Mark of the Devil Review
The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a pivotal era in British horror cinema with directors such as Michael Reeves, Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren eschewing the classic Hammer style in favour of a grittier approach, less squeamish about displays of graphic violence and more direct in their approach to adult themes. Like similar developments simultaneously occurring in Europe and the US, horror was increasingly arising in familiar, often contemporary settings. Where period settings were used it routinely involved generational clashes, abuses of power and challenges to the established order that, whilst not set in an instantly recognisable milieu, did speak to the concerns of contemporary society. Michael Armstrong's Mark of the Devil represents an example of the latter and whilst it developed a strong cult following through notable success in continental Europe and America, its history with the censors in Britain - the BBFC was yet to be rebranded as a body concerned primarily with classification - meant that it went largely unseen until its debut on home video.
Set in a non-specific, nominally English, location it tells the story of a village living under the scourge of a domineering witchfinder, Albino (Reggie Nalder). Albino's activities as a self-appointed witchfinder draw the attention of the established church and his state-appointed equivalent, Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), is dispatched to reestablish ecclesiastical authority. Upon arrival in the village, Cumberland's assistant Christian (Udo Kier), travelling in advance of his superior and mentor, openly clashes with Albino, due in part to Albino's questionable methods and motives but also through their mutual attraction to a local girl, Vanessa (Olivera Vuco). That Vanessa reciprocates Christian's interest and rejects the unwanted attentions of Albino only serves to make her the focal point not only for the power struggle that ensues with Albino but also in the tug-of-love between Vanessa and Cumberland for the increasingly conflicted Christian.
Whilst Albino is a bully and a sadist he pales in comparison to Cumberland who proves to be a man driven by his dedication to consolidating and extending church powers by all means necessary. This diabolical superiority is fully demonstrated in a showdown where Cumberland decisively overpowers his competitor in a physical confrontation in which even he fails to realise his own strength. Where Albino's motives are out on show for all to see, the refined deportment and learned bearing of Cumberland prove to mask a corrupt, depraved intent anchored in the desire to acquire and consolidate power in stark contradiction of his publicly-expressed pious motives. Ironically, whilst Albino is widely despised and feared it is not until Cumberland arrives and the spate of indictments, tortures and executions accelerates that the villagers gather their resolve to fight back.
Throughout proceedings these same villagers are depicted as a petty, cynical rabble and it is hard to reconcile the depiction of patrons of the local tavern and the passive crowd that obediently attends public executions and burnings - in many cases taking obvious delight in the sight of severed limbs and immolated bodies - with the mob that finally strikes a blow against church and state. Vanessa exhorts the villagers to take action yet is notably absent from the resulting assault, and with the lack of any genuine focus of leadership the storming of the castle grounds feels more like a plot device rather than a natural development. However it is true that once the castle defences have been breached the villagers revert to type and a principled crusade descends into an orgy of pillaging and plundering. That their final act is to recreate those repugnant execution scenes to which they have become so accustomed and somewhat inured is a fitting tribute, rightly or wrongly, to the film's apparent lack of faith in humanity.
Armstrong is at great pains to convey what an evil, inhuman regime is at work here yet it is hard to shake the feeling that whilst we are being shown the awful degradation that is being committed in the name of the almighty we are also invited to indulge in and leer at the protracted scenes of torture in much the same manner as those engaged in it. Even Christian, a man so conflicted by his dedication to God pitched against the dawning realisation of the true nature of Cumberland's work, looks largely unfazed as he wanders through the charnel house in which those unfortunates charged with practising witchcraft are questioned and tortured. Tellingly, whilst his ire is raised by the plight of the woman he loves and a nobleman refusing to cede his lands to the church, the suffering of the common man - bar the extreme brutality meted out to one unfortunate nun - does not seem to resonate so deeply. Whether this is a genuine reflection of what Armstrong sees as the truth of human existence, the outward appearance of devotion to higher ideals masking the brutishness and self-interest of man, or simply a prurient fascination with violence is open to question.
Presented in its OAR of 1.66:1, Mark of the Devil represents another fine Arrow transfer. The image is clean, clear and sharp, grain is well balanced, skin tones look natural and the many scenes that draw blood do so most vibrantly! Certain outdoor scenes can look a bit softer but this would appear to be a feature of the source, and may well represent a conscious aesthetic choice, as a number of other exterior shots of the castle are impressive in their detail and clarity. Without having prior evidence to hand I'd still be confident in asserting that this is probably as good as Mark of the Devil has ever looked.
Two LPCM Mono 2.0 soundtracks are available in English and German. A dubbed soundtrack is never going inspire awe and wonder but dialogue is clear and Michael Holm's score roars into life during those moments of high drama. Optional English subtitles are also included with the addition of newly translated English subtitles for the German audio.
As has become standard practice with Arrow there is a wealth of special features accompanying this release. First up is a commentary by Michael Armstrong moderated by Calum Waddell. From the off it is obvious that Armstrong is extremely proud of his work on Mark of the Devil and is delighted at the prospect of it being released uncut in the UK for the first time. The conversation is wide-ranging covering everything from Armstrong's research on European witchcraft, the creative process of bringing the screenplay to life, casting and characterisation, struggles with actor-producer and sometimes assistant director Adrian Hoven and his artistic contributions, marketing decisions that shaped perceptions of the film, success in America and Armstrong's thoughts on his own failure to capitalise on this. Waddell does well to marshal Armstrong as the director veers from wildly excitable to virtually incoherent at times (think The Fast Show's Rowley Birkin QC) during his reminiscences but for all that he does come across as grounded, likeable and is good value with his often candid insights.
Mark of the Times is a 47 minute documentary featuring directors Norman J. Warren and Armstrong, screenwriter David McGillivray and authors Prof. Peter Hutchings and Kim Newman discussing the 'new wave' of 1970s British horror cinema. Amongst the subjects for discussion are the work of Pete Walker and Warren, with McGillivray giving his own insights on working with both men. Mark of the Devil is also discussed, the debt it owes to Witchfinder General, censorship issues, its marketing and the lack of distribution in the UK. Indeed the problems of distribution and critical reception are a recurring theme with other cult favourites such as The Wicker Man and Death Line also highlighted.
Hallmark of the Devil (12:12) features Fangoria's Michael Gingold discussing the colourful and dubious history of US distributor, Hallmark Releasing. Gingold focuses on the tactics and techniques - often innovative, rarely tasteful - which Hallmark employed in promotional campaigns. Key to this is the predominance of confrontational material and gimmicks which drove these campaigns such as Mark of the Devil's specially created non-MPAA approved viewer rating and 'vomit bags', and Hallmark's penchant for actively stoking controversy around provocative features like Last House on the Left.
Next up are a series of interviews with key contributors including actors Udo Kier, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schoener; Herbert Fux and Herbert Lom (audio only) and composer Michael Holm. One thread that persists concerns the relationship between Armstrong and Hoven during the shoot, something Armstrong deals with at length in the commentary. Interestingly no two accounts are in complete accordance with everyone appearing to have their own perspective on who did what. One minor complaint concerns Herbert Lom's interview where his voice is often difficult to hear, and whilst the quality of the recording cannot be levelled at Arrow it's a pity that no subtitles are available.
Mark of the Devil: Now and Then (7:06) compares a number of the filming locations with how they look today.
The package is completed by a brief compilation of outtakes, a gallery of promotional materials and the theatrical trailer. An Illustrated collector’s booklet advertised by Arrow is also included but was not available for review.
Ultimately Mark of the Devil is a relatively superficial brew despite the cult status it continues to enjoy in Europe and North America. That novelty 'vomit bags' were handed out at screenings suggests the level at which the finished product was being pitched, although by today's standards it’s pretty tame stuff. Overall there is very little of true shock value other than some gratuitous gore and it lacks the visceral impact of the film to which it is routinely and unfavourably compared, the aforementioned Witchfinder General. However that is not to say that this is an unworthy release as Arrow's presentation is a further example of their ongoing commitment to showcasing both the sublime and the ridiculous with similarly high levels of tender loving care. By virtue of this fact it would be churlish not to acknowledge Arrow for taking what has until relatively recently been viewed in the UK as a curious footnote in exploitation horror cinema and reinvigorating it with a superb transfer enhanced further by a fine selection of extra materials.