torture devices and masochism of people who claimed to be operating under the direction of God; that’s why they offered vomit bags as a gimmick to sell the film, and though some might scoff at the idea during the film’s initial sequences, which are admittedly slow, the violence quickly ratchets into an assault on the sense that might make audiences queasy, if not because of the blood then because of the way the inquisitors seem to enjoy the application of pain.
The film opens with a strange and somewhat annoying credits sequence that pauses the action during every additional name added to the screen; along with it is a romantic, lilting orchestral score from Michael Holm that will eventually become an earworm but seems out of place at the time, especially knowing the scope of Mark of the Devil‘s plot. Still, it foreshadows the relationship between buxom Vanessa (Olivera Vuco), a barmaid, and the new guy in town, Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) – the romance between them will ultimately be the most pivotal aspect of the witchfinder’s overthrow at the hands of unruly townspeople, and the score highlights that before the audience even realizes it.
Christian works under Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), one of the meanest and strictist witchfinders ever; his brutality is unmatched, and if he suspects anyone of witchcraft, especially with the mark of the devil on them, he’ll condemn them to monumental torture until they admit their allegiance to Satan; only then do the victims get the pleasure of burning. At first, Mark of the Devil is all talk; Cumberland, despite the rumors, seems like a nice enough guy, and he actually believes in what he’s doing. Albino (Reggie Nadler), by comparison, is a much worse inquisitor – he makes up witch accusations on the fly without any proof and rapes women before committing them to torture, without any semblance of godliness.
But Mark of the Devil quickly shifts, showing that everyone has a little bit of evil inside them. Lord Cumberland’s tendency towards unfairness becomes his downfall as Christian begins to suspect that he’s trying and torturing innocent people just because it makes the public fear him, especially after Vanessa is accused and thrown into a jail cell. There’s a realism to the political underworkings of the witchfinder inquisitors that makes Mark of the Devil stand out, even during its slow-burn first half; there’s not a ton of gore at first, but Armstrong (and Hoven, I guess) work to develop Lord Cumberland into a fearsome villain that is worse than Albino because he masquerades as a good, pious person.
There’s a clear moment where the film turns towards exploitation, and it’s fairly obvious that Mark of the Devil intentionally uses its torture devices in a way to titillate and disgust its viewers. But the movie doesn’t just stick to terrorizing young topless women; its other main source of motivation to keep the plot moving is a young man named Baron Daumer (Michael Maien) who has quite a bit of wealth and can choose to donate that money to the church in exchange for his torture to stop.
It is here where Mark of the Devil becomes the most thematically successful – Lord Cumberland, for all of his claims about working for God, is really just as greedy and deceitful as the common man, and his blackmail is the same as Albino’s spiteful claims that Vanessa is a witch when she won’t submit to his wants. Better yet for his character is the casual references to his impotency, which leads to a later development featuring a beautiful young woman (Ingeborg Schöner) whose rape is tastefully shot and still devastating to watch.
While Mark of the Devil‘s story seems to waver between Christian and Vanessa and Lord Cumberland’s increasingly desperate attempts to torture confessions out of accused witches, it all comes together in the finale when Christian, witnessing Lord Cumberland murder a man in cold blood, decides that he doesn’t want to support the inquisitors any longer. It’s a doubt that’s been brewing for some time, and it leads to a revolt by the townspeople, a literal rising of the bourgeoisie to overthrow those in power. Armstrong and Hoven are able to get away with this because of the slow climax of Mark of the Devil, the way the film continues to hammer on the awful things the witchfinders do.
It also leaves a very dark ending to the story, with Christian getting punished for his own involvement in the inquisition despite his help in ending it. There’s no happily-ever-after for Vanessa and Christian; in fact, Mark of the Devil ends with Vanessa sobbing, and it’s a particularly effective documentation of atrocity. Perhaps Christian doesn’t deserve it, but throughout Armstrong and Hoven have shown the viewer the terrible things Christian has witnessed without stepping in to stop it. It’s a moment that forces the viewer to question their own onlooking.
Mark of the Devil is sometimes messy in its editing and story, a little long-winded at times, but it’s also one of the better witchfinder movies in the genre. There’s a lot of torture – realistic, at that – and exploitation is certainly part of the approach to the film. But Armstrong and Hoven creatively find ways to get past a cliched approach to the plot, allowing Mark of the Devil to make its mark in horror by showing how its derivative peers lack the pathos a witch-hunting movie should have.
Arrow Video’s Blu-Ray is loaded with special features. I would venture so far as to say there is a “shit-load” of them. Obviously not all of these were created for this release, and many of the interviews are older. But it’s great to see Arrow has collected all of them on one great set.
Before we get to that, though, let’s talk quality. Mark of the Devil looks great in its restoration, with a nice crispness that’s only broken in a few shots. The audio is well-done as well; Arrow has included both English and original German soundtracks, and though I watched about 15 minutes of the English dub I quickly switched over to German because the dubbing isn’t particularly great through no fault of Arrow.
Included on this disc is a 45 minute documentary featuring many important members of ’70s UK horror, including Michael Armstrong, Norman J. Warren, David McGillivray, and a few film critics. Though it’s not always about Mark of the Devil, it’s certainly worth a watch for important historical context. Along with that is another, shorter interview with critic Michael Gingold about Hallmark Releasing, the company behind controversial horror titles like Mark of the Devil. Gingold delivers a great background for these flicks, and this is recommended.
There’s an audio commentary from director Michael Armstrong with Calum Waddell too. But most impressive are the various interviews with the cast and crew of Mark of the Devil, which will take over an hour to get through. Udo Kier, Gaby Fuchs, Herbert Fux, Herbert Lom, Ingeborg Schoner, and Michael Holm all have interviews from various times, and these are a great look at the actors looking back on their time in Mark of the Devil. There’s a quick then-and-now of the setting of the film, presented with music and video of both time periods to see how the German setting has changed.
The package comes with a reversible sleeve for the Blu-Ray box, plus a collector’s booklet. This has three essays, one about Mark of the Devil‘s production itself and the problems between Armstrong and Hoven, as well as a background on Udo Kier’s film career, and lastly an older interview with Reggie Nalder about his various work in film.
All told, this is a Blu-Ray not to be missed.