Review: Mark of the Devil, aka Hexen bis aufs blut gequ ält (dir. Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven, 1970)

Mark of the Devil

Mark of the Devil (Hexen bis aufs blut gequ ält)
West Germany, 1970
Directors: Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven
Writers: Michael Armstrong (as Sergio Casstner) and Adrian Hoven (as Percy Parker)

Review by N Emmett.

Sometimes, the story behind a film can be more interesting than the film itself. Mark of the Devil started life as a script by former actor Adrian Hoven entitled The Witch-Hunter Dr Dracula, which involved Dracula becoming a Matthew Hopkins-like witchfinder and travelling around the land in a coach driven by an Egyptian mummy. The project ended up in the hands of Michael Armstrong, a young British director, who rewrote the script from scratch and filmed it as Mark of the Devil. The movie ended up as something rather less silly but not necessarily more desirable: a third-rate knock-off of 1968’s Witchfinder General.

In comparison to its model, Mark of the Devil‘s most significant innovation is the presence of multiple witch-hunters, each of different a moral stripe. Reggie Nalder plays Albino, the closest in spirit to Vincent Price’s Matthew Hopkins: a brutal, sadistic man who cooks up false accusations purely so that he can get his jollies abusing women. Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) is a slightly more complicated character, possibly inspired by Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He comes across as being motivated at first by religious zealotry, honestly believing that his victims are witches; over time he grows increasingly corrupted by lust and insecurity over his implied impotence, and sinks to the same level of depravity as Albino.

Then we have Christian (Udo Kier), a young count who looks up to Cumberland and does his duty in aiding the punishment of accused witches. But he eventually realises the horrible truth about the witchhunting racket when one of the accused women turns out to be his lover, cleavagey barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Katarina).

There is potential for an engaging story somewhere here, but Mark of the Devil somehow manages to miss all of it. Almost everything in the film fails: the plotting is loose, the editing choppy, the acting either bland or hammy and the music often incongruously jaunty. The curiously-accented English dub is the final nail in the coffin of the entire endeavour.

mark3To be fair, not all of this should be blamed on Armstrong. The original screenwriter Adrian Hoven, still involved with the film as producer, objected strongly to the 26-year-old upstart rewriting the undoubted masterpiece that was The Witch-Hunter Dr Dracula. The two clashed during filmmaking, with Hoven acting as uncredited co-director and even ordering Armstrong’s original finale – in which the victims of the witch-hunts returned from the dead – to be scrapped and replaced with something more predictable. Another of Armstrong’s plot ideas that did not quite make it into the final film involved a homoerotic relationship between Cumberland and Christian, which certainly throws new light on Cumberland’s habit of panicking whenever impotence is mentioned. Meanwhile, a nonsensical subplot involving a puppeteer and his family being arrested was apparently added purely so that Hoven could get a role in the film.

But then, was anybody really looking to Mark of the Devil for a competent piece of cinema? It seems doubtful. The picture was promoted on its bloody torture: American viewers were handed complimentary vomit bags, while the German release went under the delicate title of Hexen bis aufs blut gequ ält (Witches Tortured to the Death).

mark2And torture it has in spades. Just consider the character played by Gaby Fuchs, who exists only to be brutalised throughout the course of the film. After being raped by a bishop, she reports the crime only to be sentenced to torture for her blasphemy against the church. She is then whipped, branded and stretched on a rack, before having her tongue pulled out and finally being burnt to death – a fate which she accepts without a whimper, seeing it as a final escape from her torture. This is her entire contribution to the film’s storyline, and yet it stretches through a considerable chunk of the overall running time.

Unusually for a film of this type, it should be mentioned, Mark of the Devil extends its sexualised brutalities to the male portion of its cast. Michael Maien’s character is, like Gaby Fuchs, included purely to be tortured, only in this case the torturers show a distinct anal fixation: in one scene he has his trousers tugged down and is forced to sit on spikes, while in another he has a fire lit under his chair.

It goes without saying that all of this is unpleasant to sit through, but what is more surprising it just how dull it gets after a while. As its storyline grows increasingly vague, the film lethargically flops between the nauseating and the yawnsome.

mark1Perhaps its biggest misjudgement lies in the film’s framing of the idiotic Count Christian as the hero. Played by Kier as a gormless pretty-boy, Christian boldly sticks up for his wronged girlfriend Vanessa while remaining oblivious to the fact that his boss is sending innumerable other innocent people to fiery deaths. By the time Christian sees the error of his ways, the film has apparently realised that he is a poor protagonist: when it is time for the townspeople to be rallied in rebellion against Cumberland, it is not Christian but Vanessa who does the honours.

Despite its Anglo-German origins, Mark of the Devil often recalls the weird and wonderful world of the Italian trashfilm. This is thanks to its incoherent storytelling and obvious debt to a recent English-language movie, not to mention the oddly Cannibal Holocaust-like soundtrack. But crucially, it never reaches the bizarre heights of Lucio Fulci or Ruggero Deodato at their best; those Italian schlockmeisters would have come up with a scene or two so baffling as to make the film memorable, no matter how badly-made it was as a whole. In Mark of the Devil the closest we get are an inventive sequence from the point of view of a witch-finder, ending in a series of animated flashes as the unfortunate fellow gets a needle in the eye; and an odd moment of comic relief in which a torturer attaches a marionette’s strings to a live rabbit.

mark4Grindhouse aficionados will note that this release is the first uncut version of the film to reach the British market. Arrow Video have marked the occasion with a triumphant set of special features: a documentary that places Michael Armstrong as part of a “new wave” of young British horror directors such as Peter Walker, Norman J. Warren and Michael Reeves who made brutal, socially conscious films in opposition to the staid works of Hammer; a shorter documentary about Hallmark, the sleaze merchants that distributed the film in the US; a comparison between the Austrian settings as seen in the film and as they appear now; interviews; outtakes and a commentary from Armstrong. Finally, the set comes with a booklet containing an essay on the film by Adrian Smith, a piece by Anthony Nield on the career of Udo Kier and a 1989 interview with Reggie Nalder.

In short, this is an impressive release for an unimpressive film. An awkward blend of Witchfinder General and Blood Feast, Mark of the Devil is primarily of interest as an early example of the controversial torture porn subgenre which would not come to prominence until a few decades later. Perhaps The Witch-Hunter Dr Dracula would have been more interesting after all…