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MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)

Directed by Michael Armstrong

Starring Herbert Lom and Udo Kier

The witch-hunter film was a staple of 1970s horror, and one of the best was "Mark of the Devil," starring Herbert Lom as a judge in 16th Century Europe who (unlike many other witch-burners of the day) really believes in the cause he's fighting, and isn't just in it for the poontang. Kier plays the young aristocrat training as his apprentice, who finds his loyalty's torn when the peasant woman he's fallen in love with is accused of witchcraft.

Promoting itself as a historical drama, "Mark" professes (during its opening credits no less) to be based upon three real-life accounts of witch burnings. But any semblance of cinematic seriousness was lost when this film was released to seedy theaters in the 1970s: Patrons were given barf bags as a promotion. Despite the marketing campaign hyping "Mark" as one of the most disgusting films ever made (the first movie ever to be rated "V" for violence), the movie is actually pretty damn good. The storyline, which finds Kier's character slowly becoming alienated from the industrial witch-burning complex that's emerged in the society he lives in, is quite believable. With an ending that doesn't compromise, and a surprising lack of much gratuitous gore (save one scene where a woman's tongue is ripped out), "Mark" is a solid little movie with a good cast and even a good score.

Filmed in the spirit of Michael Reeves' "The Conqueror Worm", "Mark" isn't really a horror film so much as a historical drama with horrifying elements. If you can get over the atrocious dubbing, you might find yourself even caring for the characters -- including Lom's witchfinder, who is torn up inside because of an impotency problem.

Some of the more terrifying scenes include one where witch-hunters arrest two wealthy aristocrats for putting on a puppet show, claiming puppets are proof of witchcraft. It's scary because it captures the essence of all witch hunts: miserable people going after anyone who manages to derive some fun out of life. As the story progresses, we (along with Kier's character, appropriately named "Christian") realize that most of the accusations aren't motivated by much more than money or spurned desire. Buxotic Olivera Vuco plays the wrongfully accused peasant. Before she's thrown in prison, we get to see the bouncy and bubbly actress jiggle her way throughout the pub where she works. Unfortunately, she keeps her clothes on throughout the film's proceedings. Kier puts in a good performance too, although it's always awkward when they dub his voice in movies. Anyone who's seen him in either "Blood for Dracula" or "Flesh for Frankenstein" knows what his bizarre, heavily-accented and effeminate German voice really sounds like.

Reggie Nalder, who plays Albino, a rival witchhunter to Lom's character, is also a familiar face in horror. You saw him in Dario Argento's "Bird with the Crystal Plumage," but he's best remembered for playing this movie's ultimate sleazeball character.

With an ending that doesn't sell out, a well-written script and a good (albeit badly dubbed) cast, "Mark of the Devil" is a must see if you're into early '70s horror. Not as enjoyable as either "The Devils" or "The Conqueror Worm," but a classic nonetheless, "Mark" is no longer in print on DVD or VHS, but you might be able to pick up a used copy somewhere. It's well worth looking for.

A number of sequels resulted. Nalder made it back for "Mark of the Devil 2" a year later. In 1995, a "Mark of the Devil 666" was released.

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