Arrow Video: Exploitation Meets Social Commentary: Mark of the Devil (1970)

Mark of the Devil (1970) is an interesting mixture of exploitation film making and self-aware social commentary. The film attempts to portray the culture surrounding the witch hunts in the early 18th century, and the way that religion and zealotry can oppress people if left unchecked.

The story centers around an apprentice witch hunter named Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his mentor witchfinder general Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom). Cumberland is the reigning authority in the town and anyone who is brought to him under suspicion of witchcraft is judged and sentenced only by him. The town employs the services of Albino (Reggie Nalder), a particularly cruel witch hunter who abuses his powers and uses them to rape and torture women he finds attractive and extort money from wealthier townspeople. Mark of the Devil is essentially two different movies in one: a historical picture about the witch trials and a sleazy trash film that focuses a lot of screen time on graphically torturing beautiful half-naked women. 

While one might be tempted to write the entire movie off because of the more lurid scenes, the narrative definitely does not condone these practices and furthermore is quite a scathing critique of both religion and government. Albino is depicted as an ignorant boar, a man who is illiterate and only concerned with his disgusting obsession with subjugating women. Reggie Nalder's performance is perfectly over-the-top and his disfigured visage (the result of real life scarring from burns) adds to his ghoulish demeanor. In direct contrast, Lord Cumberland is a suave and coiffed individual, who holds himself with an air of royalty. His regal appearance hides his dark nature, as he is just as fond of abusing the prisoners in his care. It is revealed that he is impotent and it's implied that he is using torture as a way of getting sexual gratification. This reinforces the idea that evil can be hidden underneath a pleasing exterior or laid out for all to see in plain sight.

All of this injustice is carried out in front of the townspeople, but because it mostly affects women initially they choose to turn a blind eye to it. Eventually, Cumberland's greed has him indicting men as well, as once a person is accused and sentenced their worldly goods are forfeited to the church. The dangers of ignoring persecution just because you are not part of the group that is receiving it is apparent--eventually it will make its way to other groups. Christian starts out in the film as a naive and ambitious apprentice, but as the story progresses he becomes disillusioned by all the atrocities he witnesses and tries to denounce it. Unfortunately, it ends up being too little, too late.

This film's graphic content was made infamous by its marketing which touted it as being "positively the most horrifying film ever made". They even handed out barf bags at showings of the film! Eventually it caught the attention of the morality police during the UK's Video Nasty panic and was confiscated and subsequently banned. Many other versions of the film were released with most of them editing out the more violent scenes. Arrow Video finally released it uncut in 2015 on Blu-ray and DVD. The torture scenes are quite gruesome (especially for the time period) and a few of them veer a little too close to titillation. That being said, for the most part, Mark of the Devil plays it straight and presents an intriguing morality play on the dangers of letting corruption flourish.

--Michelle Kisner