BLU-RAY REVIEW: MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) / DIRECTOR: MICHAEL ARMSTRONG / SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL ARMSTRONG, ADRIAN HOVEN / STARRING: HERBERT LOM, UDO KIER, OLIVERA KATARINA, REGGIE NALDER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
The past, as they say, is a foreign country. Oddly enough, so is Germany.
It was once fashionable to do all sorts of unspeakable things to ordinary people because you thought they might be witches. But here in the British Isles, we were lightweights. During witch-hunting’s golden age, England managed no more than 1,000 witch-burnings (although the Scots put in a more respectable 4,000). However, Germany got all over-efficient and roasted 26,000 innocents. Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg managed to make our own Matthew Hopkins look like an amateur by clocking-up 900 burnings in Würzburg alone (including his own nephew).
But Hopkins can at least claim he was portrayed on film by no less than Vincent Price in the surprise hit, Witchfinder General (1968). In the spirit of the exploitation movie, it was inevitable the Germans would have a go at the witch-hunt-flick themselves. Witchfinder is generally accepted as a bona fide classic even if there is an argument to say it was nihilistic, mean-spirited and a teensy-bit dull. So how did these witch-hunting over-achievers fare on film? Well they were certainly enthusiastic even if Mark of the Devil (1970) ended up with a British director. Perhaps that’s why it’s nihilistic, mean-spirited and a teensy-bit over the top.
All you need to know of the plot is that it’s about witch-hunters burning and torturing innocent people; there really is no more to say than that. It’s cheap, it shows, and it doesn’t have an ounce of the class of Witchfinder. But what it does have is rather a lot of torture. Seriously, if endless shots of wide-eyed blondes being stretched on racks are your thing, this one’s for you. Fancy a bloke being forced to sit, bare-arsed on a seat of spikes? Look no further. Herbert Lom (in pretty good form as the sexually impotent villain) could almost be directing the film when he tells a henchie to “torture him harder”. In fact, bearing in mind this is a 44-year old movie, it’s somewhat surprising that it still has the power to shock through sadistic violence and little else.
So are we saying it’s bad? Well, that depends. You see, despite director Michael Armstrong’s assertion that this is an historical film, it’s not; it’s a horror-flick and you have to judge it accordingly. Don’t even get us on the subject of historical accuracy – Professor Ronald Hutton has nothing to fear. This is a humourless and sadistic horror from a time when Hammer (who would never have approved) were about to be overshadowed by the new wave. Think about why you like horror; our reasons are all different. The tongue removal scene (it’s the poster money-shot) is pivotal here. If that’s your bag, you’re going to love Mark of the Devil. If you like your horror chilling-but-subtle or you pine for the days of Cushing and Lee bringing a warm-spirited smile to your face, give it a wide berth.
Extras: Optional English and German audio, Newly translated English subtitles for the German audio, Audio commentary by Michael Armstrong, Mark of the Times – documentary on British ‘new wave’, Hallmark of the Devil, Mark of the Devil: Now and Then, Illustrated collector’s booklet.