Mark of the Devil / Burn, Witch, Burn / Austria 1700 / Satan / Hexen / Hexen bis aufs Blut Gequalt / Brenn, Hexe, Brenn (1970) ***
In the chapter on film in Danse Macabre, Stephen King devotes a couple of footnotes to denouncing what he calls “squalid porno-violence” in horror movies. I like that term-- squalid porno-violence-- and even if you offered me $1,000,000 or a weekend alone with Annie Belle, I would be able to think of no better description for this amazingly grotesque West German flick. Mark of the Devil/Burn, Witch, Burn/etc. does its damnedest to sexualize the brutal torture of beautiful young women, and at times, it comes uncomfortably close to succeeding. This is one of the most misogynistic movies I’ve ever seen, and it exploits the sadism (in the original, clinical sense) of the Counter-Reformation-era witch hunts for all it’s worth. To put it bluntly, it comes within a stone’s throw of even my saturation point for raw nastiness.
In much the same way as Joel M. Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks/The Incredible Torture Show, Mark of the Devil is remarkable for how little time it devotes to telling its main story. That story concerns an ill-fated romance between a tavern waitress named Vanessa (Olivera Vuco, a Serbian actress who’s been very, very busy making movies you’ve never heard of, whose titles you’d never be able to pronounce) and a young nobleman named Christian (Udo Kier, of Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula), a protege of the renowned witch-hunter Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom, from Mysterious Island and The Dead Zone). The two are brought together by a chance encounter at the inn where Vanessa works. Christian has come to town to prepare the way for Lord Cumberland, whom the Papal Inquisition has sent to take over the fight against witchcraft from the corrupt and ineffectual local inquisitor, Albino (Reggie Nalder, who would later play the lead vampire in Salem’s Lot), and as it happens, Christian is at the inn when Albino tries to force himself on Vanessa. She naturally resists with all her might (you would too-- not only is Albino a moral degenerate, he’s also slightly less attractive than a moose’s rectum), with the predictable result that the frustrated witch-hunter accuses her of having illicit intercourse with the devil and casting a spell over the town to bring impotence to its men. Albino is just getting warmed up, poking the girl with his stiletto to demonstrate that she feels no pain and is therefore a witch, when Christian intervenes, rescues Vanessa, and orders his headsman, Jim Wilkins (the hilariously named Herbert Fux, who was also in Jesus Franco’s De Sade ‘70), to kick Albino’s ass. Over the next couple of days, Christian keeps a close watch over Vanessa, having her stay with him at the castle, and he quickly becomes convinced that his first impression of her-- that she is an innocent victim of Albino’s sexual extortion-- was completely correct.
But then Cumberland arrives, and it’s all downhill from there. The famous old witch-finder is not so easily convinced, and he finds Albino’s indictment of Vanessa solid enough to be looked into (he seems particularly swayed by the charge that Vanessa’s sorcery has rendered the local men impotent, a theme that will arise again and again over the next hour and a quarter or so), and orders the girl arrested. Then he turns his attention to his other prisoners, and the movie follows him, to so great an extent that Vanessa will scarcely figure in the film again until it is well nigh over. Initially, there are two prisoners with which Mark of the Devil concerns itself, although a few more will be added later. The first of them is a girl named Dierdre, who like Vanessa has been accused of fornicating with Satan. In Dierdre’s case, though, there is a bit more in the way of physical evidence, in that she recently bore a child out of wedlock, a child which she swears is the product of her rape by the bishop. You know damn well how inclined a Papal Inquisitor is going to be to listen to a story like that (Albino contends that the child is that of Satan himself), and the principal attraction of the next fifteen minutes or thereabouts is the unrelenting torture of Dierdre by Wilkins, Albino, and Albino’s rat-faced assistant (Johannes Buzalski, of Hay Country Swingers and Housewives Report). We’ve got the rack, the lash, branding irons, thumb-screws-- the whole nine yards. In one especially odious scene, Wilkins yanks out the girl’s tongue with a pair of tongs. And the whole time this is going on, Dierdre is mostly naked, covered in a glossy sheen of sweat, and just about the hottest thing this side of the blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel. Talk about cognitive dissonance, man! And in contrast to Joel M. Reed’s work, the gore effects in Mark of the Devil are good enough that the whole business comes across as at least semi-realistic, which doesn’t make it any easier to sort out the conflicting signals from your conscience and your libido in response to what’s happening on the screen.
The second major prisoner is a man, a baron (Michael Malen, from Eye in the Labyrinth and 2069: A Sex Odyssey) whom the church regards as possessed on the grounds that he insists on hanging onto his inheritance rather than handing it over to the ecclesiastical authorities. A more flagrant and obvious abuse of the system could hardly be imagined, but Cumberland doesn’t seem to see the conflict of interest inherent in the situation. Like Dierdre, the baron will spend most of his scenes in the movie being tortured monstrously, and surprisingly enough, his torments have a bit of the same sexual overtones as hers. (Take, for example, the scene in which he is tied to a metal chair with his pants around his ankles, while a fire is lit beneath the seat.)
Finally, in a chain of events that will ultimately prove to be Cumberland’s undoing, Albino and his toadies follow a group of children whom they saw playing at being magicians to the home of a man and a woman who stage puppet shows in their parlor. When Albino arrives on the scene, a show is in progress which concerns a man who wishes he could fly. The puppet characters talk of the man becoming a sorcerer or an angel, and within minutes, the two puppeteers are under the microscope of the Inquisition. Albino wants to know how the puppeteers captured the souls necessary to bring the wooden marionettes to life, how they control the actions of the “human dolls,” whence they derived the theologically suspect subject matter for the shows. Before long, the situation gets out of hand, and the female puppeteer stabs out the eye of Albino’s assistant with the man’s own stiletto. That sort of behavior, of course, cannot be tolerated, and the two puppeteers and their children are hauled off to the dungeon, where they too will be tortured before the camera’s leering gaze.
And at long last, the story picks up again-- not exactly where it left off, mind you, but at least it picks up. Albino makes another attempt to use his power to his sexual advantage, storming with his men into a house in whose window he caught a glimpse of a nude woman. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the men kills the woman’s husband, and Albino’s assistant, who had just recently paid with half his sight for his loyalty to the witch-hunter, decides he’s had enough. He goes to Lord Cumberland to report Albino’s abuses, and Cumberland immediately gives Albino the sack. The local inquisitor protests, his defense ultimately boiling down to, “all the inquisitors do it-- hell, you do it too!”, but he has misjudged the character of his audience. Cumberland announces his intention to bring Albino up on formal charges, but when Albino makes a counter-threat to accuse Cumberland of the same kind of conduct, the papal inquisitor flies into a rage and strangles him to death. (The final straw seems to have been Albino’s threatening to tell the world that Cumberland is impotent... Hmmm...) Unfortunately for all concerned, however, there is one witness to Albino’s murder-- Christian.
In the closing third of the film, Christian’s increasing doubts about the validity of his and Cumberland’s cause, the ever-escalating brutality of the Papal Inquisition, and the latent resentment of the townspeople at the witch-hunters’ conduct will build the tension in the town to critical mass. Vanessa’s final return to a meaningful role in the story comes here, after Christian (who is finally convinced that he’s on the wrong side by Cumberland’s determination to execute the obviously innocent puppeteers) arranges to sneak her out of the castle. She then hurries to the tavern to raise a great rabble against Cumberland and his minions. Vanessa’s mob storms the castle, slaughters Cumberland’s men, and sets about squaring up accounts with the Inquisition. Mark of the Devil has one last surprise up its sleeve, though-- a remarkably downbeat ending that reflects an unexpectedly sophisticated notion of justice.
Obviously, this is not a film for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. However, it’s got quite a bit going for it. There’s the ending, for one, and also the deft way in which the film’s creators disguise the fact that the story stops dead in its tracks after less than half an hour and does not resume its forward motion until it is nearly two thirds over. The acting is mostly solid, and does not suffer too much from the dubbing of the dialogue. Then, of course, there’s the completely shameless, but basically successful way in which the filmmakers try to manipulate the feelings of their audience, almost forcing you to play along even though you know you’re being played. But you know what my absolute favorite thing about this movie is? It’s the title card that appears at about the ten-minute mark, which reads:
Translation: “Sleazy? What do you mean, ‘sleazy’? This movie is educational!” Nevermind that the original German title means “Witches Tortured ‘Til They Bleed;” the people who made Mark of the Devil are out to expand our minds and make us smarter, more well-rounded citizens! This is a ploy straight out of the days when the authorities actually cared about enforcing the Hays Code, the days of the “square-up reel.” The days when primitive sexploitation movies were billed as sex-education films and drug movies appeared in the guise of public-service announcements with titles like Tell Your Children (better known today by its more explicitly exploitative re-issue title, Reefer Madness). I’m obviously no apologist for censorship, but there was one good thing about the moral straitjacket against which the movies were forced to struggle between the mid-1930’s and the late 1960’s. In those days, purveyors of sleaze had to be clever enough to outfox the censors, and the resulting battle of wits gave rise to such brilliantly disingenuous gambits as this display of sadism in its purest form (thanks again, Mr. Reed) being passed off as an intellectually meaningful expose of the witch-hunters’ barbarity.