Sound SHOCK takes a brief look and listen to the music of Michael Holm in 1969’s MARK OF THE DEVIL.
Taking its commercial cues from the late Michael Reeves’ masterful, fact-based historical 1968 exploitation film WITCHFINDER GENERAL, director Michael Armstrong (THE IMAGE) and producer Adrian Hoven’s even more sensational 1969 British/German horror movie MARK OF THE DEVIL (aka HEXEN BIS AUTS BLUT GEQUALT aka WITCHES TORTURED ‘TILL THEY BLEED) was notorious upon release and is now widely – and rightfully – respected as one of the great Europudding shockers of all time.
Starring Herbert Lom as deranged, impotent witch-hunter Lord Cumberland and a young, pretty Udo Kier as his reluctant apprentice, Christian von Meruh, MARK OF THE DEVIL told the tale of romance and barbarity in scenic 18th Century Austria and found its fame primarily due to its infamous 1970 U.S. marketing campaign, wherein distributor Hallmark Releasing gave patrons vomit bags, the likes of which (witch?) are hot collectibles today. Unless they’re used, of course…
MARK earned its barf bag stripes. It’s filled with cruelty and then-explicit violence, much of it overseen by the malevolent local witch-hunter Albino (the great and hideous Reggie Nalder, 9 years before he would step into the shadow of Mr. Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s SALEM’S LOT). Nuns are raped, women are poked with ice picks, tongues are ripped out of screaming mouths, men are tortured, people are burned alive and more.
It would be a repulsive, indefensible concoction if it didn’t have such a strong emotional core.
Indeed, MARK OF THE DEVIL is romantic, sad, shocking and compelling, with great attention to character complexity (Kier’s character is a good man, slowly figuring out he’s aligned himself with the wrong mentor) and fine performances and an absolutely rapturous musical score by German composer and pop musician Michael Holm.
As the film fades into the mountains of rural Austria, Holm’s gorgeous, easy-grooved violin, bass and jazz percussion theme begins. The track, called “Liebesthema”, is driven by that romantic violin and “doo-doo” female vocal, one very popular in ’60s lounge music and European genre films of the period. Variations on “Liebesthema” run throughout the film, including a series of similar cues that are attached the character of Vanessa (played by Olivera Vuco), the free-spirit bar-wench who Christian loves and whose defiance of Cumberland and Albino serves to propel the central narrative and unravel both witch-hunter’s joined reigns of terror.
Note that the “Liebesthema” was licensed by filmmaker Jason Eisner to serve as the theme music for his 2011 film HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN and was also later covered by Montreal-based revisionist Eurohorror soundtrack band Orgasmo Sonore.
Equally lovely is the gentle piano and high-hat piece “Haut an Haut”, employed for more tender scenes of lovemaking and moments of introspection. There’s such a sense of longing and loss in this cue that it’s almost unbearable to listen to, especially when connected to characters whose doom we know is imminent.
The tone turns darker and more aggressive with “Hexerthema”, initially appearing as a Teutonic march that signals Cumberland’s foot soldier’s advent on the land, but also appears as a primarily string based series of heavily reverb-treated stings that add menace to some of the more shocking sequences.
The use of a more lush, optimistic and cheerful soundtrack as a dichotomy to on-screen horror and violence is one of the not-so secret ingredients to the enduring success and appeal of the European genre film and nowhere is it more enticing than here, in the still remarkable MARK OF THE DEVIL.
Diggler Records released a now out of print CD soundtrack for MARK OF THE DEVIL a few years ago. Try to find it on AMAZON. It also includes library cuts by British composers John Scott and Don Banks from Hoven’s far less interesting Erika Blanc vehicle MARK OF THE DEVIL PART 2.