Mark of the Devil (2003)
"Positively the most horrifying film ever made."
Christian, the protégé of an infamous witch hunter, arrives in a European town to deal with allegations that Albino, the local inquisitor, has been blackmailing women for sexual and financial gain. Whilst there, Christian falls in love with Vanessa, one of the local women. Albino tries to rape her but then accuses her of being a witch when she fights back and slashes his face. When his mentor, Lord Cumberland, arrives in the town, Christian believes he will help him to clear her name. But as Cumberland goes about his own witch hunting activities, Christian realises that he is just as corrupt and sleazy as Albino and begins to see that the witch trials are simply a scam for the clergy to rob innocent people of their land.
Mark of the Devil is one of Europe’s sleazy entries into the short-lived ‘witch hunter’ fad of the late 60s and early 70s. Part of its infamy comes from the fact that cinemas offered free sick bags to the audience to prepare them for the horrors that they were about to witness. Somewhat dated as it may be today, the exploitative gore and violence still rings home today as the context is still as horrific as ever. Like the other films in the genre, it makes no bones about its stance towards the Catholic Church. Hundreds of thousands of people across Europe were executed for heresy and many suffered appalling torture and prolonged deaths during the Church’s reign.
Mark of the Devil focuses a lot on the corruption of the church’s witch hunting where it sent those that disagreed with its methods to a fiery death and using the entire process as a method to consolidate its grip on power through the use of fear. The torturers justify their actions by stating that it is the work of God, thinly disguising their individual desires of sex, power and blood lust. You’re either with the Church or you’re a witch was their belief and Mark of the Devil explores how this power corrupt many religious men. In doing so they emerge as the Devil incarnate, not those people that suffered under their rule. The point of the film is to show you how hypocritical these holy men were.
Mark of the Devil has often been considered too violent and exploitative to effectively deliver any sort of message but I don't agree. The scenes of torture could be timid in comparison with the brutal antics of Hostel but when you consider that this is what happened back in the 18th century, the whole piece takes a new sinister meaning. Also take into account the year in which it was filmed and the shocking nature of the footage is quite alarming. Mark of the Devil does live up to its reputation and manages to torture and humiliate some hot women like never before seen in cinema. Young maidens are burnt alive at the stake. They’re stretched out on the rack. They’re branded with hot irons. They’re slashed, poked and prodded to find the Devil’s mark on their bodies. And there’s plenty of lashings too. One unlucky man is tarred and feathered and kicked out of town. In the film’s most iconic image, one young woman has her tongue ripped out. The torture methods are all legitimate though and were used back in the day which makes their inclusion all the more worrying. We've heard stories about the unspeakable things that the Church did to people back in the 18th century to force confessions of witch craft and Mark of the Devil takes great pains and perverse pleasure to show us it in its deplorable glory. Having said this, I was a little disappointed in how many times the film cuts away from the blood. It's clever because you'll think you've seen more than you actually have. This brutality is well contrasted against the beautiful cinematography of the Austrian countryside. The locations used are stunning and the sets could have come straight out of one of Hammer's earlier Gothic horror masterpieces. Surely this seemingly peaceful and tranquil setting isn't home to such horrors?
The cast is devilishly strong. Veteran Herbert Lom is superb as Lord Cumberland and he uses his low, authoritative voice to deliver some punchy lines. Lom is able to slowly reveal his character's true personality, turning Cumberland from the intelligent, sophisticated lord we assume he is in the beginning to a man just as cunning, opportunistic and sadistic as Albino. The only difference is that Cumberland is able to hide it using his educated background and noble birth. Genre icon and living legend, Udo Kier, stars in one of his earliest roles. Kier's youthful looks and piercing blue eyes are put to good use as the innocent Christian and its peculiar seeing him as the straight laced hero instead of a vampire or other monstrous character. Kier's Christian is the voice of conscience and reason and contrasts with Lom's bullish and ignorant mindset - who will come out on top in the end?
Olivera Katarina does what her role requires of her and that is to look buxom and comely in her wench outfit and provide the necessary beauty to cause characters to fight over her. The scene stealer of this one is Reggie Nalder, one evil-looking creep who plays his role of the local witch hunter to perfection. He’s a sadistic force in the town who relishes his role in power. He isn’t out to help the church, he’s simply out to get his leg over and have the people in the town fear him. Nalder's face was actually scarred in a mysterious accident in his twenties (and he gave numerous explanations of the reason over the years) so they're real, not make-up, and they add to the persona of his slimy villain.
Mark of the Devil is nowhere nearly as horrific as it's reputation would have you believe (isn't that always the case though?), does contain it's fair share of clunky writing and dreadful dubbing and takes a few liberties with history but it's great as an exploitation piece where torture, mutilation and degradation are the order of the day. If that's what you're looking for, you're definitely going to enjoy this.
Mark of the Devil
Director(s): Michael Armstrong, Adrian Hoven
Writer(s): Michael Armstrong, Adrian Hoven
Actor(s): Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux, Johannes Buzalski, Michael Maien, Gaby Fuchs
Duration: 97 mins