Europe in the time of the witch hunts by the Church, where the fingers of suspicion were pointed at innocent citizens by torturers who wanted to exert and hold onto their power by any means necessary, and if that meant creating a whole class of scapegoats they could label as witches then so much the better. With God claimed to be on their side, they cut a swathe through the continent, putting their victims through horrendous mental and physical treatment all to force them to confess to activities supposedly in the service of Satan that in fact they never did. Once the confessions were secured, they would put the victims to death in gruesome fashion, getting off on their evil power trips...
Although in this film we were apparently invited to get off on that sort of torture ourselves in a movie that owed much to Michael Reeves' cult classic of miserabilist horror Witchfinder General, ignoring the substance that made that a long, lasting stare into the abyss of the darkest recesses of the human soul and instead opting to amp up the gory spectacle. Some saw this as a precursor to the so-called torture porn of the early twenty-first century's genre developments, but the creators of this at least were hanging onto their claims to criticising the status quo of centuries before, no matter how much it looked more like they were asking us to appreciate nastiness as amusement.
Were they hypocrites too? Obviously they never killed anyone in the making of Mark of the Devil, but the appeal to the less salubrious natures of the viewing public was questionable. Compare this to Ken Russell's The Devils of the following year, a masterpiece which dealt in the same ugliness of humanity as this did, but did so with insight and a genuine emotional punch, something this didn't have. In its place were scene after scene of faked torture, including a tongue torn out by its roots (except once it is you can still see the actress's actual tongue in her mouth - Herschell Gordon Lewis didn't make that mistake), an eyeball plucked from its socket or Chinese water torture inflicted on a poor soul who for all we know is still there getting dripped on since we never see him saved.
Knowing their market, once an American distributor got its grubby hands on this they orchestrated an advertising blitz proclaiming the movie as the most horrifying ever made and handed out airline-style sick bags to the patrons in case they were moved to throw up. This worked like a charm, more charm than the product had at any rate, and it went down in exploitation flick history as one of the most impressive campaigns of the seventies, a lot more impressive, it had to be said, than actually watching what was a tedious experience rather than a titillating one. In the cast, Herbert Lom was the biggest name, the head Witchfinder who gets a discomfiting rape scene, then there was Reggie Nalder, still best known as the vampire from miniseries Salem's Lot, as the curiously swarthy "Albino".
He was a rapist in this too. And as if that wasn't good (or bad) enough, Udo Kier was our dashing hero, the assistant witchfinder who sees the error of his ways when he falls for bosomy Vanessa (Olivera Katarina), a comely wench whose work as a barmaid brings her into contact with Albino and his roving eye. But there was barely any light and shade contrast, and the light pretty daft as Udo and Olivera gambol like lambs in the field, this having been captured in some picturesque regions of Austria. In the main it was rubbing the noses of the audience into the worst that people could behave, fair enough it was based on historical documentation, or at least that's what it boasted at the opening credits crawl, but this was presented with such thudding obviousness that boredom set in early, not good for the sensationalism Mark of the Devil was making its stock in trade. Still, it did set a precedent for Eurohorror, though more imagination was necessary than what was on offer here to succeed as entertainment, thought-provoking or otherwise. Music by Michael Holm.