Horror talisman and genre superstar Udo Kier really began his career with Mark of The Devil (Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält) a startlingly graphic story of European with-finding and torture — if you’ve not seen it you will be startled as well as amused. The way Udo Kier looks back in 1969, you can’t imagine any casting director turning him down, as he is simply stunning. There might not be a lot for Kier to do in terms of acting, but he knows what to do on film, and his slow burning romantic stares are movie-house gold.
Udo Kier was in line for this film regardless of casting decisions as he was known to director Michael Armstrong who had actually even written a vehicle for him called The Kinky Deathwish of Vernon Slim. Mark of the Devil, dating from 1969, is one of three contemporaneous films on the subject of witch-finding and torture, which includes Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968). All carry a certain shock value in the torture, but of the three, only The Devils captures any historical validity. That’s not the say that Mark of the Devil doesn’t claim to historical accuracy, but historical accuracy isn’t the point of horror.
People react differently to the torture featured in Mark of the Devil. By the standards of modern cinema it might not be much to speak of, but with Mark of the Devil, it’s not the exact nature of what’s shown, and the quality of the effects, but it’s about how it makes you feel. This isn’t down to the depiction of a certain act, but the framing — how much you care and how much you believe. Key I think is the fact that torture shows people at their most powerless in the face of authority, and also the fact that somewhere in our minds we have already been to these places. If you think of when you were young, visiting castles or learning history, and there you would first learn about this random evil known as torture. You’d go in the dungeon, or look at the implements and you would be shaking already.
I like to think of the story of Mark of the Devil as a kind of ‘day in the life of a torturing witch finder,’ as it does have a kind of portmanteau feel to it — there are various people under torture throughout, and we follow their stories, even though all these stories amount to is brutality and execution.
Mark of the Devil cannot also be discussed without mention of Reggie Nalder, a seriously cult figure like Kier himself. Nalder, who is at his grizzled best here, and actually has not only a decent role but credits also, can pop up in all sorts of strange places; I found him recently in Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of the Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), in which he plays the hit man. Reggie’s just one of those guys; for some like me he is a cinematic talisman, and probably crowned his career as Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot.
Udo Kier is most enjoyable in this film, and you have to check him out so young and so svelte.