31 Days of Hell: The Devils of Loudon (1969) - Reviewed

By now, you’ve probably heard of Ken Russell’s still ragingly controversial and banned 1971 masterpiece of historical drama and horror The Devils.  Forty five years later it remains under lock and key thanks to ongoing efforts by Warner Brothers to suppress it despite being commercially available in the UK and frequent screenings of an uncut 35mm X rated print circulating the US.  The still disturbing and horrific story adapted from Aldous Huxley’s 1952 nonfiction book and John Whiting’s 1960 play about the public execution of 17th-century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier following accusations of witchcraft associated with the supposed demonic possession of a convent or Ursuline nuns is the kind of stuff that is as difficult to imagine on film as it is to read in print.  

Even reading the synopsis is sure to raise a few eyebrows if you can finish it.  Full of obscenities including but not limited to violent torture, unclean thoughts, blasphemous images and graphic sexual content, The Devils continues to enthrall and enrage in equal measure for all those who manage to see it.  But what you may not be aware of (certainly I wasn’t until recently) that this isn’t the first time the story of The Devils of Loudon has been told on film.  Contrary to popular belief, Russell’s film is in fact the third take on Huxley’s text, the first of which was a 1961 Polish film depicting the aftermath of the events in Russell’s film called Mother Joan of the Angels.  The second of which was, believe it or not, an operatic adaptation is the focus of today’s entry in The Movie Sleuth’s 31 Days of Hell series, Polish avant-garde composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudon

Made in 1969 for German television and reuniting the cast of the original stage opera, the film stars Tatiana Troyanos as the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne of the Angels and Andrzej Hoilski as the titular Grandier and while it doesn’t quite achieve the shocking heights of Russell’s film, it does a lot you wouldn’t think would be admissible on broadcast television .  While the nuns don’t disrobe and prance around in a lewd manner like they did in Russell’s film, everything else including the graphic administration of enemas, broken legs and, yes, graphic scenes of fornication with Grandier are all here clearly to be seen.  Visually this TV production mostly uses medium close-ups of the actors’ faces and the scale of the set design feels more like an enclosed stage play with dimly lit sets than a fully realized white bricked city created on the backlot of Pinewood by Derek Jarman.  That said, the costume design is pretty similar to Russell’s film and the acting styles certainly informed the performances by Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.  What’s remarkable is just how faithful both Russell’s film and this TV production are to the dialogue in Whiting’s play.  Virtually every line is recited note for note and intonation is equally similar.  You could make the argument both films are essentially live action plays, although the stylistic execution and penchant for transgression couldn’t differ the two further.  Where Russell’s film is a work of sensory overload with many in-your-face images, the Penderecki opera is more down and dirty with a less remarkable but still effective visual palette.  There’s also the factor of anachronism, which features heavily for allegorical reasoning in Russell’s film, notably with Father Barre who looks maniacal in both films but resembles a John Lennon/Mick Jagger lovechild in the Russell film.

This three act opera by Penderecki, originally commissioned by the Hamburg State Opera, marks the still active composer’s first full length opera and the first time his work began receiving international attention.  Initially unsuccessful in its homeland, the play soon crept its way into the consciousness of horror fans thanks to the inclusion of pieces of the opera in William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of The Exorcist.  If you recall the scene where Father Karras is summoned by Sharon to observe lettering emerging on the possessed Regan MacNeil’s abdomen, you’ve most definitely heard samples of Penderecki’s opera.  Not long after Friedkin’s use of Penderecki, the composer’s music soon began turning up in everything from The Shining, Wild at Heart, Fearless, Inland Empire, Children of Men and Shutter Island.  When we think of horror oriented music with atonal strings that speak to stark terror and indescribable dread, we almost always think of Penderecki and when Jonny Greenwood was scoring Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Penderecki was cited as a primary influence.  Listening to and watching Penderecki’s opera now, particular with the volume turned up full blast, is sheer cutis anserina juice.  From his sharp strings to his choral funereal woes, The Devils of Loudon is not to be listened to alone at night with all the lights off.  

As for the TV adaptation, it takes on the form of a passion play and the destruction of Grandier by the powers that be is still horrifying and terribly sad in spite of all his womanizing that precluded it.  In the end I’m still going to point to Russell’s film as the definitive take on this still unfathomably terrible story, but for newcomers to Penderecki and the most infamous case of supposed demonic possession, political and religious chicanery in recorded history, The Devils of Loudon is a good place to start. 


- Andrew Kotwicki