September 21, 2011

Mark of the Devil (1970)

(AKA "Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält")

"In 18th-century Austria, evil Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom) captures young women he deems to be witches, then tortures and kills them with the help of his faithful assistant, Baron Christian Von Mem (Udo Kier)."

Although very similar to "Witchfinder General" (1968), not only because of the subject matter but also because the director, Michael Armstrong, was an assistant to Michael Reeves on the Tigon production, this beautifully shot German film is a lot more brutal in every way.

Allegedly based on three true witchcraft trials during the abominable periods of witchcraft hysteria in Europe, this is all pretty grim stuff full of torture and exploitation at every opportunity. "Mark of the Devil" was once called the "most horrifying film ever made" and with good reason.

Modern audiences might find the story a tad slow in places, but the torture scenes using authentic methods and devices still hold up well 40 years on. You don't even need to ask if "Mark of the Devil" influenced the modern "torture porn" genre as it's actually a lot better than anything Eli Roth could produce nowadays with all his expensive KNB effects. Burnings, whippings, rackings and pokings with bodkins abound so, if you are the slightest bit squeamish, you probably won't see much of this film no matter how historically accurate it may be.

The acting is good enough to make you care about all of the characters whether they are villains or victims in spite of the terrible English overdubbing which was de rigeur for a lot of European movies of this time. In fact, it was mimed in phonetic English by the cast before the dubbing so there's nothing really to be gained from the German language version which some say was dubbed with a lot more emotion.

One thing which really stands out is how beautiful Udo Kier looked when he was younger. As a thoroughly heterosexual male even I can admit it. It's hard to believe that he was such a looker when you are so used to seeing him in films such as "Blade" (1998) without realising that he had quite an illustrious acting career beforehand.

Herbert Lom is also fantastic as the hypocritical Lord Cumberland who is far more the incarnation of the Devil than the imaginations of his victims could ever conjure up in their confessions. Most people will know him as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus from the "Pink Panther" movies but he's a very recognisable face from quite a few horror films of this era too.

There are also some incredibly beautiful actresses though the one which both Herbert Lom's character and I like the most is the blonde Ingeborg Schöner. According to the IMDb, she's had an amazing career in Germany which has lasted over 50 years.

Trivia fans may already know that "Mark of the Devil" was rated "V" for violence and ticket buyers were offered "barf bags" before the film started. If you have a weak stomach then you'll probably do well to have something handy to throw up in even now.

The power of the film really comes from the fact that injustice and persecution still exist everywhere today. You really don't have to let your mind wander too far to start equating the powers that be in the film with whichever government you are currently under. The physical tortures might not be so readily used nowadays, but just ask anyone who has ever been falsely accused of a crime that they didn't commit about how frustrated and helpless they felt and you'll soon realise that the legal system is still as corrupt today as it ever was.

Personally, I started to think about all the animal cruelty that I've witnessed and how the perpetrators, otherwise known as "Humane Societies", still get away with it. Their corrupt directors take home huge wages at the expense of innocent canine and feline lives just as the witchfinders also profited from blood money based on nothing but telling lies to the general public. I often drift off into thinking about things like that during the most mean-spirited horror movies but live in hope that one day justice will be served in the most sadistic ways possible too.

"Mark of the Devil" is a very cruel and powerful film with a far from happy ending which will really disturb you if you let it. Similar events to those depicted in this film really did happen, many innocent people were murdered and families were torn apart for no good reason. You don't have to look too far back into history to see how mankind keeps repeating the same mistakes.

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