Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mark of the Devil

Mark of the Devil
Original title: Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält
Directed By: Michael Armstrong
Horror / Drama, 1973
West Germany, 92min
Distributed by: Extreme

When the church state witch hunter comes to town the local one is put on the spot as his position of power is diminished. In a desperate attempt to prove that he still has the eye for picking out witches he accuses Vanessa a charming young woman who just happens to have been favoured by the which hunters apprentice Christian. The young apprentice takes Vanessa under his wings and saves her from the town witch hunter, but these newly awoken feelings make him have second thoughts about performing God’s will as the witch hunter general pays attention to the village hunter and throws Vanessa into the Dungeon for interrogation. Many lives are lost in the quest to burn all witches and the torture is appalling but still Christian finds reason to question if they are doing the right thing, and discovers that certain people are using their position for their own sinister desires…

Mark of the Devil so genially promoted with the free barf bags in cinemas and tag lines like “Rated V for Violence” and “Positively the most horrifying Film ever made!” sure did its fair bit to bring in the audiences both in the cinema and later on during the video revoulution. With quotes like that on the cover art you KNOW that you want to see this movie. Right from the start you know what you are going to get here with this West German entry into the “which hunter” niche, as the instance that the opening credits are complete, a band of thugs attack a wagon full of nuns raping and murdering them without showing any mercy. Then we are thrown into the little town where the movie is going to take place, a bloke has his hands cut off, and then he’s tarred and feathered before being chased out of town. Finally two women are tied to stakes and burned alive over the fire… This is the kind of movie that makes me dread BluRay. Not because of the movie per se, but because all those loveable flaws that can already be seen on regular DVD will tear your eyes out in HD. It’s painfully obvious that the bloke getting his hands lopped off doesn’t because in the next scene when he’s getting tarred and feathered you very clearly see his fists with some red goo on them, also the women being burned, as they are lowered into the flames it’s clear that it’s a mannequin tossed into the fire as the wrist and arm junctions are fully visible. But still, it’s an effective opening following that “Positively the most horrifying film ever made!”

But to be honest it isn’t the most horrifying and the violence isn’t that violent compared to other films of the time. The movie feels sloppy and the editing is really annoying with quick cuts at a disturbing pave for no real reason and then there’s all those confusing edits where people suddenly are looking at the wrong angle that keeps throwing me off and annoying the crap out of me. But then again it’s a cheesy, sleazy exploitation flick, and not a showcase of masterful cinema and the cast is the great show of force here. A young Udo Kier as Christian the which hunter apprentice, Herbert Lom as the witch hunter master, Herbert Fux vile Jeff the Executioner and the ever sinister looking Reggie Nalder as Albino the local witch hunter who accuses everyone who walks in his way for being a which only to go about his sadistic ways. The story is rather interesting as the apprentice, saves young maiden Vanessa [Olivera Katarina] from Albino’s evil grip early on in the movie after Albion tries to explain to Christian the apprentice that he is the village which hunter, after he has been to be patronised by Christian. Albion in a rage of anger cries out that Vanessa is a witch to prove his which hunting skills. That’s when Christian steps in and rescues her from the abusive Albino. This rescue is followed up with a quite long sequence where he takes her to his home and they slowly become friends, which leads to then falling in love… Imagine the witch hunters apprentice falling for a which! And just as they engage in their first kiss we crash cut to the witch hunter making his pompous entrance.

As the Witch hunter has his first major scene he’s unhappy with Jeff the Executioner for failing to find the mark of the Devil on a poor young girl sent before the hunter. Hence the name of the film as skin defects like moles are signs of being in league with the devil, and guess who has a mole on her face? Christian the apprentice’s newfound love Vanessa, which is what Albino, claimed to be proof hat she was a witch in the tavern earlier on. The young girl standing in front of the hunter is pardoned and after thanking him she is set free and as she leaves, Albion enters. The hunter points out that Albino is late, and with out excusing himself Albino sits down to the next accused witches case. A great way of setting up the contrasts here as the Which Hunter shows a good trait as the evil Albino who just gave Vanessa a damned good thrashing in the stables just keeps on pushing his foul ways upon the audience. The which hunter goes about his work and sentences the next case to first be stretched on the rack and then have her tongue ripped out by the root, but to keep the balance, the next scene sees Albino smile a sinister smile as Christian is stunned by the fact that Albino still wants to prove that he's the only witch hunter in the village and has Vanessa brought in front of the Which Hunter General to once and for all prove that she is a which. Christian points out that there is no indigent against Vanessa, but these documents mean nothing as the accusations are told, Vanessa had intercourse with the devil in return for him making a man who made advances on her impotent… The witch hunter is so shocked he sends her straight to the dungeon before he decides her fate.

Later Christian pleads for Vanessa to the Which Hunter, who explains that Vanessa is indeed a witch and she will confess after trial in the dungeon. Here the horrors begin as a long series of violent, sadistic and gory scenes show varied ways of expelling confessions and a subplot explaining Albino’s hate of Vanessa is shown before young Christian once again pleads for Vanessa and has doubts about the way they are going about gods work. His loss of faith is complete as he witnesses his mentor try to kill Albion after he accuses the witch hunter of exploiting his position for money and sins of the flesh. More carnage and subplots are set into motion to further show that Albion in more ways than one was somewhat right in his accusations, leading Christian to finally confront his master. While Jeff the Executioner goes about his orgasmic torture session in the dungeon, Christian sneaks Vanessa out of captivity and they enjoy a brief romantic moment. But when he returns to the dungeon, Christian is grasped by the witch hunter’s henchmen and thrown into a cell. Vanessa with her freedom goes to the village pub and rallies the villagers against the Which Hunter and his mob, before they storm the castle making him run for the hills, but in a twist of fate, the angry mob find the second best thing, Christian! Stringing him up from a tree the lynch mob go about torturing to death him as Vanessa accompanied by his screams of agony rushed forth only to find her lover hanging dead from a tree…

And ten minutes later you will probably have forgotten most of the movie because it really doesn’t live up to the expectations that those taglines and barfbag promised. The movie definately hasn't aged with grace and I found myself searching for the remote on more than one occasion. Not even the charismatic Udo Kier manages to keep this one going. But it is an interresting curioustiy as it was banned upon its release in several countries and still to date, and was once a cherished gem of genre lovers back in the golden days of vhs. Then again in 1970 it was a disturbing piece of film even though it by today’s standards is quite lame, and it did spawn a sequel on 1973 Mark of the Devil II in a desperate attempt to cash in on the slim niche Hexploitation. Needless to say it didn’t.

No shadow on Riz Ortolani, but Michael Holm’s score for Mark of the Devil really reminds me of Ortolani’s brilliant score for Cannibal Holocaust that was made ten years later. On the other hand the music in Mark of the Devil seems completely random and not made to coincide with what is going on on the screen and therefore feels out of place on many occasions as it doesn’t suit the atmosphere of the action shown.

Michael Armstrong couldn’t have asked for a better start in his career as Mark of the Devil was a massive hit when it was released in 1970, but success always comes with a price. Even though the movie was a smash, Armstrong only ever directed a second feature. He wasn’t even supposed to direct this one, as Michael Reeves who directed Witchfinder General (guess the niche of that movie!) two years previously. But when Reeves suddenly passed away due to an accidental overdose of barbiturates in 1969 the reigns where handed over to his assistant on the movie that inspired Mark of the Devil, Michael Armstrong. Never the less, he stood his ground and made an impact full movie loved by fans of the genre, and he also went on to write scripts for Pete Walker’s 1982 star studded Horror anthology House of Long Shadows, starring Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Caradine, and even though he wasn’t credited for it he did work with the script for Tobe Hooper’s 1985 vampires from space flick Lifeforce.

At the start of the movie there’s a statement that reminds the audience that some eight million people lost their lives during the witch trials between the 15th and 19th centuries. This should obviously be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s an exploitation movie setting ground before unrolling its little sleazy tale, but at the same time a lot of people did indeed loose their lives during ridiculous processes at the hands of religious fanatics, and perhaps it’s herein that the real horror of the movie lies. After all it did happen just imagine all those women dying in the flames for no real reason but religious fanatacism, Hey that sounds like I movie I saw once...

16:9 Widescreen. The print is all right but the colours seem a tad saturated.

Dolby Digital 2.0, English dialogue with Dutch subtitles.

The Dutch Extreme version has NO extras at all which is a shame, but then there’s a Blue-Underground version which has a couple of interviews with cast and stars Gabby Fuchs, Herbert Fux, Ingeborg Shoner and Udo Kier, a commentary track by Michael Armstrong, Theatrical trailers and radio spots, so if Mark of the Devil is your bag, then that’s the one to grab.

Here's a great trailer for the movie, which more or less plays out like a one minute version of the movie!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Original Title: Valerie a týden divu
Directed by: Jarmil Jires
Czechoslovakia, 1970
Horror/Fantasy /Drama, 77min
Distributed by: Redemption

A young woman awakens from a strange dream and realises during a walk in the courtyard that she’s having her first period and becoming a woman. This starts off a series of events that plunge he into great trouble as her youthful blood draws vampires to her and soon she learns that the Vampires are more than just uninvited guests!

You could say Buñuel-ish or Jodorowsky-ish, but that would be an insult to Czech director Jaromil Jires and his amazing surreal horror story adaption of Vitezslav Nezval's book Valerie's and Her Week of Wonders, about young Valerie’s first days as a woman. Strange, sometimes incomprehensive and very stylish as the doe eyed Valerie [Jaroslava Schallerov] takes her first steps into womanhood is filled with randy priests, lustful vampires, shocking family constellations that twist and turn though out the movie making it a great piece of early seventies art house horror. With a storyline reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and imagery that works like a strange blend of Jean Rollin’s sexy vampires and Herzog’s Nosferatu (although Herzog shot his nine years later so it’s most likely he who was inspired by the blue flesh tone of the master vampire) It’s a strange tale told merely through what feels randomly assembled happenings as the movies starts of with a really poetic and delicate string of imagery showing Valerie becoming a woman. I call it poetic and delicate, because it is just that, and could have been much more provocative, or disturbing, but Jires does the right thing here and keeps it more as a visual reference and not an exploitative trick, which draws you in much easier than being explicit from the start. And the incoherent imagery and scenes start to make sense once you get past their initial visual glory and start to puzzle the narrative together. Slowly but safely the characters are all introduced. Eagle, the young boy who steals Valerie’s earrings several times during the movie, Valerie’s Grandmother, her best friend Hedwig, and the main antagonist, The Evil Constable, who shifts character throughout the movie and is also the Black Bishop, the Vampire, Richard and possibly Valerie’s grandfather and Lover of her Grandmother too!

Keep an eye on Valerie’s earrings, as they are important throughout the movie and play an important role in the story. Not to mention the symbolism they portray. The earrings where heirlooms left for Valerie by her mother, and the searching for the earrings over and over again, throughout the movie is a metaphor for Valerie’s search for the truth about her family. They are once again stolen by eagle and then he produces the pearls telling Valerie to swallow them when she is in trouble, and they will help her. Needless to say they help her out of several creepy situations, adding yet another dreamish surreal feeling to the movie.

Her grandmother tells her not to wear them as they are not suited for a little child. Valerie looks at her and tells grandma that she’s no longer a little girl, but a woman as she got her first period yesterday. From here on the Grandmother becomes obsessed with regaining her youth, desperately trying to seduce the priest that visits them, so that she can feel desired once again. Unlike the last visit he made only a year ago, he rejects her as he has his eyes set on young Valerie and Grandma ends up making a deal with the Vampire, who seems to have at one time been the previous owner of the house that Valerie and her Grandmother live in. She gives him back the house and he promises to restore her youth. This is done very symbolically when Valerie’s best friend Hedwig is married to an older bloke in the village, before he has a chance to consummate the marriage, the now vampiric embodiment of Constable and Grandma, sneak up and bite the young virgin in the neck, draining her of her life-force. Grandma now becomes a revitalized young woman and moves back into the house with Valerie claiming to be her long lost aunt. This theme of feasting on the young and innocence returns later on when Valerie goes to bed with Hedwig for a lesbian snog, bringing Hedwig back to her youthful self through the process. You could also be as bold to state that it's early feminism as Valerie rejects all the male characters making advances on her and instead submits to the gentle caress of her girl friend.

The Vampire grows old and weak, and in her youthful naivety Valerie pities him, but he has concocted a sinister plan together with the now reincarnated Grandmother to take not only Valerie’s but also Eagle's life so that old couple can live on in new forms. Valerie starts to learn the terrible truth of her origin, her mother married to the Bishop didn’t die at all, but was forced away from the house and village by the Vampire, and on top of that, her love and platonic boyfriend Eagle is Valerie’s brother! This is also why Valerie keeps seeing visions of her father all the time! She needs to be reunited with her family to find peace in her new phase in life.

It comes as no shock to that the movie is riddled with nods at coming of age tales and filled to the brim with symbolism as the entire movie is all about the conflict between youth and aging, new and old, life and death…

The original score by Luboš Fišer and Jan Klusák, was released on CD just a few years ago and has inspired much of the work by British Electro band The Broadcast. The album Ha Ha Sound from 2003 is the most obvious with a track being called Valerie. The movie is also said to have inspired Angela Carter who wrote the screenplay for Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie A Company of Wolves which utilizes the same themes, womanhood and coming of age.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonder is a perfect example of how European filmmakers totally master their crafts elegantly blending horror and eroticism to a perfect cocktail of Stylish cinema. Jires never goes too far, but stays just on the line between art house and exploitation which makes Valerie and Her Week of Wonder a definitive jewel of the genre that definitely deserves a spot in every cineasts DVD collection.

Full screen 4:3. Unfortunately the Redemption print isn’t the best quality, but to their credit they did make sure that the movie got distribution, even in the days of video it was one of their catalogue titles. Second Run DVD have on the other hand re-issued the movie where the transfer has undergone print restoration, new subtitling and an improved audio track has been added. So the Second Run DVD with it's extras (An Essay by Peter Hames, introduction/interview with film historian Micheal Brooke and an interview with lead actress Jaroslava Schallerová) and improved image and audio is the one you should go with.

Dolby Stereo 2.0 Czech language, English subtitles burned into the print,

There are not many extras that have anything to do with the film, but there is a trailer gallery (Renato Polselli’s Black Magic Rites and Jean Rollin’s The Shiver of the Vampire), a Still gallery (which painfully obviously are all frame grabs), and a music video for Italian Goth/Metal band Cadaveria produced and released on “Triple Silence” the record label owned by the Redemption team. Finally there’s the pathetic Video Art gallery which only has two images of the Facets US DVD sleeve, and the UK Redemption sleeve.

Here's the Second Run DVD trailer for you to enjoy!

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