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Mark of the Devil


A witchfinder's apprentice’s (Udo Kier) faith in his master (Herbert Lom) becomes severely tested when they settle in an Austrian village, presided over by the sadistic Albino (Reggie Nalder). (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Sometime around 2005, a snippy social critic coined the term ‘torture porn,’ following the long-standing tradition of dismissing something offensive by tagging the word ‘porn’ onto it. Unfortunately, whoever invented the term didn’t really define it and the people that started using it failed to acknowledge the long history of graphic human torture and mutilation in movies; the roots of which extend back to a time before the motion picture camera was even invented. The French Grand Guignol tradition is the historical basis for the splatter movie tradition and ground zero for the types of special effects-assisted reenactments of physical torment that followed. An entire industry of ‘Roughies’ and S&M shorts (both genres that used sexual violence to titillate their audiences in a time when graphic nudity was still banned) was succeeded by torture-centric subgenres, including the Japanese Pink and Euo Guro movements, Nazisploitation pictures, Hong Kong Unit 731 movies (named for the Japanese Army’s covert biological and chemical warfare research division), Italian cannibal movies, and plotless faux-snuff movies.

 Mark of the Devil
Like the Nazisploitation and Unit 731 traditions, the ‘Witchfinder’ movies had their basis in real life atrocities, namely the Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition. At the forefront was Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, a highly acclaimed 1968 classic that is often listed alongside Night of the Living Dead as one of the films that ushered in the modern horror era. Within only two years, British writer/director Michael Armstrong came along to cash-in on Witchfinder General’s worldwide success (Reeves was approached to direct, but died before production commenced). Bereft of a script as strong as Reeves’ and a star as magnetic as Vincent Price, Armstrong focused on the ins and outs of medieval witch interrogation practices. The film was titled Mark of the Devil (aka: Burn, Witch, Burn) and, along with the Euo Guros, it became the new standard for graphic torture violence, including burning, racking, branding, flogging, foot-whipping, thumb-screwing, iron-chairing, and a show-stopping tongue removal.

Of course, Armstrong’s standard was quickly left behind by the even more outrageous gore and intensely modern horror coming out of America in the ‘70s. Mark of the Devil is more entertaining in retrospect, because of its unique place in time. It was released between a major shift in the acceptability of feature violence. Armstrong and producer/uncredited co-director Adrian Hoven (Hoven recut and reshot much of the film without Armstrong’s approval, leading to a couple of underdeveloped subplots) were testing the waters of public acceptance and censorship, much in the same way that Hershel Gordon Lewis had in the earlier part of the decade with his early gore films, Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964). These filmmakers weren’t necessarily trendsetters, but they were smart enough to know that they couldn’t press decency standards behind the borders of the UK, where filmmakers still suffered quite rigid censorship requirements.

 Mark of the Devil
Distributors Hallmark Releasing latched onto the idea of controversy by distributing barf bags at the door of the theater (it was reportedly the first movie to do so) and self-imposing a rating of V – for Violence. The plot and characters are so heavily indebted to Witchfinder General that it could’ve easily been mistaken for a sequel, had Price been cast in either the Herbert Lom or Reggie Nalder roles. Still, these revisited themes aren’t boring, thanks to the general grindhouse appeal, one genuinely chilling sequence where a woman is so broken down by the torture that she doesn’t make a noise as she burns, a really cool subjective representation of water torture, and full-bore performances from Nalder, Lom, and Olivera Vuco. Udo Kier looks fabulous, but fans may be disappointed by his lack of scenery chewing. Mark of the Devil was followed closely by Piers Haggard’s superior and underseen witchfinder movie, Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), and one official sequel, Mark of the Devil Part II (1973), distributed by a German company and directed by Hoven.

 Mark of the Devil

Video


Mark of the Devil has had a healthy life on digital media, beginning with Anchor Bay/Elite’s non-anamorphic DVD (which coincided with widescreen Laserdisc and VHS version). That was followed by Blue Underground’s anamorphic, special edition DVD in 2004. There have been two previous Blu-ray releases as well; one from Turbine in Austria and one from Arrow Video in the UK (released September of last year). Arrow has repackaged that release here for their US debut. The 1080p, 1.66:1 HD image has been newly transferred from original film elements. There are no more specifics on the source, but it is most certainly an uncut version. On the whole, this transfer is clean and nicely detailed. The softer contrast and sharpness levels appear correct during the brighter sequences and shadows are plenty rich during darker sequences. Grain levels usually seem natural, but some shots are definitely fuzzier and more snowy than others. At worst, these include blobby edges and dulling of the normally crisp colours. I believe that these often represent scenes that were previously censored or ones that sit at the end of a reel, where they sustained damage from splicing. Other blemishes (mostly white flecks) are minor on an otherwise sizable upgrade over compressed SD versions.

 Mark of the Devil

Audio


Mark of the Devil was a UK/West Germany co-production and filmed largely (possibly entirely) without sound, then dubbed in post (a common practice for European productions at the time). Arrow has included both the English and German audio dub tracks here and is presenting them in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono sound. Bouncing between the tracks, I did notice plenty of differences in the tone of the sound effects and Michael Holm’s score. It’s a toss-up between which one is better. The English track is flatter and thinner, but also has stronger bass support. The German track features superior depth, but is notably tinny and has the more obvious lip-sync issues (most of the lead cast is speaking English). Sound effects are sometimes completely different between the tracks as well. For example, during the first torture sequence, the sound of fire is dominant on the English dub, while the creak of the wood and rope trap dominate the German dub. Note that there were 5.1 versions available on the Austrian Blu-ray, though I can’t imagine that the remix was worth the time. The English subtitles for the German track are listed as ‘newly translated,’ as well.

 Mark of the Devil

Extras


  • Audio commentary by writer/director Michael Armstrong, moderated by critic/author Calum Waddell – Armstrong discusses the film’s production and release history. It’s a largely polite conversation that praises the cast (even the actors that don’t praise his film) and delves into some of the historical inspirations, but the director does briefly touch upon his troubles with producer/surprise co-director Adrian Hoven. My only complaint is that it’s sometimes hard to understand what the director is saying, because he speaks so softly.
  • Mark of the Times (47:40, HD) – A documentary retrospective of the ‘new wave’ of British horror directors that surfaced during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as Hammer Horror floundered.
  • Hallmark of the Devil (12:10, HD) – Fangoria writer Michael Gingold looks back at Hallmark Releasing, the ‘creative’ distributor that released Mark of the Devil, Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left in American cinemas.
  • Mark of the Devil: Then and Now (7:10, HD) – The film's locations and how they appear today
  • Interviews:
    • Udo Kier (in German, 10:50, HD) – This interview includes stills from the alternate ending, where zombies appear and pull Kier’s character into his grave.
    • Composer Michael Holm (24:20, HD)
    • Herbert Fux (23:10, HD)
    • Gaby Fuchs (10:30, HD)
    • Ingeborg Schoner (9:00, HD)
    • Herbert Lom (4:40, audio only)
  • Outtakes (3:00, HD)
  • Image gallery
  • Trailer


 Mark of the Devil

Overall


Mark of the Devil is the occasionally lovable little brother of Witchfinder General and a better movie than its long-standing reputation would lead you to believe. This Blu-ray, which matches Arrow’s previously released UK Blu-ray, has a couple of scruffy shots and the audio is probably never going to sound amazing, but is otherwise a huge upgrade on DVD releases. The extensive special features are also probably the closest that fans will get to an exhaustive collection on the subject. All told, Arrow USA is off to a great start.

 Mark of the Devil

 Mark of the Devil

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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