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November 23, 2012

Movie Review: Mark of the Devil (aka Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, 1970)

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven

Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier, in his first film) is an apprentice witch hunter who worships at the feet of Witchfinder Supreme, Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom). Christian wants to follow in Cumberland’s stead in doing “God’s work,” i.e. torturing and killing anyone that gets in the Church’s – or certain individual’s way. There’s plenty of inhumanity going on in Christian’s Austrian village to keep the local yokels’ attention in the years before Cable TV. Tongues are torn out, nuns are raped, wenches are accused of consorting with the devil and of course that popular standby – accused witches being burned at the stake. Kier enjoys a fling with local bar wench Vanessa (Olivera Katarina) who in turn is accused of witchery by local with hunter Albino (Reggie Nalder, Salem’s Lot). When Cumberland strangles and kills Albino during a fight, Christian begins to think that maybe witch hunting isn’t the right way to go about furthering your particular agenda. Too late for Christian – the townspeople revolt, subject him to torture as Lord Cumberland gets away – to rape and pillage another day.

Great character actor Herbert Lom, who died earlier this year, sighed at one point at being perpetually cast as villain as all Englishman considered foreigners villainous. What excuse he came up with by appearing in this German-lensed screecher feature is anyone’s guess. Mark of Devil preceded what is today called “torture porn,” that panders to modern movie going audiences not far removed from the hordes of ignorant town folk in the film that watch their fellow villagers being subjected to torments based on arbitrary accusations of witchcraft. Mark of the Devil, for its many serious flaws, is in essence “critic-proof” as a result. This sort of thing happened once before (the film appears to be set in Austria in the late 18th Century), and it sure as hell happened again. One extra in a tavern scene sports a Hitler mustache, as if to remind the viewer that the European witch hunts were merely a warm-up for something much larger.

Mark of the Devil has certain notoriety to it. The result of a curious fad of “witch hunting” movies that came in the late Sixties, early Seventies, the film features hordes of costumed extras and beautiful Austrian locales. The most notable aspect the film has today is that it features an impossibly youthful Udo Kier in his fourth film, long before he became one of the most in-demand character actors of today. Years before he would garner attention for appearing in Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Frankenstein, one could make a case that this is probably a film Udo probably wants to forget; not due to its subject matter, but because of his acting. Or lack thereof. The young Udo, who appears to be wearing black mascara around his eyes in some shots, brings new meaning to the word “vapid.” Film producers didn’t hold this early effort against him, as he went on to a long and successful acting career.

Mark of the Devil is also notorious for giving out stomach-distress bags to U.S. moviegoers – the red-and-white graphic is the one used for the Cheezy Flicks DVD cover – but it certainly wasn’t the first. That distinction belongs to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963). Overall, director Michael Reeves made the final statement about his type of film with his Witchfinder General, aka The Conqueror Worm back in 1968. These types of films would later on divide audience sympathy between the witch hunters or the unjustly accused. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) is a rare example of a film where the witches are all real and pose a threat, with the pompous, unsympathetic witch finders becoming the default heroes.

People drawn to this type of material are encouraged to dig in. On a personal level, this reviewer couldn’t wrap himself around the film as “entertainment.” One of my day jobs is writing news stories for a Web site, whose typical headline reads “Pakistani girl buried alive for talking to boys.” In the world, persecution, religious or otherwise remains evergreen. On the bright side, the DVD has the usual Cheezy goodness and extras that Cheezy Flicks has on its other releases.

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