The great success of Michael Reeves' 1968 film WITCHFINDER GENERAL, regarded by many as tying with THE WICKER MAN as the greatest British horror film of all time, was bound to generate a slew of imitations on the continent. The first two notable rip-offs were Jess Franco's surprisingly good THE BLOODY JUDGE (1970), with Christopher Lee in the starring role, and Michael Armstrong's MARK OF THE DEVIL (also 1970). Franco would later return to the territory (though with more emphasis on nuns and sex) with LES DEMONS (1972) and LOVE LETTER OF A PROTUGESE NUN (1977), though these were probably made more in response to Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971) than to WITCHFINDER GENERAL. MARK OF THE DEVIL became extremely well known thanks to its marketing campaign in America, which involved free vomit bags being handed out to the audience (a trick later reprised for several other films during the 70's). Although not an official 'video nasty' in the UK, it was withdrawn following the introduction of the VRA in 1984 and was fairly heavily cut upon its release by Redemption in the early 90's.
Udo Kier plays Christian, an apprentice witch finder; his master is the severe Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom). They are sent to an Austrian town to hunt out witches, much to the dismay of the town's resident witch finder, Albino (Reggie Nalder). Whilst there, Christian falls in love with a busty barmaid (Olivera Vuco), who is accused of witchcraft by Albino when she refuses to let him have his wicked way with her. Several people are imprisoned and tortured, most notably a Baron who refuses to sign his estates over to the Church, and a young woman who claims to have been raped by a bishop. Finally, a family of travelling puppeteers are imprisoned, enraging the townsfolk and providing Christian with a trigger to help his girl escape the Count's clutches. However, all does not work out quite as Christian planned
The thing that is most likely to most shock first time viewers of this infamous film is just how tame it is by today's standards. It has earned itself a somewhat unjustified reputation as an early exploitation classic, when it really has quite artistic pretensions and, as with WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the subject matter is presented in a serious way. There are several scenes of torture, most notably a bloody tongue pulling, but it's all really quite restrained. Additionally, there is surprisingly little nudity – a brief scene of a topless woman on a rack and a glimpse of a topless woman at a window is all that's on offer. This seems even more surprising given the extremely busty actress playing the bar maid – Franco would never have missed a trick in this way!
The acting, especially from Kier and Lom, is excellent, with Lom in particular turning in the performance of his career. Reggie Nalder is suitably repellent in his role, and most of the females in the cast turn in reasonable performances, with Olivera Vuco's wild eyed turn proving the weakest link. The music, art design and photography are all way above the level usually associated with this type of film, and the beautiful scenery provided by the Alps provides a stunning backdrop to the action. The film was officially directed by ESKIMO NELL (1975) screenwriter Michael Armstrong, but actor and producer Adrian Hoven took over for much of the filming - Hoven is most familiar to genre fans thanks to his roles in Franco's SUCCUBUS (1968), SADISTEROTICA and KISS ME MONSTER (both 1969). He wasn't finished with the subject as he returned with the little-seen MARK OF THE DEVIL II in 1973, a sleazier and less polished affair all round. MARK OF THE DEVIL originally featured a bizarre ending in which the dead arose to take their revenge, but the footage was lost/destroyed, and all that remains are a couple of stills.
The Blue Underground DVD is excellent, with some entertaining interviews, an insightful audio commentary, and an excellent presentation of the film itself.