Thursday, March 19, 2015

#1,676. Mark of the Devil (1970)

Directed By: Michael Armstrong

Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina

Tag line: "Positively the most horrifying film ever made"

Trivia: Around half a dozen languages were spoken on the set of this film

Guaranteed to upset your stomach” cried the poster for 1970’s Mark of the Devil, a movie so intensely brutal that some theaters gave out barf bags prior to each showing. To be sure, Mark of the Devil is a violent motion picture, but what I found even more disturbing was the film’s portrayal of the so-called “Servants of God” who sat in judgment of others, deciding whether or not someone was guilty of a trumped-up charge of witchcraft. The fact that men such as these actually roamed the countryside for hundreds of years, exacting their own brand of justice wherever they went, is enough to send a shiver up your spine.

The setting is a small European village in the 18th century. Claiming to be a man of God, the town’s local witch hunter, Albino (Reggie Nalder), abuses his power on a regular basis (aside from sexually assaulting potential suspects, he executes young women without so much as a trial). His reign of terror finally comes to an end when Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) arrives on the scene, bearing a proclamation that his mentor, Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), is on his way. A well-known witch finder, Lord Cumberland has been hand-picked by the Prince to track down and eliminate all evildoers (which, in no uncertain terms, means Albino is now out of a job). Having served for years as his apprentice Christian believes Lord Cumberland is a great man, and that he’s doing God’s work. His opinion changes, however, when Cumberland arrests a local barmaid named Vanessa (Olivera Viuco), who Christian is quite fond of, on suspicions of being a witch (his commitment to his master is further dampened when he catches Cumberland strangling someone with his bare hands). Disillusioned, Christian starts to wonder if men like Albino and Cumberland are truly God’s servants, or if they’re using their position to enforce a much more nefarious agenda.

The film’s various torture scenes are, indeed, tough to watch. One alleged witch, a former nun accused of bearing Satan’s child (she claims she was raped by the bishop), is first tied to the rack (which stretches her to her breaking point), then has her tongue ripped out by the root. But more than this, Mark of the Devil shows us how easy it was to condemn innocent people to death on a charge of heresy. Suspected of being possessed by a demon, a nobleman, Baron Daumer (Michael Maien), is throw in jail. As we soon discover, though, the Baron owns a significant amount of land that the church wants, and the best way to get him out of the picture is to expose him as a blasphemer. As a servant of the church, Lord Cumberland does what he can to get the Baron to forfeit his property (going so far as to torture him). But even If Cumberland fails to convince the young Baron that it’s in his best interest to comply, he can always have him executed as a heretic. Either way, the church gets the land they desire.

This is where the true horror of Mark of the Devil lies: the notion that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people were callously condemned by men of God (whose authority was absolute) for crimes they clearly did not commit. It’s almost too horrible for words, and the movie presents it all very effectively, bombarding you with images and events so terrible that they’ll likely stay with you for days.

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