Horror fans have decried the filmmakers of the “torture porn” genre, which consists of films like Saw and Hostel, as being simply pain and violence used as titillation, or disgust, or both, and lacking any real scares or pathos beyond “Oh dear, isn’t that awful what that bad guy is doing to that innocent person?” Well, this was certainly not invented by the likes of Roth and Wan, not by a long shot. The 1970s were rife with things like this, in Europe especially, and many of them were able to get away with it by housing their gorefests in historical context, because history was violent as shit. All the rampant witch-hunting in the 1600s were some of the bloodiest examples and there were many films made about such things in Britain and elsewhere; perhaps the most notorious of these is 1970’s Mark of the Devil.
(This is the only trailer that isn’t super NSFW, by the way. And it’s out on Blu-ray now, so there’s that.)
In 1968, a movie was made called Witchfinder General which starred Vincent Price as real-life murderer Matthew Hopkins who proclaimed himself an official witchfinder during the English Civil War and killed upwards of 300 people. It’s a tough movie to watch, but a powerful one. This film was a watershed both for historical horror and British horror, both of which had been ruled by the decidedly un-realistic Hammer Films. Following this success, a German producer named Adrian Hoven was eager to do a film of this nature and hired Witchfinder General director Michael Reeves to do it; unfortunately, the troubled 25 year old Reeves committed suicide before filming could commence and so directorial duties transferred to another Brit, Michael Armstrong, who worked with Reeves on the previous film. The new film would be shot entirely in Germany, a great way to get production value from locations, and would star a wholly non-English cast, however all speaking English and dubbed later.
Mark of the Devil is very tough to watch, not necessarily because of the gore, which is certainly very graphic and almost constant, but because of the sentiments behind it. In an unnamed European village, a witch hunter working on behalf of the church (Herbert Lom) and his young apprentice, fittingly named Christian (Udo Kier), have set up shop, much to the chagrin of the town’s former head witch hunter, known as the Albino (played by the decidedly tanned Reggie Nalder), who now has to answer to the higher-ups. There are other members of the witch finding committee who range from sniveling to psychotic, and behave in decidedly un-Christian ways. Christian himself, however, believes his mentor to be a pious man doing important work. At the beginning of the movie, we see women getting burnt on a pyre after not admitting to witchcraft…so you know what we’re working with here.
The Albino basically works on the belief that any woman he finds sexually desirable needs to either submit to him or be tried as a witch. It’s pretty repugnant, and it manifests early in the movie with him skewering a particularly willful and beautiful maiden named Vanessa (Olivera Vuco) several times in the back until Christian arrives and tells him to stop. He and Vanessa make googly eyes at each other so he thinks she couldn’t possibly be a witch. Later, however, the Albino arrests her again and drums up a phony charge so that the Lord will detain and torture her. While all this is going on, the young heir to a small fortune returns from voyage and wants to collect the money his now-dead father left with the church for safe keeping. The Lord locks him up for cavorting with the devil and will only release him if he agrees to give up his birthright. So, extortion is their thing, too.
Perhaps the most difficult segments in the movie, and the ones that caused the movie to be cut severely in the UK and US, involve a young blonde accused of having the devil’s baby, even though she contends the child was the result of a rape by a church official. She is subjected to horrifying and awful tortures, such as being whipped, being stretched on the rack, being beaten and cut; when she’s sentenced to death for not telling the truth (at one point she confesses but they think she’s lying), the defeated woman praises the Lord for his mercy, but he first has her tongue cut out as a final indignity before being burnt at the stake. Her story, the poor thing, is meant to showcase the atrociousness of what witchfinders actually put people through and the utter apathy they felt while doing it. Basically, and with few exceptions, a person was guilty upon accusation.
Ultimately, the film becomes about how even the so-called pious Lord Cumberland is petty and vile. Christian soon learns that his mentor isn’t worth revering at all, and he slowly begins protesting more and more at the horrible acts carried out in the name of God. The final straw comes when a nobleman, his gorgeous wife, and their two children are arrested because some of the torturers see them putting on a marionette show they claim to be evil. They explain, very rationally, that the puppets are just carved out of wood and the plays themselves are about teaching morality and not trying to rise higher than your state. Christian is perfectly satisfied, and the Lord is too, but in order to save face, he sentences them to torture and death anyway. The nobleman is driven mad with a water-torture device while the wife, who stabbed out a sniveling official’s eye, is raped by the Lord, whose piety is now completely gone. Christian decides to free every, starting with Vanessa, but things do not go as they should.
Mark of the Devil is a very, very rough movie, but one that I think is important in the annals of British horror cinema. The film was taken away from Armstrong by the producer Hoven, who shot an ending where the dead rose and got their revenge, and instead kept it completely non-supernatural. When it was released in America, the distributor had theaters issue vomit bags along with tickets and marketed the film as the most horrifying film ever made. It’s certainly much more graphic than any of the Video Nasties that would get notoriety in the ’80s, mostly because it’s as effective as it is. It’s not just gore for the sake of gore, but there’s real pain and torture behind it. It’s not fun to watch, but it’s a movie that works for what it’s trying to do. You probably won’t need a vomit bag, but you might want to keep a ginger ale handy.