It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.
There are those who will tell you Mark of the Devil is a proto-torture film along the lines of Saw and Hostel. I’ve even heard it compared to films like Cannibal Holocaust and Blood Feast. Those people are wrong. This is no more a simple torture film than Passion of the Christ. It’s probably a lot less exploitative, too.
Mark of the Devil was certainly marketed as an exploitation film. The producers even drummed up publicity by having theaters pass out barf bags before showings. It was undeniably a cash-in on Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm), which came out two years prior. Unfortunately, I think too many reviewers are remembering the hokey way Mark of the Devil was promoted rather than the film itself. Here’s a movie that deserves a lot more credit than its reputation gets.
At the beginning of the movie, a man who’s been accused of witchcraft has his fingers chopped off before he’s tarred and feathered for the villagers’ amusement. Moments later, two more accused witches are burned on the pyre. The blasé man responsible for hunting witches in the village is known as “the Albino,” and business is booming until a traveling witch hunter arrives with his eager protege, played by Udo Kier.
The first time we see Kier’s character is when he humiliates the Albino for falsely accusing a woman (Olivera Vuco) of witchcraft simply because she won’t have sex with him. Naturally, Kier falls in love with the woman, which leads to one of the film’s major conflicts: Kier’s mentor also accuses this woman of witchcraft and temporarily convinces Kier he’s going against God if he doesn’t do the same. While Vuco’s official indictment is prepared, which will make her torture legal, the other accused witches are burned, stretched, and mutilated in various ways until they fabricate confessions which name future victims.
This is a film which is full of memorable villains and beautiful antagonists. To see Kier this young (one of his first roles) clenches the fact he was born to be a movie star. I’m very surprised some of the supporting women in Mark of the Devil didn’t go on to make dozens and dozens of movies like this. The photography is also masterful in its use of contrast, juxtaposing beautiful faces and images of horrific violence. If anything is a surefire sign this isn’t a typical exploitation movie, it’s the music, which isn’t the ominously droning theme you’d expect from a movie with a title like “Mark of the Devil,” but something softer, akin to Theme from a Summer Place. It’s clear the music is meant to underline the tragic love story, not the senseless murders and torture.
If you ever thought I was too insensitive to the subjects exploited by the films featured on this blog, A) you’re mistaken and B) here’s one that automatically makes my blood boil: witch-hunting, both literally and figuratively, not to mention the kind of mob mentalities that fuel these senseless panics.
A lot of films about literal witch-hunting are metaphors for modern issues. Mark of the Devil, though, is literally about witch-hunting, which was a long chapter in human history which should never be forgotten, much less watered down by panning the camera away from the unspeakable violence “good people” committed in the name of dearly held beliefs. Despite any historical inaccuracies or technical problems it may have, Mark of the Devil is one of the most effective films about any subject, period.
Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.