Sunday, August 15, 2010

And one day, you too shall be a great witchhunter!

Ever watch a film that in no way embodies its reputation? You see a title like “Mark of the Devil,” spot Udo Kier in the cast, and knowingly eye the cover art featuring a pretty blond having her tongue cut out. Internet research reveals this was advertised with a William Castle-ish campaign complete with complimentary barf bags with every ticket purchase. If you’re like me, you pretty much assume the next 90 minutes will be spent with cheap period costumed bosoms, lots of burnings at the stake and eventually, silly dallyings with Satan himself.
You know what they say about assuming.
Quick Plot: In the 18th century (or so), priestly witch hunters devote their lives (or more fittingly, the lives of a whole lot of unlucky villagers) to purging the lands of the devil, mostly by imprisoning random citizens and inflicting ungodly methods of torture until they nod blankly at the suggestion of working for the devil, only to then be beheaded in front of TV-less townspeople who love a good show. 

This particular cleansing occurs in a regular old European town ruled by Albino, a scarred and cruel man who resembles a period-era Geoffrey Rush after being left out in the sun for too long. Like most witch hunters, Albino uses his power to randomly execute locals to suit his needs, even having the jerkitude to accuse a nice young bar wench for spurning his oily advances. Things seem to look brighter at the arrival of Lord Cumberland, the world’s most revered and feared enemy of Satan, and his fluffy assistant (Udo Kier! dubbed). 

Too bad ‘better’ lasts as far as slapping the smarm out of Albino before then returning to even crueler methods of torture.

Although nun tongues are severed, limbs stretched, and bodies burned at the stake, Mark of the Devil is hardly trashy exploitation. The production values are top notch, with gorgeous cinematography that paints a postcard-like landscape and kinetic camerawork that plays with perspective. A few background searches (plus gloriously Kierish special features) reveal a rather tumultuous filming process, with a director replacement and constant script revisions. Am I crazy for not seeing this?
What I’m trying to say is Mark of the Devil is a genuinely fine film. Hammer quality history with more discipline and patience, plus the rather nihilistic nerve to end in a frustrating, yet fitting way that defies your general expectations. 
High Points
In a film seeped with seriousness, a side story involving confused executioners and impressive marionettes is a hilarious and welcome diversion
Have there ever been such memorable faces sharing the screen as the executioner and indictment writer? These mugs could make roses wilt

Low Points
For a movie that wore its grisliness on a promotional barf bag, the final revolt is disappointingly tame
Lessons Learned
Rabbits don’t eat meat, but they do make fairly adorable marionettes

In order to avoid being accused of mating with Satan, avoid being rich, pretty, or good with puppets
In the 18th century, the only cure for impotence was rape
Perhaps my expectations were simply in the minor leagues, but Mark of the Devil felt like a genuine all-star film, odd considering its troubled history, dual directorship and dubbed awkwardness. Some of the camerawork is truly innovative and the story keeps you intrigued throughout the brisk 100 minute running time. Blue Underground put out a top notch DVD complete with a very frank commentary and a basketful of interviews with the cast (including a hilarious Udo Kier). It’s an easy rental with possible buy potential.


  1. One of my oldest horror movie experience, I don't know why but back when this came out my step-Father(the Asshole as he would become known), Mom and us kids saw this at the Braintree MA Drive-In in a double feature with Bruce Lee's 5 Fingers of Death, after 5 Fingers we children were supposed to go to sleep. Yeah right, I watched this movie not knowing what the hell I was seeing. I wonder if it scarred the 7 year old me? How would I know?

  2. When I worked at a DVD shop this was one I'd always pick up, eyeball & then put back as it was a tad dear for a blind-buy on my meager retail-slave wage.
    That said, I'm a sucker for these type of period/witchhunty films - (you have seen Witchfinder General right, right?) and now will definitely seek it out.

  3. Soresport: Your stepfather may have been an Asshole, but at least he had good movie taste!

    Vish: I actually hadn't heard of the Witchfinder General until I listened to the commentary on Mark of the Devil, but it's top on my radar now. If you dig this genre, DEFINITELY give this one a try.

  4. Doh, I meant to sign in as myself. "Glee" is the happier version of Emily.

  5. Emily: Ok - I promise to see this as soon as i can if you try to see Witchfinder General- It's got Vincent Price in one of his least out and out camp roles and has a nasty mean streak that i rather dig.

  6. Witchfinder General is in the "saved" part of my queue, which for you Canadians means that the DVD hasn't been added to Netflix yet. However, it has a "coming soon" message which I'm hoping to be hopeful about. My virtual pinky swear is extended.