DPP Section 3 title Mark of the Devil (1970) is the latest controversial film to see its long awaited fully uncut release in the UK, thanks to Arrow video. The film makes its bolt for freedom in grand style as part of a fully restored upgraded release (Blu-ray/DVD combo), presented in 1080p high definition. The package contains some excellent extra material; including a director commentary, exclusive interviews and a documentary Mark of the Times, from High Rising Productions focusing on the New Wave of British horror during the seventies. This is sure to come as a delight to fans of the film who have been clamouring to see this feature finally get its moment in the sun. As one of those who have been waiting, I am happy to report Arrow’s restoration and supplementary bundle does not disappoint, and the film looks glorious on Blu-ray. The timing on this couldn’t have been more perfect for us at The Gore Splattered Corner, meaning we are able to include this in our ongoing Witchy Wonder and Demonic Delight Season- this cult classic being in my opinion the definitive witch finder horror.
It seems ironic that a film that covers one of the most horrific periods in history- the European Witch trials- would get caught up in one of the biggest modern day ‘witch hunts’ following its release. While the title never attracted a fully-fledged DPP Video Nasty label, the picture did come under the list of films featured on the DPP Section 3 list- meaning, under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, the owning or hiring of this film could have still won you a spot at the magistrate court, and your copy could have been seized and destroyed. Because of the lack of availability of the film, and then consequent releases being passed by the BBFC with cuts, Mark of the Devil has been, to some extent, forced to stand in the shadow of its direct predecessor Witchfinder General (1968).
There is no denying Michael Reeves’ genre defining piece Witchfinder General was a film that set the bar for films of this ilk. Mark of the Devil, a film produced with German money, was originally envisioned for Reeves in light of his involvement in the aforementioned flick. However, due to his untimely death less than a year after his cult epic was released, scriptwriter Michael Armstrong stepped into the director’s chair instead. This could have presented a natural progression for director Reeves, the euro-production values allowing for much more lurid and graphic content to be added; an aspect that is left relatively untouched upon in Witchfinder General. This said Reeves’ feature is not without its uncomfortable moments. The two films do share some common threads, there is a strong basis on historical realism over occult elements, both have a central antagonist who has been warped by power, and abuses his position to promote his own agenda. The two also move along the lines that the true evil to be found from the witch trials era comes from the cruelty and genocide committed in the name of the Church, rather than any wrong doing on the part of those who find themselves accused.
Where Mark of the Devil differs greatly from Witchfinder General is its method of delivery in its subject matter. Witchfinder General did touch on some dark places, and incidentally this also gave horror icon Vincent Price the opportunity to give one of the most powerful performances of his career in his portrayal of despicable Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. What Mark of the Devil does is push that envelope even further, to give an unflinching and extremely graphic representation of the historical period. Armstrong does not tip toe around, instead showing everything in painfully glorious detail. The director setting his scene from the outset with the declaration following the opening act that claims the film is based on ‘three stories from authentic documents’. Whether this is true or not, and it is no secret that the ritual use of abominable torture and execution was widespread during the witch trials, it all adds to the tone- as I imagine did the giving out of vomit bags to audience members during the initial cinema showings of the film during its release. Whichever way you look at it though, Mark of the Devil is not for the faint hearted, even though it is a film that dates over 40 years old, it’s pretty gruesome for its time. The film hits the ground running with rape, torture and burning at the stake, and does not let up in pace for much of the running time. What follows is something almost incomparable for its time and subgenre, indulging in long drawn out bloody scenes which involve all manner of torture devices- spikes through the backside, stocks, water torture, stretching, beating, whipping, gouging for the devils mark with painful looking needles, ritual humiliation by tarring and feathering, dismemberment, flogging, and the crème de la crème- now fully restored in this uncut version- a graphic tongue ripping.
The tale concerns itself with the arrival of a new witchfinder in town- the fearsome Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) who comes accompanied with his lead executioner, Jeff Wilkins ‘the finest head chopper in Europe’(Herbert Fux) and Cumberland’s slightly naive, but good hearted apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier). The town has been living in fear of Cumberland’s predecessor Albino (Reggie Nalder), an unscrupulous individual who has long since abused his position of power to indulge his own pleasures. Just as a new broom sweeps clean, Cumberland takes to his role with much gusto, initially presenting himself as a ‘righter of wrongs’, and a man on a mission to uphold the war against evil. Albino is confined to a lesser position, and remains resentful, yet compliant- although this does not stop him in carrying out his own whims on occasion, especially if he can falsify documents to support his actions. When a local barmaid Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Katarina as Olivera Vuco) refuses Albino’s wandering hands, she finds herself accused of witchcraft and is vocal about her innocence. Christian- having spent time with the woman and being quite smitten- is not convinced Vanessa has committed any wrong doing, although Cumberland is unrepentant in his siding with Albino- as long as the paperwork is in order-, and appears more concerned with promoting a powerful image to the local townsfolk. A proud man the witchfinder is unable to relent on some of the decisions he and his accomplices have made, in case it would show weakness to the wider community. The basis of the plot allows the narrative to explore some interesting corners of the subject matter- such as the corruption of power and the injustice of the era, allowing for some thought-provoking moments in with the blood, boobs, and drawn out scenes of sadistic torture.
Armstrong approaches the subject from a number of angles to evoke the spirit of fear and suspicion that dominated the age- a time where even conducting a child’s puppet show could land you on trial. That is if it was suspected your puppets were tools of the devil and could possess the souls of the undead to deliver Satan’s message to impressionable young minds. People did really believe in aspects such as magic and sorcery, and many of those who acted on behalf of the Church were fully immersed in their convictions that they were working for the greater good. The director here draws on these elements- in his characterisations, and use of sensational language in reference to some of the accusations- to make something unsettling, and highly believable.
While the script shows a depth that helps Mark of the Devil transcend the boundaries of straight up exploitation, it is the performances involved that cement the feeling of a solid narrative. Herbert Lom, who does not appear for the first thirty minutes, but dominates his scenes after arrival, really gets into his role- demonstrating a highly complex characterisation of a proud, cowardly, impotent man, who struggles with his faith, and is blinded in his warped beliefs. Kier, in this his third full-length feature role, on the other hand is a character played out as misguided, but relatively pure of heart. The actor, who became known to genre fans for his more ominous performances in films such as Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), Blood for Dracula (1974), and House on Straw Hill aka Expose (1976), plays into his part here with utter conviction. It will no doubt be interesting for newcomers to the film to see the star in such a different light. For the supporting players, each one adds something to the piece, even those with smaller parts. Reggie Nalder as the nefarious Albino is particularly memorable, his distinctive look and lack of likeability playing into the whole injustice riff. Olivera Katarina as Vanessa provides a strong adversary for Cumberland and his crew, refusing to bow down to the Witchfinder’s will. Katarina makes for a strong and feisty female lead who does not become a victim despite what happens as the narrative develops.
As stated this really is a quality transfer onto Blu-ray, which allows the viewer to really immerse themselves in the craft involved in the FX and period settings especially. Thankfully Arrow have not overplayed their hand, and the restoration remains faithful to the original cinematic look and feel- retaining that seventies grain, but allowing for a glorious depth and detail to the print to shine through the medium of high-definition.
The extras are just the icing on the cake really; it is amazing that Mark of the Devil has even made it through the BBFC in its intended form at all. The exclusive interviews, especially with lead Udo Kier, and Herbert Lom are interesting additions, and the director’s commentary adds an extra layer to enjoyment of the main feature. On a personal note what pleased me the most was the inclusion of the High Rising Productions documentary on Britsploitation horror Mark of the Times – including interview material with directors Michael Armstrong, and Norman J. Warren, scriptwriter David McGillivray and a number of well-known commentators on the subject. For anyone who follows my writing here over at GSC, or through the number of print mediums I contribute to, you will know I am a writer with a great passion for this particular niche area in horror. For me it was a joy to see this area explored in depth, if only for the fact that this presents the opportunity that it may lead others to explore territory which is, in my opinion anyway, grossly overlooked when it comes to horror as an overall entity.
Full specifications of the disc are as follows:
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements – available uncut in the UK for the first time!
- Optional English and German audio
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Newly translated English subtitles for the German audio
- Audio commentary by Michael Armstrong, moderated by Calum Waddell
- Mark of the Times – exclusive feature-length documentary from High Rising Productions on the emergence of the ‘new wave’ of British horror directors that surfaced during the sixties and seventies, featuring contributions from Michael Armstrong, Norman J. Warren (Terror), David McGillivray (Frightmare), Professor Peter Hutchings (author of Hammer and Beyond) and famed film critic Kim Newman
- Hallmark of the Devil – author and critic Michael Gingold looks back at Hallmark Releasing, the controversial and confrontational distributor that introduced Mark of the Devil to American cinemas
- Interviews with composer Michael Holm and actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and Herbert Lom
- Mark of the Devil: Now and Then – a look at the film’s locations and how they appear today
- Reversible Sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Adrian Smith and Anthony Nield, plus an interview with Reggie Nalder by David Del Valle, all illustrated with original stills and artwork
Region: A/B 1/2
Cat No: FCD967
Duration: 97 mins
Language: English Mono / German Mono
Subtitles: English SDH / English
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Out now to own from Arrow, for newcomers and existing fans, you can find full details on where to buy here at the Arrow Official page.