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Old 11-29-2004, 01:24 AM
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Default Mark of the Devil




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: November 28, 2004

Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 10/26/2004
MSRP: $19.95
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 Story

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.

Image Quality

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.

Sound

An English mono track is all that is included. No hissing or popping was audible, and voices came through particularly clear.

Supplemental Material

inline Image 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.

inline Image 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.


Final Thoughts

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.

Rating

Movie – C
Image Quality – A-
Sound – C+
Supplements – B

Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 36 minutes
  • Color
  • Not Rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English mono
Supplements
  • 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
Other Pictures

 

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Old 12-18-2004, 02:20 PM
Rhett,

I basically agree with your review of "Mark of the Devil" for contemporary
audiences. However, putting it the context of the times it was made, it
was entertaining back then. I saw it in 1972 at the Plaza theater in Mahopac, New York. The campaign they used for the film was part of the fun with the "rated V for Violence" and vomit bags. This particular theater had no idea how to handle the self made classification so they let in anyone as if it was a G rated picture. I was 15 years old and they admitted me and some friends. It was fun because everyone laughed at the gore and made mock vomitting sounds. Some kids crunched up the bags and threw them at each other. A very vocal crowd of teenagers having a blast.The movie's gore was disturbing for the time and as an early 'splatter' movie, it had decent production value and sets, at least compared to the cheesy American pictures within this genre. Of course, the characterization was nil and the dubbing was awful as was usual for this type of import. The print was grainy Eastmancolor.

And now for some controversy...

In terms of your comments about the Hollywood 'witch hunt', the blacklist of Hollywood Reds is a very complex issue. Suffice it to say with all the new documentation available, it was a great deal more complicated than the current revisionist nonsense that depicts communists as 'good guys' and anti-communists as 'bad guys'. Here are a few facts about the blacklist that are rarely discussed...


The total number of people blacklisted was 324 out of an industry total
of about 17,500 (or 2 %). Most were screenwriters and the rest minor actors.
Of those blacklisted, the vast majority were either communist party members or what was known as fellow travelors (those who did not belong to the CPUSA but helped advance it's agenda). The source of the blacklist was "Red Channels" which I have a copy of. The book was a list of industry personnel that were either party members or associated with numerous
front groups that were operating covertly for the Cominform (the post-war successor to the Comintern/Soviet espionage ring). Examples in the two categories would be screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (a party operative) and Paul Robeson (not a party member but a defiant Stalinist who wrote the dictator's euology after his death). I've cross referenced the front groups with the various disclosers
that have been uncovered in the decoded Venona decripts, released KGB files and other sources. All of the front groups were part of the Soviet spy
network.


One of the greatest myths was that people were fired merely for expressing a Left wing position on public issues and that the blacklist was a freedom of speech issue. Ignoring the hypocracy in this stance (the freedom to promote communism which opposed freedom of speech),
no one was forbidden from expressing their opinion. As applied to actors,
anyone could say anything they wanted publicly and...suffer the consequences accordingly. Actors were subject to public approval. That's the way show biz worked. If they said anything to discredit themselves or their country, boxoffice suffered. When Paul Robeson got up on a stage in Peekskill, revoked his citizenship and swore allegance to Stalin, he rendered himself unemployable. No one suggested that Robeson didn't have the right to say this but on the other hand no one was obligated to attend his performances thereafter since he pissed off most of the country.


In terms of the screenwriters, they were accused of incorporating Marxist rhetoric into their scripts. This included nine of the Hollywood Ten. Naturally they denied it and claimed they weren't communists which is why
celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson traveled to DC in their defense during the HUAC hearings. You'll see newsreels of this event on AMC with absurd claims that the Hollywood Nine (not Ten since one switched aliances) were 'patriotic Americans'. The real story is that the nine were so duplicitous and hostile that both Bogart and Robinson got disgusted and realized they were 'duped' by them. Bogart took out an ad stating this. He also switched parties and voted Repulbican in the next election. Robinson got furious when "The Daily Worker" (a communist tabloid) put a picture of him on their cover claiming he supported them. Robinson was not a Red and threatened to sue them. Years later, the Hollywood Nine not only admitted being communists but bragged about how they got away with incorporating party propoganda into some movies.


All of this is academic since that was not the real reason for the blacklist.
The HUAC hearings were a sham since both sides just used it as a forum for
espousing communist and anti-communist worldviews. The emphasis on screen content was misguided since the production code and studio system removed this content prior to release in the vast majority of cases which made sense since you could'nt fill the seats of a movie palace with political propoganda. The public wanted to be entertained, not preached at by either side of the spectrum.

Here's what really happened...


During World War II, the Soviets were our ally (a very shakey one at that).
Before that, the CPUSA (communist party USA) had made inroads in Hollywood during the Depression signing screenwriters and actors into their organization. I actually sympathize with people who followed them at the time. It seemed as if Captialism had failed and communists promised a better world with racial equality, improved working conditions and world peace. Alas, there was a major difference between their rhetoric and reality of life in the Soviet Union. It was a totalitarian dictatorship and Stalin killed upwards of 25 million Russians consolidating his absolute power.


The CPUSA lost half of their Hollywood membership after the Hitler/Stalin pact. Many progressives saw how phoney they were. How could Hitler be labeled evil one day and a strategic partner the next? It was these kind of policy flip flops that made them realize they were dupes for the dictator. Regardless, some Leftists remained in the Party refusing to see what was going on. During World War II they formed a "Popular Front" with liberals, moderates and conservatives to combat the Axis. In short, the CPUSA agreed not to stir up any trouble while Russia and America worked together for the duration.




After the war, this alliance collapsed. Stalin started
taking over Eastern Europe and formed a series of front organizations to manipulate public policy in the US. Hollywood was a great opportunity for him since it was overwhelmingly liberal, then and now. There was, however, a difference between a liberal and a communist although he referred to the former as 'useful idiots' in advancing his agenda.


Stalin's main agenda in the late forties was taking over all the craft unions and consolidating them into the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) which was organized and run by Herb Sorrell who was a secret party member (code name 'Herb Stuart'). The concept was to have the Hollywood Unions under the control of Moscow. It may seem absurd in hindsight but during the Cold War there was no crazy scheme the Russians didn't consider. Sorrell was a tough, brawny street fighter with a penchant for intimidation and violence. He was checkmated by Roy Brewer (a New Deal anti-communist Democrat) in terms of the craft guilds and Ronald Reagan (also a New Deal Democrat at the time) who was president of the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG).


The first union to be taken over by Moscow was the screenwriter's guild.
Party regulars like Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr. (of the Hollywood Ten) were among those that forced out anyone who wasn't a CPUSA member. Those excluded included liberals,
moderates and conservatives. The Red screenwriter's guild then harassed opponents and tried to prevent them from getting work. Thus, the blacklist
was started by the Left. It got so bad that an alternate screenwriter's guild was formed by non-party members which encompassed the rest of the political spectrum. Others formed a conservative alliance to combat Party influence in the industry. Their spokeswoman was objectivist philosopher and screenwriter, Ayn Rand and members including Walt Disney, John Wayne,
Louis B. Meyer, Barbara Stanwyck and many other notable celebrities.


The infiltrated screenwriter's guild was subject to Moscow interference and discipline. When a screenwriter dared to incorporate an individualist character (as opposed to a collectivist mob perspective), they were condemned and criticized in "The Daily Worker" and other front publications. Until they humbled themselves and apologized to the Party publicly, their movies were boycotted by the CPUSA and other front organizations which affected boxoffice. A hell of a way to make movies, wasn't it?


Brewer and Reagan did not want their organizations to be taken over by the Reds so they set up a clearance policy. Reagan had many liberal friends and inclinations at the time and wanted to ensure that a person who may have unknowingly attended a front meeting would not be blacklisted. He
created a simple document to sign. All it said was that the person in question was not a Party member and was not trying to take over the US government by force. Naturally, CPUSA members refused to sign because that's exactly what their agenda was. So, if you were called to tesify and refused to sign the document, you were removed from SAG. Zero Mostel was a party member who refused to sign it and was blacklisted. He later left the party and went back to work.


Now you're probably wondering why industry leaders were so concerned about CPUSA membership in the forties...

After all, they hired communists in the thirties and that hadn't caused problems. Why had their status changed?


In the late forties, the film industry was in turmoil. The government forced a consent decree on the studios which meant they had to sell their theater chains beginning in 1948 which gradually unraveled the studio system. Simultaneously, the usurping television medium caused attendence to drop in half.

With all this going on, the communists saw their opportunity to make a move against the studios like sleeper cells called into action. Sorrell coordinated a never-ending series of strikes against the major studios and the Technicolor lab which included threats and violence. Reagan opposed the strike and was threatened by the CPUSA which said they would attack his family and pour acid on his face. He had to hire body guards to protect them. At MGM, the CPUSA blew up a car to scare employees who wouldn't participate. Riots started outside studio gates at other production houses. At Warner Brothers, Sorrell put on brass knuckles and smashed the face of a technician that crossed the pick lines. At Technicolor, the CPUSA threatened to blow up the nitrate negatives which would've been an environmental and archival catastrophe. Imagine losing the negatives of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind" to advance the communist party agenda. David O. Selznick could not get his Technicolor prints of "Dual in the Sun" past the strikers which delayed it's release.


Suffice it to say, these activities did not fall into the category of union/ management negotiations or political discourse. It was labor terrorism
coordinated by the communists under direction from Moscow. The studios had no choice but to fire anyone associated with it since they were interfering with the production/distribution system which is what kept 17,500 people employed in the film business.


Unfortunately, some moguls painted too broad a stroke in identifying the Red menace and it's apparent that some people were blacklisted who weren't part of this. Larry Parks and John Garfield were examples. Even John Wayne came to Larry Parks' defense. On the other hand, the producers and non-communist trade unions were so enraged with CPUSA violence that they wanted to get rid of anyone associated with them. Can you blame them?


Obviously this puts a different perspective on why the blacklist was implemented. You'll notice that in all the contemporary rhetoric about the era, virtually no mention is made of labor terrorism, the CSU or Moscow infiltration of the trade unions. When Sorrell's union collapsed, he left Hollywood, never to return. Good riddence to him and his handlers.


Another myth is that the 'best and the brightest' were removed from employment. This doesn't hold up to scrutiny since most of the fired screenwriters were hacks that made B Westerns or wartime propoganda. Those that had some talent continued to work under fronts with the proviso that they couldn't incorporate political propoganda into their scripts. It would appear that this improved their output since Trumbo's screenplays in the fifties like "Roman Holiday" are far superior to his post-blacklist scripts like "Spartacus" which contained Marxist references (and major historical inaccuracies). In terms of quality, the fabulous fifties represented the zenith of the cinematic art form with spectacular new technology introduced to enhance the moviegoing experience. Directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, Lean, Wilder and Ford did some of their best work in the era.


The final myth is that Joseph McCarthy was responsible for the blacklist. As we all know, McCarthy was a demagog who undermined the anti-communist movement which is why those on the Left like to link him to everything. I don't endorce his bullying tactics even though he was correct about Soviet infiltration of the US government. It was actually far more extensive than he imagined. Unfortunately, McCarthy turned the bi-partisan investigation into a partisan attack on the Democrats which broke up the two party alliance to combat communism. The HUAC hearings pre-dated McCarthy. Besides, he was a Senator and had nothing to do with the House's investigation of Hollywood. Different branch of government and different years (1947/48 and 1951). McCarthy came later so there's no linkage.


In summary, it wasn't a witch hunt. Witches don't exit but communists did and they were raising hell in the film industry. The producers had no choice but to get rid of them or go out of business. If you notice, most who claimed it was a witch hunt were among the blacklisted party members or fellow travelers and leave out important details of what occurred from 1946-1951. As soon as someone says "McCarthy and the Hollywood witch hunt", you know they're disbursing 'disinformatsiya" (Soviet word for disinformation).


Historical revisionism has become so widespread that I saw footage on PBS of Elia Kazan testifying to HUAC intercut with shots of Joseph McCarthy and the unrelated Army/McCarthy hearings. Extremelly shoddy journalism. Kazan was among those former party members (aka 'second thoughters') that left the CPUSA and then got threatening
phone calls to his family which is why he named names. As Kazan testified, he CPUSA was not a legitimate political party. They were controlled by a hostile foreign government, met in cells at secret safe houses, used false names and intimidated anyone who didn't follow the Party line as dictated by Moscow. If you tried to leave the cell they threatened you and your family, operating like a Soviet Mafia. It's disturbing to see so many contemporary actors fawning over The Hollywood Ten as if they were heros. I seriously doubt any of the actors who scowled at Kazan when he received his Oscar a few years ago understood what the political
stakes were at the time. Chris Rock referred to him as a 'rat' and others called him a traitor. The question was...a traitor to who? America or Russia?
 
 

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