Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Mark of the Devil (1970)


That word jumped off the box…

It was a simple black and white photocopied cover on a clamshell case. It was, I know now, a bootlegged copy of the movie. At the time, I just thought it was a cheap, low budget box. Maybe I thought the real box had been damaged or lost, and this cheap photocopy had replaced it. I’m not sure.

“BANNED IN 19 COUNTRIES!” the box screamed at me. I don’t think anything had ever made me want to rent a movie more than that. It was Mark of the Devil Part II (1973), and I had never seen Mark of the Devil part one. In fact, I’d never heard of Mark of the Devil part one. Usually this would deter me from watching a movie. But this movie was banned in 19 countries! It simply needed to be seen. The cheap photocopied cover somehow added to the mystique. Like no official movie box could have made it onto my video store’s shelves. Only an underground, secret copy… If I didn’t rent it now, maybe the police would confiscate it and I’d never get a chance to see it again.

I rented the movie.

I don’t remember much about Mark of the Devil Part II (1973). I think it entertained me well enough, and had a few shocking or disturbing moments, but I don’t think it lived up to the promise of “BANNED IN 19 COUNTRIES!”. And that bootlegged copy DID disappear from my video store’s shelves not too long after I rented it. I don’t think the police confiscated it. Somebody probably bought it (or stole it). 

Several years later, a friend of mine returned from trip to New York with a couple of VHS tapes he’d bought for me in a bargain bin. One of them was Mark of the Devil (1970). “Banned In Many Countries” the box proclaimed. I wondered if it was more than 19 countries. If it were, say, five or six countries, surely that would only be a few, wouldn’t it? At what point does “many” start? More than ten? More than twenty?

We immediately slipped that tape into the VCR and watched it.

I think we were a tad disappointed. There was nothing in the movie that would seem to warrant being banned in one country – never mind “many”. We did, however, think that the movie was good. Surprisingly good. “Too good”, as my friend likes to say. In other words, it was “too good” a movie to deliver the kind of offensive sleaze that would get it banned all over the world and, over twenty years later, provide us with the kind of “bad movie night” experience that we might have been expecting.

The memory of the film stuck with me over the years, but I never watched that cheapjack VHS copy again. Truth be told, it was a low quality tape, and a not so great print of the film itself. When Arrow Films released a super-deluxe blu-ray version, I knew that it was time to revisit this horror classic (or #NotQuiteClassic, depending on your point of view).

Incidentally, I did rent a VHS tape called Mark of the Devil Part 3: Innocence From Hell sometime back in the ’90s. It also claimed to have been “banned” – or did it? What the box actually said was “Banned in Nearly 19 Countries”. Nearly 19 countries? What does that mean? It was banned in 18 countries? Why not say 18? Were they thinking that it sounds better to say “almost” 19? If you’re going to do that, why not say “almost 20 countries”? That definitely sounds better than 18. And it’s still true (if the film was actually banned in 18 countries).

Maybe what they’re really saying is that the film was ALMOST banned in 19 countries – meaning that 19 countries considered banning it, but in the end, none of them did. So it was actually banned in 0 countries. I suppose “almost 19” does sound better than 0.

The truth is probably that this is just a line that some distributor or marketing genius put on the box. They probably had no idea whether or not any countries ever considered banning this film. But since the first two movies had been banned (at least according to their marketing) they figured that the third one should follow suit.

By the way, Mark of the Devil Part 3: Innocence From Hell is in no way related to the other Mark of the Devil films. It’s actually an alternate title for a film called Alucarda (1977), by Juan López Moctezuma, who made a handful of horror films in Mexico – but that’s another story.

Mark of the Devil (1970) is the best of all of these movies (at least as much as I can recall part 2 and 3). In spite of its reputation for being “banned” and being shocking, it’s actually a pretty serious-minded story about the witch hunt, which could be taken literally as the story of what happened in Europe (and elsewhere) in the 1700s, or metaphorically about other “witch hunts” throughout history. The movie exposes the politics behind such movements, the inevitable corruption, and the somewhat less than puritanical motivations of the individuals who are entrusted to “save us” from the evils in the world. For a self-declared violent sleaze-fest – that handed out vomit bags to all patrons – it’s actually a rather thoughtful, intelligent and powerful film. 

I imagine that much of the credit for the quality of this film must be given to writer/director Michael Armstrong, who wrote almost 20 movies (but only directed slightly less than 5) – plus some television. Apparently producer/actor Adrian Hoven, who played “Walter – the Nobleman”, may have made changes and inserted scenes without Armstrong’s knowledge or permission. I don’t know enough about this to comment, but it sounds like there was much tension and disagreement about what kind of film it was trying to be. I tend to believe that it’s Armstrong’s vision that comes through and makes the film as good as it is. Armstrong is a far more accomplished writer than Hoven ever was.

Mark of the Devil (1970) is #NotQuiteClassicCinema at it’s most notorious. It combined the old school gimmickry of William Castle (vomit bags) with the new extremity of modern horror in the 1970s, of which this was one of the first examples. Historically significant, and surprisingly thoughtful and engrossing, it can make for a dark and shocking (and perhaps even sickening) #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.