MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Director: Michael Armstrong
Arrow Video USA

When distributed in the U.S. in 1972 by Hallmark/American International, the West German-made MARK OF THE DEVIL was a huge smash, especially at well-attended drive-ins crammed with teenagers seeking cheap thrills. You see, lucky patrons were bestowed "stomach distress bags" that read, "This VOMIT BAG and the PRICE of one ADMISSION will enable YOU to SEE... the first film rated V for violence." With an ad campaign like this (not approved by the MPAA), the film became legendary and notorious, sometimes being double-billed with Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or even triple billed along with S.F. Brownrigg’s DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT. MARK OF THE DEVIL was one of the first DVD releases from Anchor Bay in 1998, then Blue Underground re-released it a few years after that with a better transfer. Now British-based company Arrow Video (as part of their inauguration of new Stateside releases) presents the film in HD as a Blu-ray/DVD combo with more supplements than you could stick a hot poker at!

Produced by former Jess Franco cohort Adrian Hoven (who actually helmed a few scenes, co-wrote it, and acts in it as well), and co-written and directed by English lad Michael Armstrong -- whose previous assignment was Tigon's HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR -- the film was produced in wake of the recent success of Michael Reeves' witch-hunting classic, THE CONQUEROR WORM (WITCHFINDER GENERAL). Taking place in Austria, 1700, MARK OF THE DEVIL commences with the exploits of Albino (played with repulsive gusto by Reggie Nalder, SALEM’S LOT), a sinister pervert who likes to accuse everyone and their grandmother of being a witch. Albino's authority is soon challenged as Christian (a very young Udo Kier, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, who here resembles pop star David Cassidy) comes to town to announce the arrival of his mentor, master witch-prosecutor Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE). Christian opposes Albino's methods, and one of the accused happens to be a beautiful, busty servant girl (Olivera Vuco, FRAULEIN DOKTOR), whom he falls madly in love with. It takes some convincing, but Christian ultimately realizes that Cumberland is a charlatan, torturing individuals for personal gain and raping women, despite the fact that he is sexually impotent.

MARK OF THE DEVIL is a real hit or miss, as genre fans seem to either hate it or love it. It does have enough going for it: great period costumes; authentic Austrian landscapes, castles and old houses; and a reliable ensemble cast that includes veterans Lom and Nalder, as well as the lovable Herbert Fux (LADY FRANKENSTEIN) as an executioner who mistreats prisoners while snacking on chicken legs and making a marionette out of a pet bunny rabbit. The scenes of torture are still quite unsettling. Victims are burnt at the stake, pricked in the face or stomach, stretched on a rack, branded on the foot, not to forget the infamous tearing out of a worn-out woman’s tongue (played by Gaby Fuchs, WEREWOLF SHADOW). At times the film is hard to take seriously as it seemingly exaggerates the excessiveness of the European witch-hunts. For one thing, many of the sequences would fit right into a Monty Python skit. If you know the way the British comedy troupe mocks various historical events, you'll know exactly what I mean. Also, the dialog suffers in some silly dubbing. Even though it was filmed largely in English and Lom and Nalder dubbed their own voices, the English language version offers lines like "Now a good shampoo..." while someone is tarred and feathered (this is supposed to be 1700). But overall, MARK OF THE DEVIL is handsome production with a strong European cast, rich in its occasionally romanticized gothic flavor and with enough gruesomeness to satiate most gorehounds.

When Arrow released MARK OF THE DEVIL as a Blu-ray/DVD combo in the UK last year, it was the first time the film was made available fully uncut there. Now, a virtually identical package is being released for U.S. consumption, with a stunning High Definition transfer made from the original elements. Presented 1080p in the film’s proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, as clichéd as it may sound, MARK OF THE DEVIL has simply never looked better, and it’s now totally evident how beautiful looking this studio-less European exploitation film is. Colors are distinct and vivid and fleshtones are welcomingly realistic and sweat-revealing. Detail is terrific, textures are smooth, and grain appears natural and filmic without any indication of unwanted video manipulation. The English audio (featuring Lom’s and Nalder’s actual voices) comes in a LPCM Mono track which carries Michael Holm’s grand, romantic and at times properly haunting score (with it screeching violins) nicely, as well the post-synched English dialogue, the unsettling soundtrack noises (fingers crunching, bodies being stretched, rattling chains, squeaky prison doors, Chinese water torture drops, etc.) all to great effect. A German language track (also post-synced in its dialogue) is presented LPCM Mono and is comparable in quality to the English track. There are optional English subtitles for the German language track, as well as English SDH subtitles. The DVD included in the package is a standard definition version of the same HD transfer and also includes the identical supplements found on the Blu-ray.

An entertaining new commentary with director Michael Armstrong is moderated by Calum Waddell (different from an earlier Armstrong commentary found on the British Anchor Bay DVD and the U.S. Blue Underground DVD). This was Armstrong's second film as a director, and he has a very clear recollection of the production, confirming that he shot the majority of the footage and was in control of the film, despite some sources totally crediting Hoven as director (Armstrong points out several of the scenes he did not direct). He details the casting of Kier (most of the main actors had already been cast, but he was responsible for bringing in Udo), his views on the characters and their motivation, and why the film has been popular for so many years. Waddell (who dislikes the character Christian the most in the film), like most of us, is very interested in Hallmark’s promotion and distribution of the film, but when asked about it, Armstrong states he wasn’t really aware of the stateside ballyhoo until much later. The director seems to have not seen eye to eye with Hoven (as Armstrong explains, the film was originally conceived as something like "The Witch-Hunter Dr. Dracula," explaining some of the absurdities of the original script). Armstrong also discusses his original ending (scenes were shot, with the negative then destroyed by Hoven) which involved visions of the dead coming back to life.

There are a number of video interview featurettes, most which were previously seen on the Blue Underground DVD, but are in expanded form here. “Fear and Loathing in Austria” (10:45) is an interview with star Udo Kier, sitting in a café and showing his sense of humor while he talks about the film and his role in it, that Armstrong was the one who cast him in it, and his disappointment at the original ending as shot not being in the final film. “The Devil's Torturer” (23:06) is a candid chat with the late Herbert Fux and is the best interview of the bunch. Fux claims that when he signed on, Michael Reeves was supposed to direct, and Fux was apparently a big fan of his WITCHFINDER GENERAL. He discusses his character and the intenseness of the film's torture scenes, and reveals a fun anecdote about one of the gory effects he had to enact. He also has some interesting things to say about Armstrong’s directorial style and thought he was an asset to the horror genre. “Rated V for Violins (24:19) is a more recent interview with the film’s composer Michael Holm. Holm, who was a known singer/songwriter in Germany at the time, talks about his first meeting with Hoven in a discotheque and being hired to do the score, and he describes his approach when composing it. Holm admits he had too much of a “pop attitude” when concocting the music, but he believes he must have done something right if we’re still talking about the film all these years later. He also reflects on his successful career in pop music. “Burn, Gaby, Burn!” (10:26) is an interview with star Gaby Fuchs who of course talks about her nude and torture scenes (maintaining that Hoven directed most of her scenes), and the infamous tongue-ripping (don't worry, hers is still there as she sticks it out at the end of the interview!). The final interview is with star Ingeborg Shöner (9:04) who plays the beautiful heroine of the film, the wife of Hoven's nobleman character, who is raped by Lord Cumberland (Shöner and Holm are the only interviewees speaking in English, as the others speak in German with English subtitles), and although she detests violence and horror, she seems enthralled by the film's popularity and has a lot of nice things to say about Lom. These interview segments are really well done, and you'll enjoy seeing your favorite MARK OF THE DEVIL stars marveling at the American gimmick barf bag! There is a brief English language audio interview with the late Herbert Lom (4:40) talking about shooting MARK OF THE DEVIL on a set with no sync sound (something he wasn’t used to) and he describes the dubbing process and talks a bit about his co-stars (describing Nalder as “the ugly man”).

“Mark of the Times: The New Wave of British Bloodshed” (47:37) is an exclusive documentary directed by Waddell which features interviews with Armstrong, director Norman J. Warren, screenwriter David McGillivray, Professor Peter Hutchings (author of Hammer and Beyond) and film critic Kim Newman. This piece centers on the emergence of the “new wave” of younger British horror directors that surfaced during the late 1960s and early 1970s, who were coming into their own during the period when Hammer Films were struggling and essentially on their way out. Topics discussed include the impact of Michael Reeves’ WITCHFINDER GENERAL (and it censorship in England), Gary Sherman’s DEATH LINE (RAW MEAT), and Robert Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN; the growing independent film market in England at the time; comparisons and parallels to American horror cinema of the same period; and the more graphic thrillers of director Peter Walker (and McGillivray is able to shed light on this subject, having written some of the best scripts for Walker, as well as screenplays for Warren). MARK OF THE DEVIL of course is touched upon, and Hutchings rightly asserts that Armstrong’s HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR is underrated and that the director was overshadowed by Reeves (who died right before Armstrong’s career was taking off). For fans of British horror, this is fascinating stuff and the interviews are solid. “Hallmark of the Devil” (12:12) has Fangoria’s Michael Gingold essaying the history of Hallmark Releasing, its habit of releasing films under a number of different titles, and its wild and sometimes groundbreaking ad campaigns and repeated use of the “stomach distress bag” giveaway. “Mark of the Devil: Then and Now” (7:05) is a lovely travelogue comparison between the Austrian locations used in the film and how they look today (when filmed in early 2014), and you’ll be surprised how little has changed. There’s a section of silent outtakes (3:03) which show, among other things, Fux’s executioner really going wild during a decapitation (with some gory bits which didn’t make it into the final film) and an “Easter Egg” (simply highlight “Outtakes” on the extras menu, then click right on the Blu-ray only) where you’ll witness over 39 minutes of silent outtakes! There’s a lengthy still gallery featuring posters, pressbooks, lobby cards, video, laserdisc and DVD covers, and more. Rounding out the extras is the original international theatrical trailer. The packaging includes a glossy color booklet featuring excellent liner notes by Adrian Smith and Anthony Nield (which chronicles MARK OF THE DEVIL’s censorship history in the UK as well as Kier’s international acting career), and a vintage print interview with Nalder conducted by David Del Valle in 1989, and the disc’s cover sleeve has reversible artwork. (George R. Reis)