WITCH-FINDERS, VOMIT BAGS, AND DE-TONGUE-INGS
It’s a shame they didn’t have cable TV in 18th century Austria; perhaps then they would have had something better to do than spend their days and nights pointing fingers at their friends and neighbors, screaming “witch! witch!” Unfortunately, if we are to believe the opening scroll of this sordid film, “eight million people were convicted of heresy and executed by fanatical witch hunters.” Riding in to rescue their memories from the oblivion of history comes this rather pristine release from Arrow Films – a gorgeous, loving presentation that certainly far surpasses any version I’ve ever seen. To be fair, the last time I saw this was in the early 90’s on a VHS release from Lightning Video.
It would be impossible to talk about Mark of the Devil without addressing its ubiquitous reputation, as this sucker cast a wide net over lovers of exploitation cinema. If I scan old papers of mine labeled “Movies I Must Have,” I would certainly find MotD at or near the top. Early posters decided to simply double down and throw up the film’s most shocking image splashed dead center – that of a poor lass with her tongue freshly removed by her inquisitors. Oh, and speaking of throwing up, apparently you could not have been admitted to a screening without a standard issue airplane-style vomit bag (personally, I think they should continue this practice today, but only for movies based on the novels of Nicholas Sparks). I haven’t seen any accounts of actual barf bag mileage during its initial theatrical run, but to this film’s credit, it does deliver the gore goods. The movie isn’t quite on the level of a Bloodsucking Freaks or Cannibal Holocaust, but it does have splatter panache where it counts.
Beyond that, the film itself is standard Eurotrash fare with admittedly elevated production value. It seems as though there’s a quality film buried in here somewhere amid all the exploitative tropes. The costumes and scenery and period detail is spot on, and almost lush at times. The performances, while dubbed (though the original German language is an option), are certainly adequate and at times even sublime. Peter Sellers’ beleaguered, twitchy-eyed boss from the Pink Panther films (Herbert Lom) is here as the main “Witch-finder,” a holier-than-thou journeyman anti-Satan crusader. He replaces the great rat-faced Reggie Nalder as the prime Witch-finder, accusing him of corruption. Lom turns out to be 1000 times worse and his apprentice, played by cult film stalwart Udo Kier, turns on him.
However, the plot doesn’t at all get in the way of the real show, the reason everyone plunked down their change to sit through this classic “video-nasty” in the first place:
Those torture scenes.
Beheadings, be-fingerings, be-handings – it’s all here. The gore lands somewhere between Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “discarded meat market” variety and Romero splatter. In its own disquieting way, it all comes off as convincing at times.
Here in the post-Hostel/Saw era, these effects may strike a viewer as a tad tame, but I can certainly imagine audiences in 1970 keeping one hand on their popcorn and the other on their gratis puke sacks as this thing played out in various grindhouse cinemas across the land.
Here’s where this release absolutely shines. I clearly had no idea prior, but this film must have a most rabid fan base, because the exhaustive batch of extras on this thing are nothing short of jaw dropping. In all honesty, I found the extras far more compelling and entertaining than the picture itself. This release truly is the final bit of punctuation on Mark of the Devil; you will never need any other material going forward. Extensive interviews with the amusingly dismissive Udo Kier, the late Herbert Fux (my new all-time favorite actor name), and even the gal who apparently was killed at least thrice over are completely engrossing. Two fantastic mini-documentaries are also included, Mark of the Times and Hallmark of the Devil, both of which are loaded with love for this film and the genre in general. They even tracked down the composer of the loopy, weirdly half-classical/half-europop and infuriatingly catchy soundtrack, who has all sorts of recollections of the composition process.
THE RABBI’S FINAL THOUGHT
Even if you’re not a fan of this movie, there are still numerous reasons to pick up this release. I don’t know if Arrow Films have been referred to yet as “the Criterion Collection of exploitation,” but if they keep putting out releases like this, the label would certainly be apt.
Mark of the Devil is available now from Arrow Films on Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.