“I didn’t make it as a horror film, I made it as a statement,” says writer/director Michael Armstrong in the interview accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Mark of the Devil, the 1970 film which was marketed as “Positively the most horrifying film ever made” and “Rated V for Violence” by the American distributor Hallmark. Filmed in West Germany, a country which now has a pragmatic approach to superstition, it was an international collaboration which allowed content which would not have been allowed by the censors of Britain nor the studios of America, always answerable to their shareholders. Specifically, European cinema could question the complicity of the church in the persecution of women in the middle ages where Hollywouldn’t.
By turns equally brutal and bizarre, there are undeniably compromises within the low-budget production which opens with a misplaced soft romantic easy listening loungecore theme courtesy of Schlager music singer Michael Holm accompanying the pursuit through a pastoral mountain valley of a wagon of nuns (with modern dental fillings) down a tarmac road as they are run down by the townspeople under the direction of the district witchfinder.
The original title Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, literally Witches Tortured till They Bleed, is in many ways more descriptive than that which was used for the English language release (both dubbed and original audio with subtitles are included on the Blu-ray) as the priest is tarred and feathered and run out of town before the youngest of the nuns and another local woman are burned alive. “I swear I’ve never been the Devil’s mistress!” she cries desperately as they are hauled over the fire.
“They say a witch’s burnt body smells of sulphur” comments one of the crowd as the flames take her, a post execution confirmation of guilt which serves to justify what they have done and witnessed before a title roll advises that between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries eight million women were put to death as witches; Mark of the Devil purports to tell the story of three authentic cases.
The story is slight and played broadly with no attempt to disguise that it mimics the template of Michael Reeves’s similarly themed Witchfinder General (1968) starring Vincent Price and Ian Ogilvy, hoping to cash in on the success of that earlier film which depicted Price’s cruel and corrupt witchhunter persecuting innocents to secure his position and for his own profit and pleasure, including the woman to whom Ogilvy is engaged, leading him to seek bloody revenge.
Here the witchfinder is named the Albino and played by the late Reggie Nalder, the gaunt actor recognisable both as the originator of the Andorian species on Star Trek as Journey to Babel’s Ambassador Shras and as the vampire Kurt Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s television version of ‘Salem’s Lot while his adversary is the more honourable Count Christian von Meruh played by an unfeasibly young and striking Udo Kier whose expansive genre credits include Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973), Blood for Dracula (1974), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), Blade (1998), Shadow of the Vampire (2000) and Iron Sky (2012).
The Albino is hated by the townsfolk, regarded as a butcher, forcing himself on women and accusing them of witchcraft if they spurn him, but Christian’s position is more powerful and a challenge to his authority which is already under threat from Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom, Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus of the many Pink Panther films, in a role filmed between Byron Haskin’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and Jesse Franco’s Dracula where he played Van Helsing opposite Christopher Lee) who has announced his intention to view the trial records of all who have been executed, records which do not exist.
In order to protect his position, the Albino uses leverage against Christian by bringing to trial the serving girl who humiliated him, Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Vuco), knowing that Christian has taken her as his own lover but that he will be unable to defend her without making their association known, leaving himself open him to charges of witchcraft. Lord Cumberland arrives and the trial begins with false accusations, invented charges and no evidence, and there is nothing Christian can do.
Any intention that Mark of the Devil was to be a serious indictment of how women have historically been treated is lost in the over the top violence, becoming little more than a beautifully filmed but outrageous celebration of cruelty. By making Christian a powerful landowner rather than a soldier the film is unable to generate the feeling of desperate helplessness which runs through Witchfinder General, a work which also boasts Vincent Price’s best ever performance, played utterly straight and without any shred of humanity, nor are the accused women developed sufficiently.
With the men cast to play strong characters, the women are little more than beautiful victims, none of them eliciting the sympathy of Witchfinder’s unfortunates. As the grudge is not personal, a more interesting case is that of Baron Daumer (Michael Maien) who states that the church accuses him of possession by the Devil so his lands can be seized; he is sentenced by Lord Cumberland to be tortured and interrogated and is later visited in his cell with an offer of leniency: “Sign everything over to the church and you have your life.”
Moving further into melodrama is the third case depicted, that of a family who entertain their children with puppets who are accused of witchcraft and incarcerated. The inanimate forms of the wooden puppets are presented to Lord Cumberland but his judgement stands: “To release them would be to show weakness. They must be martyrs.”
It is possible that the vacillating tone may be related to the acknowledged difficulties behind the camera due to the fractious relationship between Armstrong and producer Adrian Hoven, who also appears in the film as a nobleman. In a candid archive interview, Kier explains that while Armstrong was the film’s only official director, Hoven very much displaced him during the shoot.
“Michael Armstrong had too many artistic ideas for the time… It was very sad, [but] from a commercial point of view it may have been the right thing to do.” While he speaks with regret over the situation, as a professional it was incumbent upon him to behave as such. “As it was only my third film I didn’t have influence over anything… You pay no attention to it and get on with your work. That way progress is made.”
Where the film does adhere to Witchfinder General is that in neither is there the slightest hint of the supernatural, everything driven by the prejudices of those who will lie and perjure to dispose of their enemies, and if either of these films has relevance now it is because this still happens in too many countries across the world, innocents tortured, imprisoned and killed while bigotry, rivalry and irrational hatred are legitimised in the name of religion, the cry of the judge as meaningless as the accusations: “If you are innocent God will show you his mercy.”
Also included in the package are Hallmark of the Devil, a look at the marketing of the film and the controversial distributor who introduced it to American cinemas, interviews with actors Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and Herbert Lom and composer Michael Holm, an audio commentary from Michael Armstrong and a brief look at the film’s locations as they are now, but curiously for an Arrow release the major accompanying documentary is only peripherally related to the main feature but is none the weaker for that, in fact it is unfortunate that it may become lost on a title where it might not gain the widest audience.
Mark of the Times is a compilation of interviews with writer/director Michael Armstrong, film critic and horror aficionado Kim Newman, director Norman J Warren (Satan’s Slave (1976), Prey (1977) and Inseminoid (1981)), screenwriter David McGillivray (Frightmare (1974), Schizo (1976) and Satan’s Slave) and Professor Peter Hutchings, author of Hammer and Beyond as they discuss the British horror industry in the post-Hammer era, the challenge of Tigon and Amicus, the rise of the independents (“The independent horror scene was like a village centred on Soho, everyone knew everyone,” notes McGillivray) and their subsequent fall in the multiplex era as the small cinemas who supported them were bought out.
As Warren observes that horror had become samey, familiar, safe, Hutchings explains that younger directors entering the field enlivened it, reflecting changes both in the film industry and the social mores of the time, particularly moving away from the mythological tales which had been the staple of horror, allowing it to become more dangerous and relevant to a modern audience.
Discussing the influence of Michael Reeves, Pete Walker and Dario Argento and contrasting their work with that of transatlantic peers George A Romero and Tobe Hooper, Warren recalls that “The seventies was a wonderful decade for horror, and British horror in particular,” though he also comments that while Hammer was seen as a British institution and so accepted by the mainstream, independent productions were inevitably looked down upon.
Describing a conversation with Dilys Powell, film critic of The Sunday Times, where he asked her why she hadn’t reviewed Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord which he had written, McGillivray says her response was “I thought it was so disgusting that I didn’t want to draw the public’s attention to it.” Even films now regarded as homegrown classics such as British Lion’s The Wicker Man struggled to gain attention, McGillivray remembering his own reaction at an ill-attended press screening: “It was a wonderful film, I absolutely loved it,” while at the same time recognising “This is never going to make any money.”