Mark of the Devil
(Hexen bis aufs Blut Gequält) (1970)
Directed by Michael Armstrong

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Some time in the Seventeenth Century, in a small German town, Albino (Reggie Nalder), a corrupt witchhunter, uses his position to exploit the innocent for his own pleasure and profit. Although he loses his authority when two aristocratic witch finders, Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom) and his assistant, Christian (Udo Kier), arrive and begin their own investigation into supernatural happenings in the area, the sufferings of the people are not alleviated. Nevertheless, while this pair vigorously carry out their brutal duties, Christian, despite his zealous dedication, initiates a relationship with a local woman, Vanessa (Olivera Vuco), who has been accused of witchcraft, which leads to his falling out with his mentor.

Michael Armstrong's Mark of the Devil is a peculiar, frequently repulsive film that is likely to profoundly disturb the viewer. The story the director tells is somewhat amorphous, but the various incidents out of which it is constructed are consistently interesting and genuinely horrific.


The movie effectively arouses a poignant sense of revulsion in the viewer with its numerous grisly depictions of torture, violence, exploitation, and rape. In various scenes, Armstrong presents the moviegoer with images of nuns being burned alive, of a priest being tarred and feathered after having had his fingers chopped off, of a woman's tongue being torn from her mouth with a pair of iron tongs, of that same woman being branded, whipped, and stretched on the rack, of a young man being roasted, beaten, and eventually beheaded, and of several other repellent incidents. The list of such sequences, in fact, goes on and on, and all stir up in the viewer intense feelings of terror and repulsion.


Even those scenes in which nothing overtly horrific is being shown allow the moviegoer to relish a definite sense of dread about the fates of the characters whose lives are there being depicted. The viewer is thus filled with foreboding when he sees Christian and Vanessa chatting and cavorting happily beside a stream, a man and his wife performing a puppet play for their children, a young couple happily making love in their bed, and so on. The film's conclusion is particularly emotive and is likely to leave the viewer astonished by the cruelty and the inhumanity it reveals to him.


What is more, although Mark of the Devil may not be an accurate depiction of an earlier time, it does, nonetheless, successfully evoke another age throughout its duration. The viewer is readily drawn into a brutal world that is, in many ways, very different from that in which he lives. The values of the film's characters are rarely those of the modern age, and the physical objects with which they are surrounded are not as tidy or quaint as such things tend to be in movies. Instead, the director presents an often lovely but dirty and violent world that enables the viewer to savor both its beauty and its harshness.


The movie's emotivity and appeal are, by and large, enhanced by the performances of the actors, which are surprisingly good. Reggie Nalder makes the viewer aware of Albino's nasty, ignorant savagery. Herbert Lom is a delight as the self-righteous, hypocritical Cumberland. Olivera Vuco suffuses Vanessa with an engaging spiritedness and sensuality, and Udo Kier effectively brings out Christian's idealism, his dedication to his mentor, his burgeoning love for Vanessa, and his ever growing doubts about the propriety of his actions. While none of the main players give truly impressive performances, all of them are effective.


Despite its often surprising virtues, the film is not a complete success. The cinematography is frequently dreadful. The production values are sometimes unsatisfactory, and the script is, on more than one occasion, overwrought. Although such flaws do not ruin the movie's enjoyableness, they do detract from it.


Mark of the Devil is by no means a great film, but it is a genuinely affecting one that is well worth watching.

Review by Keith Allen

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