Review Date: November 28, 2004
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 10/26/2004
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
Witch hunting reached its hysteric outburst in the 18th century, but the legacy of paranoia it inspired has lived on throughout the ages. The holocaust, and more broadly the Cold War, both ran in hysteric claims of finding the hidden evil and obliterating it. The metaphor of witch hunting has become synonymous with hysteria, with films like The Crucible
using witch hunting as an allegory to the communist blacklistings of 1950’s Hollywood. Witch hunt hysteria is a serious and everlasting black mark on society, and many films have sought to express the seriousness of such an issue. Mark of the Devil
, the new release from Blue Underground, takes a different path, attempting to viscerally demonstrate the brutality involved in such heretic times. “The First Movie Rated ‘V’ for Violence” promises an intense experience, but is that enough?
The film begins with the tarring and feathering of an elderly man and the burning of two nubile females. The reason? Heresy. It is Austria in the 1700’s, when witch hunting runs as wild as the fires used to execute. Albino (Reggie Nalder
) has been appointed the town’s witch hunter, determined to sniff out the devil lurking within the townspeople. It appears as if he has been doing his job too well however, as the number of witch findings escalates to the point where a more practiced witch finder is required. A member of the town elite, Count Christian von Meruh (a young Udo Kier
), takes it upon himself to hire Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom
), who has a reputation as one of Europe’s best heretic seekers. Meanwhile the villagers wait, praying they will not be next on the chopping block.
Amidst all the carnage, Christian finds love in Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera Vuco
), a voluptuous lower class waitress. The two spend time together on the beach and share sweet nothings, that is until Vanessa is accused as a witch. The evil Albino, angered that Vanessa rejected his advances, blindly accuses her a heretic, and has her tortured and imprisoned. Christian begins to question witch hunting methods, since he knows Vanessa intimately as a good person. Vanessa is not the only one to be given an injustice, as another man is deemed a witch because he refuses to give up his land. It becomes clear that that the witch hunt hysteria is founded on subjective biases and wild accusations. Christian waits, hoping that Cumberland will appoint a more empirical science into witch finding.
Everything goes for the worst however, as Cumberland ends up even more a tyrannical leader than Albino, sending the city into a state of chaos. The townspeople revolt, and eventually the torturers become the tortured. As it was before, and as it will continue to be after, the innocent are unjustly slain. This is mankind’s darkest hour.
Mark of the Devil
is a tame and pedestrian attempt at dealing with a very bleak period in history. Rather than develop the characters of the innocent victims to heighten emotional impact and identification, the film instead revels in the cruelty and exhibition of torture. No character is developed above archetype; characters are established just long enough to be killed off, sometimes even shorter. The much better The Crucible
took the time to establish a group of small girls who would eventually be cited as witches, following their lifestyle in detail before and after the accusations. It was real, captivating and focused; The Crucible
knew its subject and stuck too it. Mark of the Devil
is all over the place, introducing characters left and right, never dwelling on them long enough to ever establish any sort of pathos.
The main players in the film are not actors, but instead instruments. Ball and chain, poker, flames, whips, guillotines…those are the real focus of the film. Instead of thoughts this movie goes for shocks. Another unavoidable problem is the fact that shocks just aren’t that shocking. For a movie bolstered by an ad campaign that gave out barf bags and heralded a “’V’ rating for violence” it sure is tame. Most of the torture is implied, as crying faces are intercut with burning flames, or screaming heads are intercut with swinging axes. The stuff that is shown is lacking in any intensity or gore at all, which is a big no-no when the success of the entire film rests on its effectiveness. Water torture is about as intense as this film gets.
In its lack of characterization, a strong cast of character actors are wasted. Much could have been done with Udo Kier, using his heavenly blue eyes to give a different face to witch hunting. The witch hunt era was a time when even the fairest of individuals would be guilty of accusatory crimes, as people convicted others just to stay alive. The villain in the dark ages of the witch hunt was not an imposing monster, but instead the insecurities and greed of even the kindest individual. Casting Kier then as a witch hunter would have been more effective, transcending the cliché of the scarred or overbearing villain. Instead he becomes the typical tragic lead, a man with morals who fights for the rights of humanity. Reggie Nalder and Herbert Fux play just what you would expect them to, as they snarl and stare their way through villainous roles. Hebert Lom does an admirable job as the debonair and overbearing town ruler, but Christopher Lee would create a much more intricate evocation of a similar character years later in The Wicker Man
. In short, the cast is short changed by the film’s attempt to focus on torture before temperament.
The film ignores characterization in favor of exhibition, yet all the torture sequences are lacking in any sort of intensity or shock value. Those who prefer characterization will be left in the dark, and gore fans will be wholly under whelmed. In the end this is a film that won’t really appeal to anyone.
After some terribly grainy and jarring credits, this 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer begins to look much better. Colors look very sharp, as the film’s subdued vintage palette is transferred as it should look. Blood has a deep maroon coloring, and flesh tones look nice and browned. Sharpness is another plus on this transfer, as every little scar and pockmark on Reggie Nalder’s hideous face come out in striking detail. Darks look deep too, especially in the climatic scenes with Herbert Lom’s dark piercing brows leering into the camera. There is a grain that blankets the entire film, and there are a bit more specs and scratches than usual for Blue Underground, but in the end this is a solid transfer.
An English mono track is all that is included. No hissing or popping was audible, and voices came through particularly clear.
This DVD is outfitted with a number of supplements, with four interviews, a commentary and a number of promotional material. The commentary is with Michael Armstrong and its about as slight as the movie itself. Armstrong spends considerable time explaining the motivations of the characters, presumably because he failed to get that across with the actual film. The commentary is fairly dry, as Armstrong details the drama and conflict found on the set in a particularly unappealing manner. There are some nuggets of production information to be had, as Armstrong has a keen memory, but it feels more like an encyclopedia than a Fangoria.
Next up are four interviews with various cast members. All the interviews were shot on location throughout Europe and all look very poor. Attempts are made to artistically place objects in the foreground, like a candle in Herbert Fux’s interview or a plant in Ingeborg Shoner’s, but it ends up just looking amateurish. Gaby Fuchs’s interview is also in bad need of a white balance. Definitely some of ugliest supplements Blue Underground have included on any of their discs. The supplements are much more informative than they are pretty however, as it is nice to touch base with several cast members thirty odd years after the film. Interviews are with Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs and Ingeborg Shoner, and they all have their own pluses. All of them share the same thread in dealing with the censorship and notoriety of the film itself, and the best moments come from Shoner’s reaction to the film, as she humbly admits she doesn’t like these kind of films. “I like screwball comedies,” she giggles. Kier’s interview is the most amusing, as he comes across as amazingly self-indulgent, and often berates the interviewer. Overall, the interviews are much better than the commentary, and more informative to boot.
Rounding off the disc is a trailer, some radio spots and a still gallery. Leave the trailer for afterward though if you even bother, since it gives away the entire end, including the final shot.
Mark of the Devil
is a disappointing film that trivializes its controversial subject matter. Instead of focusing on the tragedy that surrounds those involved in witch hunting, the movie instead focuses entirely on exploiting violence, and does a poor job at that. The violence is tame, the characters trite, and the overall film tepid. There is a fair bit of supplements, although they are about as slight as the film. The video looks very good, so if you must see the film, this is definitely the version to get. As a film though, this Devil’s marks are all low.
Movie – C
Image Quality – A-
Sound – C+
Supplements – B
- Running Time - 1 hour 36 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Audio commentary with director Michael Armstrong
- Interview with Udo Kier
- Interview with Hebert Fux
- Interview with Gaby Fuchs
- Interview with Ingeborg Shoner
- Theatrical trailers
- Radio spots
- Poster and still gallery