Friday, 26 September 2014

Mark of the Devil (1969)

MARK OF THE DEVIL, Michael Armstrong's often banned, frequently cut witchfinding EuroHorror from 1969 finally makes its way onto UK DVD & Blu-ray uncut courtesy of Arrow Films after cinema screenings around the country at last year's Halloween FrightFest all-nighter. A movie with a troubled production history even before the censors started sharpening their scissors, MARK OF THE DEVIL is one of those film's whose reputation has caused it to be spoken of in the same breath as extreme cinema classics like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and A SERBIAN FILM.

MARK OF THE DEVIL is not a classic, but then I find it hard to believe it was anyone's intention that it should be considered such. Filmed in the wake of the huge international (and especially European) success of Michael Reeves' infinitely superior WITCHFINDER GENERAL, MARK OF THE DEVIL is nothing more nor less than a rather more violent version than usual of the European knock-off picture, complete with wholly inappropriate music, intermittent acting and dubbing, and a sense of needing to touch all the exploitation bases in order to ensure an audience. Admittedly it does the horror stuff with gusto, but whether that's enough to make you want to watch it is for you to decide.

In period EuroHorrorLand (it's never exactly clear where - or when - we are) the psychotic Albino the Witchfinder (Reggie Nalder) does pretty much what he likes, revelling in torture, sadism, and anything else he fancies perpetrating upon anyone whom he decides is a servant of the devil. Into this jolly environment comes a Proper Witchfinder - Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) and his apprentice Christian (Udo Kier with lots of eye liner). Lord Cumberland proposes to get to the bottom of all the witchy activity in the area by even more torture while Christian gets upset because he fancies one of the accused girls. It all ends in a cataclysmic fury of rampant nihilism to rival Reeves' film, but just not as well done.

I can't admit to liking MARK OF THE DEVIL that much. Part of the problem, of course, is that it has WITCHFINDER GENERAL to live up to, which few films can, let alone a German exploitation picture directed by a Brit who then had its producer and co-star come along and change chunks of it. The violence is supremely (and, it has to be said, authentically) nasty, but the rest of the story just isn't up to justifying what we see, with the result that MARK OF THE DEVIL feels less like a satirical invective against the Catholic Church and more like a period version of BLOODSUCKING FREAKS. In the US, Hallmark releasing decided to market the film with a free vomit bag, and you never get the feeling the film deserves to be treated better than that.

Arrow's Blu-ray is uncut and looks splendid - it's another terrific restoration job. There's the choice of the English dub track or German audio with newly translated subtitles. There are quite a few extras as well. Michael Armstrong provides a new commentary track moderated by Calum Waddell. It rambles for a bit at the beginning but eventually gets underway with stories about the production. There's a fun documentary, Mark of the Times, which profiles the 1970s BritHorror film industry with the aid of Kim Newman, Norman J Warren and David McGillivray wearing the same delightful pink suit he had on at FrightFest 2013. The disc details claim this to be feature length but it actually runs for less than an hour. 

         There are numerous interviews. Some, like that with composer Michael Holm, seem to have been recorded for this new release, while others (eg Udo Kier) have been ported over from a previous German version. You also get some out-takes (nothing funny, just random snippets of clapperboards and bits and pieces), a trailer, and a look at the locations used for the movie. Michael Gingold talks about Hallmark releasing in a fun little piece entitled Hallmark of the Devil, although he neglects to tell the story of how Hallmark boss Steve Minasian came up with the idea of the vomit bag for MARK OF THE DEVIL (he had to fly back from the trade screening). There's also a gallery, a reversible sleeve, and a collector's booklet.

Arrow Films are releasing Michael Armstrong's MARK OF THE DEVIL on dual format Region A & B Blu-ray and Region 1 & 2 DVD on 29th September 2014

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