Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mark of the Devil (1970) review


Herbert Lom (Lord Cumberland), Udo Kier (Christian), Olivera Vuco (Vanessa), Reggie Nalder (Albino)

Directed by Michael Armstrong

"God's will is greater than that of man."

The Short Version: This at one time controversial exploitation picture rode the coattails of the much better WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) to become one of, if not THE most infamous movie of its type. A healthy portion of its notoriety was due to a brilliant ad campaign. With a faux rating and 'barf bag for every patron' in tow, the preponderance of torture and screaming victims managed to keep sleaze lovers satiated. There's also some thought provoking subtext at work here even if it's occasionally drowned out by the shrieks, breaking bones and burning flesh of the beautiful, the wealthy and the sexually active.

***WARNING! This review contains images of violence and nudity***

Lord Cumberland and his devoted acolyte travel the European countryside seeking out and executing the practitioners of witchcraft and satanism. Arriving in a new village purported to be teeming with witches, Cumberland is sent to replace the hamlets resident witchfinder, the evil and avaricious Albino. However, Cumberland proves to be no less cruel. Meeting and falling in love with a local tavern girl, Cumberland's follower, Christian, begins to doubt his teachers true intentions eventually questioning the witchfinder's authority and putting his own life at risk.

Michael Reeves's WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) was a major turning point in horror as well as positing a dark cloud over the period setting Hammer Films had lorded over for a number of years. While Hammer had definitely pushed boundaries in terms of sex and violence, WITCHFINDER GENERAL burned those boundaries at the stake with a searing portrayal of a brutish man hiding behind a veil of godliness and respectability in his crusade of cruelty and pain. Of course, the success of this film meant there'd be bandwagon movies in the form of such offerings as CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1969), THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970), TWINS OF EVIL (1971) and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971). One of these in particular would surpass the grueling subject matter and somber tone of the WITCHFINDER and carve its own place in the annals of cinematic infamy.

MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) took the most SINsational and salacious aspects of the earlier film from Reeves and expanded upon them nearly forsaking characterization and storytelling for extreme violence exemplified by a sincere mean streak and utter callousness. Whereas WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) evoked mood and an oppressive sense of dread spearheaded by a deliciously vile lead performance by Vincent Price, MARK OF THE DEVIL takes the low road (or the road most traveled during the 70s boom of brutal cinema) by lovingly glorifying graphic torture. No doubt the key to the films enduring cult status was its ingeniously creative advertising campaign. This was also one time where the ballyhoo equaled the bloody excess. Touted as 'The first film rated 'V' for violence' and free barf bags handed out to patrons, it's no wonder that both the curious and the curiously twisted would be attracted to such tactics.

One of the most intriguing pieces of info regarding MARK OF THE DEVIL is that Michael Reeves was allegedly tapped to direct, but died before shooting began. If true, it would have been curious to see what Reeves would have done with this material although it's doubtful it would have surpassed his Price picture as the two scripts were virtually interchangeable. Reportedly, Reeves was actually signed on to direct Price's THE OBLONG BOX (1969) before his death. Michael Armstrong--who did end up directing the film--was reportedly at war with the producer, Adrian Hoven (who also acted and co-wrote in the film). This resulted in Armstrong's dismissal and Hoven taking over. Possibly the most famous part regarding the "takeover" was the discarded ending which survives only in still shots. The original ending had the victims of the tyrannical witch hunters returning from the dead to claim Christian. The actual ending on the film isn't much different only without the outlandish, yet no doubt surreal element of the living dead.

Either way, evil still wins out in the end. Cumberland gets away and his few remaining subordinates not killed by the angry villagers do an aboutface to stay alive. Cumberland is a particularly interesting character in that Albino, another witchfinder, threatens to ruin his reputation by exclaiming his "court rulings" as both a farce and unfounded. None of this affects him in the slightest till Albino threatens to proclaim Cumberland's impotency to the public. Well he won't have that and proceeds to kill the crater faced witch burner with his bare hands!

Herbert Lom is fine here as Cumberland, but he's no replacement for Vincent Price. His role really isn't given the same degree of attention that Price received in the Michael Reeves classic. But then, performances are secondary when you have such enticing alternatives as witnessing a woman's tongue ripped from her mouth, bodies burned, broken and mutilated. The film purports to be an important document of one of man's darkest eras and like another champion of societal hypocrisy, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979), Armstrong's movie blurs the line between its supposed social subtext and blatant savagery. There's nothing wrong with getting your "fix" from what is essentially a piece of trash filmmaking, but its mixed message is kind of off putting. There's a double standard when a picture begins with an historical statement and instead of focusing on the problem, its causes and consequences, we get little more than the effect and a parade of people deriving a great deal of pleasure from the pain of others.

We learn little about Cumberland aside from his apparent impotence lending to his hatred towards beautiful women because he can't satisfy them although we don't spend that much time with him. This is the closest we get to the reasoning behind Cumberland's cruel methods. More time is spent with the androgynous persona of Cumberland's witchhunter in training, the aptly named Christian. The script ultimately pigeonholes the complexities of Christian's "virginal" view of the world in his quest to understand the plight of the common person versus the pablum spouted by his crotch crippled authoritarian. Christian's questions regarding his master's methods are undermined by the tortures carried out by horny, ugly old men who despise the beauty of what they can't have, or can't give--and if they can't have it, than no one will.

The depiction of sex and sin are the mainstays--the life's blood of Devil cinema--and that's what MARK OF THE DEVIL gives us. The film even destroys religious iconography in an opening bit of blasphemy with the rape of nuns. The subjugation and penetration of the female religious order by the use of sex and various temptation was a constant theme in various examples of nunsploitation cinema. This brief, but grim flirtation with religious malefaction would be expounded upon in a flurry of films including THE DEVILS (1971), FLAVIA, THE HERETIC (1974) and a host of nunnery offensiveness hailing from Japanese film studios.

It's this offensiveness and sleazy atmosphere that has branded MARK OF THE DEVIL with the stigma as the most infamous film of its type. Hidden away within the many scenes of rapes, beatings, tortures and scenes of bloodletting there lies a fascinating if underexposed condemnation of religion. This is the single most impressive theme running through the movie when people aren't being killed or stretched out on a rack. Those who are happy or live by their own rules are perceived as evil and must be stamped out. Those in authority bearing faith in a supreme being are uniformly proven to be the true evils. Feigning performing the service of a just and righteous cause to hide their own lustful or violent yearnings is the path to enlightenment as malevolent and sexually deviant as that road might be. As the bible itself is full of contradictions, so are those who proclaim to be crusaders for Christ.

Because Christian questions an increasing number of false claims, this foreshadows his imminent downfall. Anyone with beauty is instantly a target and those of a lucrative pedigree are framed, their assets seized and their lives ended; possessing an attractive body means you're a witch and possessing wealth is an admission of sorcerous practices. Much the same thing happens today in our modern and ever worsening political climate. One party believes that those who are successful and have worked to get where they are are supposed to share their monetary accomplishments with those who do nothing for themselves except make others make their living for them. Nothing has changed since those dark days. Anyone with wealth or even an overabundance of happiness are considered evil or resented by the envious.

Going back to MARK OF THE DEVIL, those who question the "Will of God" are also of dubious allegiance to their purported savior. In contrast, those doling out the torment of others do so with a joyous verve that is far more resonant and disturbing than any of the slanderous, mortally fatal false accusations. Throughout history, so-called civilization has had a propensity for deriving pleasure from the pain and suffering of others. This morbid paradigm of sexual deviancy is exploited to an extreme degree in this movie. The head torturer is even shown enjoying a meal during one particularly brutal torture session. Innocents are wantonly accused of devilry for the sheer amusement of the so-called Christian faithful. In this case, the inmates are truly running the asylum. If only this sort of subtext had been more prominent and the violence not so sensationalized, then MARK OF THE DEVIL might be a better respected picture.

The score by Michael Holm is an unusually romantic, melancholic and melodic score punctuated by occasionally shrieking strings that hammer home the unnatural proclivity of oldeworld authoritarian regimes who used god as a mask for their true hidden agendas. The main theme heard at the beginning and variations of it throughout the movie sound strangely similar to the main theme orchestrated by Riz Ortolani ten years later for Deodato's classick CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). Michael Armstrong's MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) is one of the signature examples of 1970s exploitation at its most grueling. It's been over 40 years, but it still retains a few squirm inducing moments to leave its MARK on modern audiences and still make folks wince who may have seen it in a theater back in the day.

This review is representative of the Blue Underground DVD
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