Mark of The Devil (1970) Blu-Ray Review

mark 1MARK OF THE DEVIL – 1970

AKA: Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält

Dir: Michael Armstrong, Adrian Hoven (uncredited)

Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katalina, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux

Mark of The Devil comes to Arrow Blu Ray in the usual fine style that we have come to expect from the company. Packing a great transfer and some fine extras it is a perfect chance to revisit one of the most controversial films of its era. Advertised in the USA as “guaranteed to make you sick” cinema goers were treated to Mark of The Devil sick bags as they sat down to watch Michael Armstrong’s torture heavy film. As amusing as this is, it did distract from the fact that despite its exploitation trappings, the film was a disturbing examination of religious extremism and the politics of the church. For all its graphic torture scenes Mark of The Devil emerges as a smart and incredibly fearless picture that is as relevant today as it was in 1970.

Genre regular Udo Kier is Kristian is an apprentice Witch Hunter in the service of Herbert Lom’s Lord Cumberland. A relatively just man in violent times Kristian rescues the beautiful Vanessa from the local Witch Finder (Nalder) who has designs on the buxom beauty. Spurned by her advances he accuses her of being a witch until Kristian and his men step in and stop it. Kristian becomes enchanted by Vanessa and he finds himself intrigued by her more pagan views of the world. But when Cumberland arrives and the trials start things become complicated for the young witch finder as he is forced to confront the reality that the witch hunts have nothing to do with eradicating evil and are really about making the church richer and more powerful.

Violent, complex and unflinching, Mark of The Devil is an incredibly potent film. Its critique of the Christian church is incredibly cutting and it never shy’s away from confronting the issues head on. It is at times a very political film that examines the manipulative nature of modern religions whilst hinting that the destruction of older pagan ideals was detrimental to society. Hebert Lom’s Cumberland is a quintessential politician, presenting himself as the social and moral benchmark whilst behind the scenes he is manipulative and dangerous man pulling the strings of all those around him. In fact the film is peppered with visual references to puppets, driving home its point about political and religious control.

mark 2Whilst it has been over shadowed a little by Michael Reeves’ equally outstanding Witchfinder General (1968) Mark of The Devil stands as something of a companion piece to that film. Both approach the subject matter with a historical eye and are arguably not horror films in the strictest sense of the word. But where Reeve’s film is now an acknowledged classic, Mark of The Devil has the reputation of being a sleazy, violent exploitation film. To some extent this is a fair criticism as director Michael Armstrong is wholly unafraid to linger on the slow, unpleasant torture of those accused of consorting with The Devil. There is also no escaping the garish and gloatingly manipulative marketing campaign used by Hallmark on its original release. However, for all its horror, the film retains an integrity and intelligence that lifts it far above the simple minded gore films that would begin to flood the market as the 1970’s progressed.

The 1080p transfer here is exceptional. Arrow have once again proven themselves to be masters at breathing new life into old classics. High definition helps to elevate the films European look rather than detracting from it and the film looks truly fantastic. This is also the completely uncut version of the film meaning that it is something of a definitive release.

The extras here are substantial too. I am not one for audio commentaries but I have it on good authority that this one by Director Michael Armstrong is very insightful. In fact, considering the films troubled production history the Blu- ray comes with a lot of differing and interesting insight from many of those concerned. Mark of The Time is an excellent little documentary tracing the history of many of the ‘New Wave’ British directors that emerged during the 1970’s. From Hammer, through Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and of course Mark of The Devil itself it is an intriguing look back at the era from many of those involved. Hallmark of the Devil is a nice look back at the history and the some- what dubious advertising techniques of the notorious Hallmark releasing group by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold.

mark3A little more bizarre is a ‘then and now’ comparison of the films Austrian locations. It’s a touch unnecessary; especially as nothing much seems to have changed over the years, but still rather amusing in its way. The disc also boasts out takes and interviews with many of those involved including the genre legend Udo Kier, who simply doesn’t seem to age like normal people! He offers some interesting insight to the films production problems and director Michael Armstrong’s visions for the film.

This is a must by for fans of the film and a great place for new initiates to start. With a top notch transfer and a hefty amount of extras this is Arrow at their finest and a must for horror and exploitation fans.

Film 9/10
Package 9/10

The Phantom of The Opera (1962) DVD Review

 

PHANTOM 001THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) DVD

Directed By: Terence Fisher

Written By: Anthony Hinds

Starring: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough

UK Certification: PG

RRP: £12.99

Running Time: 80 minutes

Distributor: Final Cut Entertainment

UK Release Date: 21st July 2014

It was only a few weeks back that I became aware of Hammer’s adaptation of the iconic Gaston Leroux novel as it formed part of a double bill with a title I reviewed last month – Captain Clegg (1962). A glance at the contributors pretty much triggers instant salivation as in the director’s chair we have Terence Fisher – the company’s most lauded director who called action on such films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) as well as countless others. Scripting duties meanwhile fell to Tony Hinds who by the late 70s had penned 15 Hammer pictures including The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964).

Following Universal’s 1943 version of Phantom that featured Claude Rains as the titular character, the studio were keen to explore Leroux’s novel once more. With the burgeoning success of Hammer they felt that the British studio may well be suited to adapting the work into a new feature. It was a laboured proposition that was first suggested in 1959 and went through a couple of years of development hell. At one stage it had Cary Grant pencilled in for the romantic lead. That didn’t materialise, and instead the role was taken by Edward de Souza as the film went into production in late 1961 at the usual location of Bray Studios.

PHANTOM 002Hammer’s version of Phantom differs quite substantially from the source material not to mention the adaptations that followed it. Opening in London in 1900 we join a new opera which was created by Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Gough). He cuts a somewhat frustrated figure due to the nagging issue that one box remains empty in a sold out performance because of a suspicion that it’s haunted, and there’s also a general air of unease behind the scenes. The shows’ producer Harry Hunter (de Souza) attempts to quell the tension surrounding the set, but when the body of a stage hand is revealed during the shows finale, the star of the production refuses to sing again.

Harry frantically auditions for a replacement, at which point Christine Charles (Sears) – already involved in the show, announces herself as a candidate with an impressive audition performance. D’Arcy in particular seems to be impressed with Christine and upon her successful audition he invites her to dinner, albeit in a manner which alludes to lascivious intentions. As Christine resides in her dressing room after her audition, a mysterious voice emanates from the walls warning her against D’Arcy’s advances – but who could this voice be, and what motive has led to this ominous declaration?

The Phantom of the Opera was a flop for Hammer, so much so that director Fisher would be consigned to an enforced two year sabbatical before returning in 1964 with The Gorgon. Watching it today, it’s difficult to see why such a well-made picture didn’t receive the attention it deserved. Back in 1962 though it’s understandable that audiences were perhaps a little miffed at this melodramatic Hammer offering with it missing some of the horror elements that had made the studios antecedent output resonate with the movie-going public so much.

Irrespective of its reception, The Phantom of the Opera has a great deal to like about it. It’s a gorgeous production with superb set design as the cobbled streets of Victorian London welcome you in, while the use of the Wimbledon Theatre for all the stage scenes fits perfectly. The cast are all on form, none more so than Michael Gough who chews the scenery with gusto as the repugnant d’Arcy – the real villain of the piece. Edward de Souza suits his role as affable producer Harry Hunter while Heather Sears delivers the requisite wide-eyed innocence as the object of the Phantom’s affection. With regard to the Phantom, it has to be said Herbert Lom is greatly under-used despite his top billing and lacks the menace that I felt the picture warranted. Hinds’ screenplay also hinders the film a little, as while convenient plotting is a horror staple his script at times tends to fall into the realm of the implausible when the narrative has to change direction.

PHANTOM 003The DVD from Final Cut (Blu-ray also available) comes with a very informative half hour ‘making of’ hosted by none other than Edward de Souza. In it he narrates how Gaston Leroux’s work was first adapted for the screen by Lon Chaney in 1925, then details how unsuccessful the 1943 version was before then mentioning the Cary Grant association with Hammer’s Phantom. The film historian Richard Golen adds his musings to the piece, as does Alan Lavender the sound recordist who provides some anecdotes about the shoot. It may be a slight addition to this reissue, but the fact that it’s there at all is a credit to the fledgling Final Cut label who can be proud of distributing another overlooked classic from Britain’s most iconic of horror studios.

7 out of 10

Extras:

  • Making Of (30 mins)