31 Days of Hell: The Devils (1971) - Reviewed

Thomas Jefferson once coined the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution by saying ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, or in other words, the ‘Separation of church and state’.  Despite being cited repeatedly by the U.S. Supreme Court, the impassioned debate regarding the extent of the separation between bureaucracy and theology remains a worldwide controversy which rages on to this day.  It’s important to consider this before going into the late British enfant terrible Ken Russell’s greatest and most ragingly incendiary work to date, The Devils.  Based upon the nonfiction novel by Aldous Huxley and the stage play by John Whiting, the film is a historical drama/transgressive psychedelic horror film set in 1634 Loudon, France chronicling a rare moment in time when church and state functioned as one unholy genocidal murder machine wiping out any and all Protestants from “uprising”.  Standing in the way of the religious and political corruption led by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) is renegade Roman Catholic priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in top form), the only figure preventing the demonic duo from destroying the wall fortifications protecting Loudon.  To get him out of their way, a scheme is concocted to convince the public at large he is responsible for the demonic possession of an entire convent of Ursuline nuns led by the hunchbacked and sexually repressed Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave also at the apex of her career). 

What ensues is as close to Hell on Earth in the form of religious and political chicanery the cinematic medium has ever seen.  Once dubbed ‘the film that shocked even the film people’, The Devils remains a polarizing and still ragingly controversial work of art that is as monstrously blasphemous and perverse of an exploitation as it is a spiritually enriching and God fearing passion play depicting a very real world battle between good and evil.  Violence, sex and religion remain three disparate topics that are not meant to coincide with one another, yet here is The Devils feverishly, subversively and even gleefully mixing all of it together to create a truly Satanic and irreverent cocktail of sensory overload, madness, fire and brimstone.  For a mainstream studio film, the degree of nudity and sexual depravity depicted onscreen at the time easily exceeded that of most pornographic films and became the subject of intense controversy before, during and after the production of the film.  So sharp and bloodily fanged is Russell’s vision of religious and political corruption that it engendered the ire and shame of the studio which financed it, Warner Brothers, to such a degree that to this day the studio has all but censored the release of the film on home video in North America. 

Made in 1971 during the height of artistic freedom alongside such transgressive masterworks as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Ken Russell’s epically gorgeous shock fest represents the benchmark of what you can and cannot show in the movies, resulting in the film industry’s own gradual push back against films that dared to provoke in the hardest and heaviest measure.  Initially passed on by United Artists, Warner Brothers in their eagerness to employ the Academy Award winning director of Women in Love greenlit The Devils, not knowing what they were in for.  It wasn’t until they saw firsthand a rough cut of Russell’s elegant horror show that they angrily declared they had ‘never seen the likes of this disgusting shit!’  After being shown to executives, two crucial extended sequences deemed ‘distasteful’ were excised by the studio before being submitted to the BBFC with further trimming made to receive an X rating.  Even after the film came out in the UK and the US, the film was further edited down to an R rated version and preexisting X rated prints were recalled and recut to conform with the newly created R rated cut.  Many theaters refused to show the film with conservative groups such as the Festival of Light demanding the X certificate be withdrawn and for the head of the BBFC to resign.  The animosity towards the film didn’t stop there, as it was banned in many countries including Italy which threatened to jail the films leading actors Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave should they ever set foot in the country.  Probably the most infamous public display of the general critical attitude towards the film came in the form of a televised confrontation between The Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker and Ken Russell who arrived on the set with a rolled up copy of Walker’s negative review of the film.  The exchange became so heated that Russell whacked Walker over the head with his own review before storming off the set. 

And yet despite all the divinity and obscenely explicit demonology contained therein, The Devils (finally released on DVD in the UK only around 2012) is a staggeringly beautiful horror film about what Russell in his own words called ‘the story of a sinner who becomes a saint’.  With a still astonishing, anachronistically futuristic production design by future filmmaker Derek Jarman filmed at one of Pinewood Studios’ largest sound stages, a dissonant and atonal avant garde score by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, sumptuous and precise cinematography by David Watkin and pitch perfect performances from its star studded cast, The Devils is as true of the definition of the word ‘epic’ as has ever been attempted.  The scale of Jarman’s sterilized and gargantuan cityscape with white brick and mortar walls akin to a public restroom can barely be contained within the 2.35:1 Panavision widescreen format with as many extras as some of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics.  Considered by the late Oliver Reed to be his best performance, the infamously hellraising actor’s conviction to the role of the proud and womanizing Grandier has never been more passionate or intense.  Easily one of the finest performances ever given to a film by an actor, Reed is extraordinary and serves as the film’s flawed but well-meaning moral compass beset by a community gone berserk with debauchery and madness.  Equally powerful, if not more, is Vanessa Redgrave as the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, who gives as much of an astonishing physical performance with her contorted neck and head as she evokes suffocating madness that radiates off the screen.  Also fantastic are Dudley Sutton as Baron de Laubardemont who imbues the minion of Richelieu with sinister calculation and conspiratorial manipulation and Michael Gothard as the depraved and sociopathic rock-star “exorcist” Father Barre who possesses the uncanny ability to create a religious, sexual and social frenzy out of thin air.   The first time you see the young looking Gothard with his John Lennon glasses and long hair is rather jarring but once he whips the nuns up into a frenzy of tearing their clothes off and jumping around acting like animals, a loose allegorical connection to the mad mob mentality of rock concerts (particularly Woodstock) becomes all the more apparent.

Despite being over forty five years old, Ken Russell’s The Devils is still as the poster tagline warns ‘not a film for everyone’.  To this day, Warner Brothers refuses to allow the film to be released on Blu-Ray or for Russell’s recently restored 2004 director’s cut to be exhibited, effectively blocking the film from being seen as he intended even after his death.  With exception to a handful of screenings cropping up throughout the US this year, including a sold out showing of the 35mm X rated print I attended at the Music Box Theater which was sponsored by the Northwest Chicago Film Society, The Devils is virtually unavailable in the United States.  Even with considerably more violent and more sexually explicit films, television shows, novels, music and videogames currently being produced and/or available for public consumption, The Devils still manages to touch nerves and arouse anger in many viewers.  As for myself, it’s a brilliant and deeply moving passion play about one man’s act of goodness in the face of towering madness and evil and a testament to man’s ability to remain calm and true to his ideals in the face of it all.  Moreover, the most frightening prospect The Devils poses isn’t so much what happens in the film as how little things have changed between then and now.  Like renowned filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro said of the film, we are still living in the Middle Ages whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not.  Despite centuries of technological advancement, quantum leaps forward in modern medicine and the evolution of communication, we really are as a society and species trapped in the past regardless of how much we consider ourselves modern.


- Andrew Kotwicki