Jan 17, 2014

Mark of the Devil

Undoubtedly, you know a movie is a tasteless piece of trash when it was promoted with the marvelously moronic gimmick of handing out vomit bags to viewers at movie theater screenings upon its release and such is certainly the case in regard to the West German exploitation flick Mark of the Devil (1970) aka Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält aka Witches Are Tortured To Death aka Burn, Witch, Burn aka Satan aka Austria 1700 aka Hexen ostensibly directed by British auteur Michael Armstrong (Horror House, Screamtime) and ghost-directed by one-time Fassbinder actor Adrian Hoven (World on a Wire, Fox and His Friend), who also acted as producer, actor, and production manager of the film, among other things. Admittedly, the sole reason why I decided to watch Mark of the Devil is because I recently saw director Armstrong’s first film The Image (1967)—an excellent avant-garde horror short that has the distinction of being the first film David Bowie ever appeared in—which I was so impressed with that I decided to dig up the filmmaker’s entire oeuvre. Rather unfortunately, I discovered that not only was The Image the best film Armstrong ever directed, but also that his role as ‘auteur’ of Mark of the Devil was dubious at best, as producer Adrian Hoven pulled a David O. Selznick and made the film his own by secretly directing scenes on his own with his friend cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke without the official director’s permission, as well as canning the original ending of the film. To Hoven’s credit, he was originally attached to direct Mark of the Devil (rumored to having been originally titled “The Witch Hunter - Dr. Dracula”), but the financers of the film wanted a British director so they could easily distribute the film in England, so they hired Armstrong, who wrote a new script that was also eventually bastardized by the producer. Made to cash in on the success of Witchfinder General (1968) directed by Michael Reeves, Mark of the Devil is a proto-torture-porn period piece of sorts set during the 18-century featuring conventions typical of the WiP (Women in Prison) subgenre about a motley maniac crew of severely sadomasochistic witch-hunters of the pseudo-Christian sort who falsely denounced people as heretics, witches, and sorcerers so they can appease their unquenchable thirst for both blood and money. An awe-inspiringly morally retarded work that seems like it was directed by a pathological psychopath with ADHD, Mark of the Devil is plagued by gratuitous sex and violence, poor dubbing (which sounds like British people attempting to speak with American accents), shockingly artificial emotionality, and carelessly cliché anti-Christian and left-wing preaching, among countless other glaring problems, though I will give it credit for utilizing an authentic ancient Austria castle (which was actually a museum full of authentic furniture and tools that were utilized for the film). Indeed, a sort of Ken Russell’s The Devil (1971) for deranged philistines, Mark of the Devil is ultimately a reminder that exploitation cinema tends to be a cracked mirror image of the shady anti-artistic business practices of Hollywood. 

 Opening with a group of virginal nuns being brutally raped by wayward witchfinders, Mark of the Devil instantly lets the viewer know that it is a piece of totally tasteless, tactless, and sensationalized celluloid trash of the history-raping sort. Of course, the nuns are falsely denounced as evil witches and are subsequently ritualistically burned at the stake by self-righteous witch-rapists and following inter-titles appear immediately afterward declaring, “In Europe, between the 15th and 19th centuries, it is estimated nearly eight million people were convicted of heresy and executed by fanatical witch hunters, in order to save their souls,” as if the viewer is supposed to take the film seriously as a work of historical social commentary. Eventually, twink-like witch-hunter hero Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier), who is waiting for the arrival of his father-like teacher Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), arrives at a small ancient Aryan town and he discovers the lead witch-hunter of the village, Albino (played by Austrian actor, Reggie Nalder, who is unforgettable due to his literally disfigured chin with glaring burns/scars covering his face), is a bloodthirsty butcher who falsely denounces people as witches just so he can torture and murder them. After a wop-like barmaid beauty named Vanessa (Olivera Katarina) is denounced by witch-hunter Albino as having had “illicit intercourse with the devil” and putting a curse on local men to render them impotent, Christian comes to her defense and the two begin a ‘romance’ that was ultimately never meant to be. When Lord Cumberland arrives, it becomes quite apparent that he is a holier-than-thou type who uses his pernicious power to murder people and steal their money, including a young aristocrat Baron Daumer (Michael Maien), and unlike Albino, who accepts the fact he is a sadistic scumbag, the Lord truly believes he is a devout Christian who is carrying out the work of the real Lord. Meanwhile, the local witch-hunters arrest an entire noble family (with the family patriarch being played by producer Adrian Hoven) for putting on ‘satanic’ puppet shows, which ultimately results in the father of the family having to endure Chinese water torture in what is easily one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film. Eventually, Christian loses his faith in both his religion and charlatan father-figure after witnessing Lord Cumberland strangling to death Albino after the fellow threatens to blackmail him by telling everyone that he is sexually impotent.  Indeed, in typical Judaic Freudian fashion, violence and brutality are associated with impotence and sexual frustration in Mark of the Devil. Naturally, Christian decides to rebel against the ‘Lord’s work’ and proceeds to help save Vanessa and the other prisoners. Ultimately, Mark of the Devil ends in a strikingly cynical fashion after Vanessa, who escapes her imprisonment, hypocritically leads her own Bolshevik-esque witch-hunt against the witch-hunters that ironically results in the brutal and bloody death of her best beau Christian, who becomes the most prized victim of a savage peasant lynch mob that his lover formed. Quite notably, director Mark Armstrong originally intended to conclude Mark of the Devil in a seemingly nonsensical manner featuring zombie heretics (i.e. the victims of the witchfinders) arising from the ground and pulling Udo Kier down with them, but luckily producer Adrian Hoven stopped him. 

 Undoubtedly, I think star Udo Kier best summed up the importance and intrinsic value of Mark of the Devil in the documentary featurette Fear and Loathing in Austria (2004) when he stated of the work and its troubled production history with the following insightful words: “With producers it’s always about money. How much do I invest? How much will it make in the end? It’s always been this way. Probably not with Lars von Trier and Fassbinder, because for them, film is art. But MARK OF THE DEVIL is a commercial movie and what’s important is how much money it makes.” Personally, I never expected Adrian Hoven to be a money-grubbing parasite as he had the gall to portray a Jew-gassing Nazi drag queen in the Fassbinder penned arthouse masterpiece Shadow of Angels (1976) aka Schatten der Engel directed by Daniel Schmid, but then again, he also starred in Jess Franco films. Rather humorously, Udo also stated regarding Mark of the Devil in the same short 2004 doc: “I always thought that my close-ups were the single most attractive thing in the movie, with all the blood just adding up. Regarding the torture scenes, tongue tearing and all that, you knew before, this was strong stuff which would generate publicity.” Udo’s charming narcissism aside, Mark of the Devil certainly seems like an outmoded work of old hat trash sensationalism nowadays, especially considering mainstream Hollywood horror films go to even greater extremes in their artless depiction of soulless aesthetic savagery nowadays. In retrospect, Mark of the Devil proved to be a popular enough work as it produced one official sequel, Mark of the Devil Part II (1973) aka Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält, which was also produced (and this time officially directed) by Hoven, as well as countless pseudo-sequel rip-offs, including a couple of the chapters from Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series. More recently, the popular FX channel horror television series American Horror Story paid tribute to Mark of the Devil by naming the fifth episode of the third season “Burn, Witch. Burn!” (which is one of the various alternate titles of the film). Indeed, with its gratuitous violence, sexual perversity, and less than flattering depiction of witchfinders, American Horror Story: Coven (2013-2014) certainly follows in the trashy tradition of Mark of the Devil, although at least the contemporary TV series has wit and character. While I cannot pay any great compliments to Mark of the Devil beyond saying it was a sometimes entertaining way to waste 90+ minutes or so, I certainly thought it was better than Witchfinder General, but then again, I have always had an aversion to left-wing revisionist history and effete rapists wearing campy 18th-century clothing.  Hell, even Ulli Lommel made a more sophisticated leftist revisionist witch-hunter flick during his post-arthouse years with his feminist-themed work The Devonsville Terror (1983), a work that portrays ancient New England witchfinders and their contemporary ancestors as self-righteous sadists of the murderously misogynistic sort.  Of course, the only thing more repellant than leftist horror-comedies is preachy leftist exploitation flicks, so maybe I can understand why they handed out vomit bags for Mark of the Devil after all.

-Ty E

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Herbert Fux ! ? ! ?.