Whatever the merits of Michael Reeves' bleak The Witchfinder General (U.S. title: The Conqueror Worm, 1968), the success of that film spawned a mini-genre of imitators, the most notorious surely being the West German production Mark of the Devil (Hexen bis aufs Blut gequalt, 1970), which takes Reeves' then-fashionable hopelessness and grim scenes of inhuman torture several steps further. But it doesn't expand on that film's themes, only the degree of its torture.
The argument could be made that Mark of the Devil splits the Vincent Price's title character in Witchfinder General -- a man so obsessed with purging evil from the world that he becomes evil himself -- into three church-appointed witch-burners in various degrees of moral degradation. The picture opens with busty barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Vuco) threatened by sadistic local witchfinder Albino (the cadaverous Reggie Nalder who, despite his name, isn't albino but rather flush-faced, suntanned even). Albino tries to have his way with Vanessa, warning her, "I could have you denounced as a witch!"
Strong-willed Vanessa will have none of it, however: "It's the only way you could ever get a woman!" Ouch! With that, Albino is ready to burn her at the stake, but then word comes that Albino's local authority is being usurped by esteemed witch hunter Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom), whose arrival has been preceded by a disciple, Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier). Christian puts a stop to Albino's persecution of Vanessa, she and Christian instantly fall in love, and she plants the seeds of doubt on Christian's career choice by asking him how he'd feel if his mother were charged with witchcraft.
Later, Count Cumberland arrives and though distinguished looking and well-mannered, proves no better than Albino. Albino, in league with an even crueler executioner (Herbert Fux), is aware of Christian's relationship with Vanessa and gets the latter charged with witchcraft. As it finally dawns on Christian that his teacher's feet are made of clay and that maybe torturing people left and right isn't such a good thing after all, he finds himself is condemned by his former teacher. (In this film, people always blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time, such as a puppeteer's boast that his marionettes say "the most devilish things!" When will they ever learn?)
Mark of the Devil is a mess of a picture. A relentless cruelty hangs over the film, one without any insight. Horrifying executions are plentiful and arbitrary, when they don't explicitly feed the sexual aberrations or greed of those supposedly meting out justice. Count Cumberland uses his power to steal property from the likes of Baron Daume (Michael Maien), all in the name of the church, or to violently vent his sexual impotence. Herbert Lom, as he often was, is very good in these scenes, but the character is a woefully limited one.
Udo Kier's disciple is not believable. Though an interesting homosexual subtext is suggested through his blind devotion to Cumberland, Christian's sudden moral turnabout is patently absurd. He's been working in Cumberland's torture chambers for three years, yet never has questioned the morality of their actions? In the real world, Christian would long ago have been numbed of any humanity; in the film, Christian is simply pathetically naive.
Really though, all of this is merely an excuse for the movie's plentiful scenes of graphic torture. Some may find such gore-for-its-own sake titillating, and this was clearly the aim of its backers, to sell the film as a gore fest (vomit bags were helpfully provided for its U.S. release). Films like this split horror fans down the middle: some will want to see it for these scenes alone; others will debate suffering through its unsavory sections hoping these will be offset with something actually worthwhile.
But there isn't, not really, and the picture's still-gruesome if varied mutilations -- the most infamous involves ripping out a woman's tongue -- are, by their nature, highly ironic. On one hand audiences are supposed to react with disgust at the sadism of Albino and his depraved executioner, yet the long, loving close-ups of victim Gaby Fuch's bloody, naked body on the rack (with blood-spurting fingers crushed in thumbscrews) is unpleasantly voyeuristic.
The picture is alternately well-directed and shoddy, possibly due to the use of two directors: Englishman Michael Armstrong and Austrian Adrian Hoven (who also plays the doomed puppeteer). For instance, the build-up to Cumberland's introduction is shrewdly done. In the first third everyone talks about him with both fear and respect, and Lom's face is obscured as his coach finally arrives at his castle. But all of this careful anticipation is blown when the picture abruptly cuts to Cumberland's first day in court, in which Lom's face is first seen in a long shot, nearly lost in a crowded courtroom.
The film's timeless locations evoke the era nicely, while making it look a lot more expensive that it was. The IMDB cites Castle Moosham in Salzburg, while Gaby Fuchs mentions Mauterndorf and Vienna. For such a low budget film, Mark of the Devil has lots of costumed extras, but the bad dubbing generally makes them seem ridiculous, speaking lines like "Oh, I enjoy a good witch-burning once in a while!" in the most cartoonish of voices.
Video & Audio
Mark of the Devil was produced by a West German company called Hi-Fi Stereo 70, but don't let the name fool you. This was shot in standard 35mm and theatrically projected at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Blue Underground's 16:9 anamorphic widescreen DVD is clean with good color -- except for the English-language title elements, which are is pretty bad shape. (These are made worse by a peculiar design decision, which introduces the Austrian landscapes via fish-eyed distortions, as if viewed by the It that Came from Outer Space.)
Despite the German-Austrian cast, the show appears to have mostly been shot silent with actors speaking English. The mono English audio track features Lom's real voice, but apparently no one else; Kier and Nadler, both of whom have frequently appeared in English language productions, are dubbed by other actors. No German track is offered, and there are no subtitles.
Mark of the Devil may have little to recommend it, but Blue Underground's extras go a long way to make this title worth the price of a rental. Instead of the usual making-of documentary, there are four separate interviews, Featurettes apparently shot by someone else, with actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, and Ingeborg Schoner (who plays the puppeteer's wife). The interviews are informative (and in Kier's case, goofily amusing) but shoddily done. Fux, moodily lit by candlelight, is barely visible, and Fuchs is lost in a sea of grainy video. Kier and Schoner are better photographed, but the sound in Kier's interview, shot in a bustling restaurant ("right near the toilet," Udo says) is awful. These run a total of 34 minutes.
Next is an Audio Commentary with Director Michael Armstrong, another good interview with the prolific Jonathan Sothcott. Also included is a bland and spoiler-filled international Trailer, in English and 16:9 enhanced, and three Radio Spots for the American release ("Guaranteed to turn your stomach!" and, incredibly, "All ages admitted!"). Finally, an extensive Poster & Still Gallery offers video version box art and stills from a controversial deleted scene.
Mark of the Devil is neither a pleasant night at the movies nor does it offer any thing like insight into a grim period of religious tyranny. Blue Underground has attractively packaged this title with their usual fine transfer and plentiful extras, but the movie itself is impossible to recommend.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.