Wednesday, October 28, 2009

4 Days: Mark of the Devil (1970)

Here we have a SAW for the 18th century. The inquisition comes to Austria in Mark of the Devil, an early 70s exploitation "classic" that takes a sledge hammer to history, pours some tar on it, throws it on the rack, and finally cuts off it's head after having ripped out it's tongue. In other words, it's a pretty good movie.

Udo Kier (Mother of Tears) stars, in an early role, as Count Christian, the earnest assistant to the Grand Inquisitor, Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom). Christian is sent ahead to a small mountain town to prepare for his lord's arrival. He believes in their work, wants to make the world a better place, is sincere in his mission, etc. Immediately, Christian strikes up a conflict with the resident witchfinder, Albino (Reggie Nalder). Albino abuses his power just a bit. After throwing himself at Vanessa, a beer wench, and being rejected, he immediately accuses her of being a witch, points out her mole as being the "mark of the devil", etc. Basically, the guy goes around raping maidens and then bringing them in for torture, confession, and ultimately, burning. Christian saves Vanessa's life and they immediately fall in love. That love is tested when Cumberland arrives and Vanessa is brought before his counsel on the charges of witchcraft (Albino is a devious son of a bitch). Cumberland upholds the charges while Christian remains passive.

The picture is built around grotesque acts of torture. One woman is placed on the rack, has her feet burned, her fingers squashed, etc. This shit goes on for hours. She is brought before the increasingly sadistic Cumberland who says she is to die. She thanks him for putting an end to her torture. Cumberland's reply: "We want confessions, not more corpses. Torture her some more." This leads to the picture's money shot, where the poor girl has her mouth clamped open and her tongue ripped out. The torture and gore is plentiful.

The picture, unfortunately, let's itself down by killing off Albino in the first thirty minutes and replacing his great, sadistic villain with one slightly less so (Cumberland). Albino is one of those characters an audience loves to hate. We'd actually root for the guy to die a horrible, preferably slow, death. Alas, we're left with a tepid choke job at the hands of Lord Cumberland after Albino calls him "impotent". A great character like this deserves worse. I mean, this is the kinda scum bag that would see a naked girl in a 2nd floor window, head up with his cronies, kill her boyfriend, and have his way with her, while accusing her of witchery.

The marketing campaign was pretty brilliant and helped to propel it ahead of the Vincent Price classic, Witchfinder General at the box office. Stuff like "This movie is rated V for violence" or claiming, in the tagline, to be "the most horrifying film ever made". Barf bags were handed out in theatres and, apparently, a few of them were used. It's all overblown of course. I can't argue with the "V for violence" thing, but I've certainly seen worse. The movie has one truly horrifying moment (the tongue scene). If you know where to look you can find far more exploitative shit.

My favorite scene involves a family being accused of witchery because they were putting on a marionnette show in their home. Apparently, the puppets were used to capture the soul of the viewer. The husband was promptly murdered, the wife and two children thrown in jail. Later, a slimy inquisitor is shown attaching puppet strings to a real live bunny rabbit. I have no idea what the significance of that is.

Still, I liked it. The setting looked completely authentic. We got real castles, real horse drawn carriages, period dress, period torture devices, etc. The performances, by Kier, and in particular, Nalder are effective. The women are mostly beautiful and come with large heaving bosoms. The cleavage on display here is astounding. You know, I guess the inquisition was a good time to be alive if you're a horny zealot. You can go around accusing women of being witches without one iota of evidence. Hell, I'm sure some of them were blackmailed for their bodies. Thank god this kind of history doesn't repeat itself. This could never happen today. Blackmailing women into having sex with you!? What a crazy world this used to be. Anyway, Mark of the Devil is a good one. The picture skimps on the supernatural elements completely. Not one confirmed witch. All those women burned at the stake were supposedly innocent. Crazy. The ending is graphically morose. The townspeople revolt. There's mayhem, graphic violence, nudity, minimal slow parts, etc. Give it a look.

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