Thursday, 9 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Mark of the Devil (1970)


Dir. Michael Armstrong

Befitting a film that got high age certificates for violence, Mark of the Devil is incredibly nasty even now. One is reminded of Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968), it itself a grimmer, more violence film reflecting the growing desire to depict more explicit content. Is either film actually in the horror genre? As depictions of witch hunts of the past, where innocent people are tortured to confess to Satanic practices and witchcraft, they qualify as 'horror' in the revulsion of scapegoating, corruption and the horrible torture methods depicted. Unfortunately, WItchfinder General, starring Vincent Price as the figure Matthew Hopkins, was drastically censored, the only surviving footage of what was cut, for the restoration, less than average in quality, and Mark of the Devil has only gotten released in Britain uncut this year, this month in fact. Mark of the Devil is a curious blend - it feels like a British period horror film, only it was filmed in Europe with European actors dubbed, including Udo Kier in a lead role as Count Christian von Meruh, the understudy of a witch hunter who questions the morality of trying and burning people for witchcraft, as his mentor Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) shows a hypocrisy in his position no different from Albino (Reggie Nalder), the local witchfinder in a town that is open in his corruption, complicated by Christian's growing romance for barmaid Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Katarina), who is arrest as a witch. It has far and away more violence than many of the British films of this period, and while it is a very serious, eventually downbeat movie, it has streaks of luridness that adds to its reputation.

But it's not the violence, the blood split, that makes this film still nasty for me. The violence itself is no longer shocking in my eyes for a visceral level, fake blood and prosthetics that are very ghoulish, but when you can buy a rubber severed foot at Tescos, Mark of the Devil as a splatter film feels quaint. One of the things that got the film still cut in the UK for a long time, the sexual edge, including one scene of a topless woman on a torture rack, is also for me tame, far from offensive when far more explicit works depicting bondage and S&M are available to buy in a British bookstore. It makes little sense, in terms of this violence, why the film still gets an eighteen certificate when I've seen worse content in films suitable for fifteen year olds. The only potential reason, and what retains the nasty streak for the film instead, is its tone. Baring a final act with something good happening, until that becomes soured, there is a bleak view depicted in the film. Exactly as in Witchfinder General, anyone can be accused as a witch, and the procedures to get a confession were as sadistic as the punishment, Michael Armstrong using real examples of the devices used as props. While the tongue pulled out of a woman's mouth, an infamous poster image, is a piece of meat or rubber, a party trick for the macabre, it's the bluntness of how the procedure takes place, still strong, that is affecting. As for the story around this content, it is simple - a man of the faith, hunting witches, becomes disillusioned, the villains corrupt and little in the way of sympathy for them, a film that is completely black and white in its viewpoint. This simplicity works with the nasty streak to give you a real emotional investment with the material.

The film, if read to mirror contemporary society, has a potential message of distrust in authority, unintentional and thought of when the film was made. The film may seem ludicrous to the modern viewer when someone is tried for throwing a crucifix into a manure pile or create impotency curses, examples from inside the movie, but unfortunately this was once a real and common issue in the Western world. As anyone who has seen Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922) can attest to, a dramatic documentary on the same subject matter, the history of witchcraft has a vast mythology, including that of the hysteria and pettiness created amongst people, the slander and paranoia that must've be felt, when angels and devils were fully believed to be real, and such torture devices as thumbscrews were being used under the belief of justice for the Christian God. And while said thumbscrews are no longer used, the mentality of moral crusades still exist today and are still vicious, and neither is it just a problem with right wing, religious groups and moral campaigners, but also with the left wing and people with humanitarian ideals, which is why the term "witchhunt" is still in common use. Christianity and witchcraft aren't really the subject of Mark of the Devil, more the concepts that the villains merely hide behind, tainting the Christian gospel with their corrupt ideas, from forcing sexual favours from accused female witches to a subplot about a son of a late lord being tried as being possessed so his land and wealth is given to the Church. And Albino, played by the menacing, granite faced Nalder, is completely open to checking for marks of Satan on people with his dagger just out of vindictiveness. In a cohesive, traditional narrative, these ideas come ahead, a dark and disturbing horror film now because of this rather than its lurid gore.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing unconventional. More what would happen if a British horror film was allowed to go further at that time in content, produced through West Germany, and more open in terms of look, real outdoor locations used instead of artificial sets and stylised use of film grammar. It's director was allowed to make what he wanted, and rather than a surreal film, he made one which, when it ends with the villains mostly surviving and a gut punch to the viewer in what happens to one good character, is more about the bleakness instead. Considering the troubled production history for the film, when you learn of it, it is successful as well for being completely cohesive and solid in its presentation.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Mark of the Devil is a film I've known of for many years, but I pushed it to the back in favour of films I was more interested in. It neither helped that we're only getting an uncut version of this now in the UK, after forty four years of its existence. It's very much of its era despite its infamy for the torture and gore, more vicious and different aesthetically from Hammer films of the time, but comparable to the likes of Witchfinder General. But it is a great film; I wished I had prioritised it years before to see, but regardless I've see it finally and it was worth it. It is a glorious thing, too, for British cult film fans, unless they got the American release, to finally have the uncut version of this just in time for Halloween. Its director Michael Anderson made an immensely serious film from a subject matter that causes you to think about how "witchhunts", in one way or another, have been a failure of human society at the same time as admire the film for its lurid, but well made content. 

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