Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (1970)

... aka: Austria 1700
... aka: Brenn, Hexe, brenn
... aka: Burn, Witch, Burn
... aka: Hexen
... aka: Satan
... aka: Witches Are Tortured to Death

Directed by:
Michael Armstrong
Adrian Hoven (uncredited)

Shortly after its 1970 premiere in West Germany, Mark of the Devil (originally Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält or "Witches Are Tortured to Death") was banned in its country of origin; a ban that would last until 2008! It also had issues with censorship in the UK and the very first public screening of the uncut version wouldn't occur until 2013 (!!) However, most of the film's true infamy was created by an effectively crude American advertising campaign in 1972. Distributor Hallmark Releasing Corp. whipped up a memorable poster which boasted that it was "Positively the most horrifying film ever made," claimed it was "the first film rated V for violence" and even promised it was "Guaranteed to upset your stomach." Not content to rest on just those self-implied lowbrow laurels, they then went a step further: "Due to the horrifying scenes no one is admitted without a vomit bag." And that's exactly what patrons received upon entrance to see this one. Morbid curiosity meant audiences just couldn't keep away and they turned this into a money-maker. Clearly made in response to the hit WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) starring Vincent Price, Mark actually managed to out-gross that film by a considerable margin due to the effective marketing. Witchfinder director Michael Reeves was originally even lined up to direct this one, too, but was replaced by British director Michael Armstrong after his untimely death.

In recent interviews, Armstrong revealed he was first given a script by his agent called "The Witch Hunter Doctor Dracula," written by the film's producer, Adrian Hoven. Armstrong hated it and got permission to re-write the whole thing. Only keeping the witch hunting theme, he decided to highlight the religious hypocrisy, crass violence and corrupt political state of the era. The finished script ended up being credited to the pseudonyms "Sergio Casstner" (Armstrong) and "Percy Parker" (Hoven). Hoven apparently wasn't pleased by any of this and there was a lot of tension on-set between the two men. At one point, Hoven even went behind the director's back to film many scenes not in the new screenplay (featuring himself and two of his children) that ended up in the finished product much to Armstrong's chagrin.

Sensationalism is all over ever frame of the opening sequences as we bear witness to all of the expected things that occur when religion isn't kept in check. You know, things like a caravan of nuns being hijacked so that they can be raped and murdered. That's followed by some good Christian tortures that involve a man having his hand chopped off before being stripped, tarred and feathered and sent into a crowd of laughing, leering townsfolk who are instructed to chase him through the streets until he keels over. Next up, two young women are hung up by their wrists and slowly lowered into a fire, making sure to curse their executioners before being engulfed in flames. A title card then informs us that "In Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries, it is estimated that nearly eight million people were convicted of heresy and executed by fanatical witch hunters, in order to save their souls." [Later scholarly estimates based on available data are MUCH lower, usually placing the actual death toll somewhere between 35 and 70 thousand.]

Heading over all this torture, rape and murder of innocents is a nasty, sniveling, self-serving witch-finder named Albino (Reggie Nalder), who's involved in these bogus convictions, torture sessions and executions strictly for his own benefit and uses his position of power for money, sex and to satiate his own sadistic desires. Unfortunately for him, he's only a "local authority" and royalty has sent out a notorious state-appointed witch-hunter named Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) to clean up the countryside. Arriving in the small Austrian village prior to Cumberland is his naive, well-meaning apprentice Count Christian von Meruh (handsome young Udo Kier) and chief executioner Jeff Wilkens (Herbert Fux), who's "the most famous head-chopper in all of Europe." Fearing his position is being threatened, especially considering he's been bypassing official trials and heading straight to the torture fun, Albino coerces an advocate (Johannes Buzalski) to forge papers and up the amount of convictions and executions prior to the Lord's arrival.

Getting caught up in all this are a number of people, most notably feisty barmaid Vanessa Benedikt (Olivera "Vuco" / Katarina), who falls in love with Christian but finds herself high up on Albino's shit list after slicing up his face when he attempts to rape her. Vanessa is whipped, convicted of having "illicit intercourse with the Devil" and thrown into a cell to await her fate as a succession of others wrongly convicted come to join her. Expelled nun Deirdre von Bergenstein (Gaby Fuchs) is raped and impregnated by a high-ranking bishop and thus convicted of carrying the devil's child. Young Baron Daumer (Michael Maien), who's just inherited a great deal of money from his deceased father, is accused of being possessed but only because the church wants their hands on his fortune. A nobleman / puppeteer (Hoven) and his wife (Ingeborg Schöner) are accused of crafting "human dolls that speak" and are thrown into the slammer along with their two young children. In between all of the torture scenes, Christian starts to see the light about how diseased and corrupt his mentor and others claiming to do God's work really are.

Since this same exact story had just been told, and told better, the previous year by the aforementioned Witchfinder General, this depends almost entirely on exploitation elements to differentiate itself from the pack. The good news is that if you're into screaming, torture, blood and misery, this has plenty of that to go around. There are many whippings, bloody lashings and slashings, fingers crushed in vices, bodies stretched out on racks, severed arms, legs and heads and a man driven mad by a water drip. Some of the more interesting torture techniques include feet burned with a hot iron, a tongue getting ripped out and ass torture where a man is forced to sit on spikes and then a hot seat where a fire is lit right under his bum. During an eye gouging, a bizarre cartoon effect has been added. This also includes a dash on nudity courtesy of Fuchs (who went on to play the female lead in THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN) and Dorothea Carrera as a young woman surprised in bed with her lover. Some of that and some of the grislier violence (as much as ten minutes) were censored in many countries over the years. The full uncut run time is 97 minutes.

Mark is fairly well-produced, with solid production values, sets, costumes and locations, and benefits from a strong cast, with especially good contributions from Lom, Nalder and Fux. It also deserves a bonus credit for being an early exploitation shocker hit with a cleaver and successful marketing campaign. However, it's also dreary, slow-moving and just not as compelling or well-made or artful as some of the other movies it shares company with and thus pretty forgettable on the whole. The fact the director and producer weren't seeing eye to eye is also evident whenever this sidesteps into unnecessary subplots that add nothing to the film.

After the film proved successful, Hoven quickly churned out an official, now-hard-to-find sequel: Mark of the Devil Part II (1973), which brought back Nalder and a few of the other actors for more of the same. Other bogus "sequels" later popped up on home video here in America but all of these were simply re-titled European horrors that had nothing to do with the original. Mark of the Devil 3 was actually the Mexican shocker Alucarda (1977), Mark of the Devil 4 was the Paul Naschy film HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (1973) and Mark of the Devil Part V was used for the original "Blind Dead" film Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972).


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