Mark of the Devil (1970) – By Roger Carpenter


I have mentioned previously that one of my favorite things about Arrow Video is the fact that some of their releases are of relatively overlooked and otherwise forgotten films such as Juan Picquer Simon’s Slugs and Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat. But with this release, Arrow Video is giving us a genuine cult horror classic in a superb deluxe edition.

Mark of the Devil has been censored and banned across the world since its release in 1970. Perhaps it had something to do with the marketing campaign which branded it the “first film to be released with a ‘V’ rating, for ‘violence’.” Or perhaps its legendary status had more to do with the sick bags issued to audiences upon purchase of a ticket for the film. Regardless of the reason, Mark of the Devil was, for a long time, hard to find in an uncut state, which only helped to generate controversy. Add to that the fact that director Michael Armstrong was fired and producer Adrian Hoven completed the film, leading to speculation about whose film this really is, and you have a movie that has been mired in discussion, debate, and genuine controversy for nearly half a century.

Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) is the Grand Inquisitor who travels the countryside ridding villages and towns of their witches. Traveling with him is his young protégé, Christian (Udo Keir, in a very early role). One town these two ardent witch hunters visit seems to have more than its share of devilish fiends. There is the married couple who are accused of making wooden toys speak and move when ignorant court officers stumble upon an innocent puppet show. There is the Baron Daumer, accused of witchcraft so the estate he inherited can be acquired by the church. There is the clearly innocent and very pretty peasant girl who is tortured so badly that she thanks Lord Cumberland for ending her life by being burnt at the stake. All of these episodes shake Christian’s belief in the Inquisition, but the straw that break the camel’s back is when the beautiful Vanessa (Olivera Katarina), whom he loves, is falsely accused of witchcraft by the local inquisitor, Albino (Reggie Nalder). As Chrisian wanders the halls of the castle when he stays with Lord Cumberland, he accidentally witnesses his mentor argue and eventually kill Albino. With the realization that his boss is no different than the others, he sets out to free the innocents locked up below in the castle dungeon.

Perhaps most famous for its prolonged and gruesome scenes of torture using actual implements used during the real Inquisition, the effects have not aged well. In 1970 this was groundbreaking violence. In the new millennium the effects are exposed as nothing more than low-budget filmmaking with a few splatters of movie blood. The thoughts the viewer may have concerning what real people accused of witchcraft is typically more gruesome than the actual effects, including the most famous effect—that of a tongue being ripped out of a woman’s mouth.

While some praised the film’s realism, use of actual stories culled from Inquisition documents, and an examination of the Church’s abuse of authority and implication in state-organized murder for profit others roundly condemned the movie as exploitive violence with no redeeming message. But most viewers agree the film is shot beautifully, with wonderful scenery including an actual castle, as well as a very solid score. The acting, a combination of veteran character actors and strong newcomers, is also a strength.

While Mark of the Devil may not hold up as “the most violent movie ever made”, it still packs a wallop, with many scenes of torture and degradation. Armstrong’s (and Hoven’s?) direction is stellar and, for a low-budget film, the production value is surprisingly high.

Arrow’s Blu-Ray release is nothing less than stunning. The film looks and sounds fantastic, with bright colors and a clean picture. But the real reason to purchase (another) copy of the film is for the special features. Along with the Blu-Ray and standard DVD presentation is a booklet containing new writing on the film as well as an interview with Albino himself, Reggie Nalder. There is a director commentary, outtakes, a gallery that includes stills not seen in the film itself, and several interviews with main cast members as well as the film’s composer. There is a short feature depicting the film’s locations at the present compared to 1969 and even a look back at the film’s distribution and distribution company, Hallmark Releasing. But the real gem is a 47-minute documentary about the emergence of the “new wave” of British horror directors of the late 60’s and 70’s.

Even if the film doesn’t pack the same wallop as it did in 1970, it is vastly entertaining, looks and sounds terrific, and the plethora of extras will keep you entertained for several hours as well. Kudos to Arrow Video for another superb release!

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