August 03, 2008

THE DEVILS (1971) - Ken Russell's masterpiece

(1971, UK)

Apparently this infamous film has been restored by Warner Brothers, and was even announced for release in May, according to news from BloodyDisgusting who even have the proposed cover art. But the DVD still hasn’t appeared. The previous appearance on home video was on VHS, albeit short of many censor cuts.

Arguably Ken Russell’s greatest and most outrageous film, it’s no surprise that ‘grey market’ bootlegs are cashing in at the moment. This one is far from perfect, the picture is anamorphically presented 16:9 (edge-cropped from 2.35), but has fairly low picture resolution, like it’s been bumped-up from a computer file. But it’s currently on sale from HK Flix and even from Amazon!

The Devils was a very different film from Russell’s usual modernised biographies of the classic composers. It triggered a storm about film censorship when it was released in the UK and the US, targetted for numerous onscreen blasphemies that would reappear with far less controversy in The Exorcist three years later.

Based on an actual case in 17th century plague-ridden France, Russell based his screenplay on the thoroughly researched, but rather dry account The Devils of Loudon, written by Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). Father Grandier was a priest in charge of a walled city who took a stand against Cardinal Richlieu, but with the King of France’s approval. Secretly he was ahead of his time in re-interpreting the testaments, in order to stay faithful to Catholicism, but also have sex, and even marry.

But an obsessed nun, who idolised Grandier without ever meeting him, hears of his secret and takes revenge by claiming to be possessed. Richlieu’s cohorts take the opportunity to discredit Grandier by proving his allegiance to the Devil with the help of a crackpot witchfinder. The nuns claim to be possessed rather than face execution, and the ensuing public trials leave the public in trouble deciding where the truth lies.

The Mother Superior is 'tested' for demonic possession and an attempt to exorcise her and her nuns turns the trial into a madhouse. Grandier is tortured into confessing many far-fetched accusations (resorting to even nastier methods than any witnessed in Witchfinder General, three years earlier). Ken Russell’s penchant for showing female nudity and sexuality is unleashed here and has barely been seen on such a debauched scale since. But the historical facts of the case are astonishing. Russell, like Huxley, is highlighting a gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated by ridiculous means, made possible by preying on the superstitions of the time.

Oliver Reed is in his prime here, giving a magnetic performance as Grandier. There’s a wild turn from Vanessa Redgrave (Blow Up) as a hateful, crazed hunchback nun – an unforgettable character who should really be ‘up there’ in the annals of dangerous movie lunatics. 

Dudley Sutton (The Leather Boys) as the accusor and Michael Gothard (the psycho-vampire in Scream and Scream Again) as the groovy witchfinder-exorcist have great scenes, but somehow fall short of being as convincing. Georgina Hale is fantastic as a spurned lover, her performance seemingly unaffected by having to perform full-frontal nudity, and Gemma Jones adds realism with her character’s pivotal relationship with Grandier.

The astonishing set designs, some of the most impressive that Russell ever worked with, were designed by Derek Jarman, before he began directing his own movies. The huge set for the walled city and the stark white-tiled convent are cheekily modelled on public lavatories of the time. Complemented by Shirley Russell’s costumes, it all looks like the real deal. Jarman would later mix anarchy and anachronism in his own historical films, like Caravaggio and Edward II.

There are many precedents set in the exorcism scenes in The Devils, that later appeared in The Exorcist. There’s vomiting, blasphemy, I mean extreme blasphemy, and even arched-back spider-walking – a stunt eventually used in the restored 2000 edition of The Exorcist. Masturbating the crucifix was shocking enough, but in The Devils there’s a dozen naked nuns, a statue of Christ, and one very popular church candle. 

 Unsurprisingly, the film attracted the special attention of Mark Kermode, TV presenter and movie critic whose obsession with The Exorcist lead him to make a 1998 documentary that encouraged William Friedkin to restore key sequences into what became The Exorcist - The Version You’ve Never Seen (2000). Kermode then hoped for a similar result with Hell on Earth, his 2002 programme about The Devils.

At the time it was only on home video in a version that had been cut down by both British and American censors. The original UK version, 4 and a half minutes longer than the VHS release/US version, was then shown on TV. The documentary also included the missing 1 and a half minute sequence cut from Russell’s initial UK version, the legendary 'Rape of Christ' scene.

This bootleg DVD (pictured, complete with 'Vanessa' and 'Russell' misspelt) cuts the scene back into the UK version to become a crude restoration of a full-length director’s cut. But because it’s taken from the TV showing, the image is still cropped from 2.35 widescreen down to 16:9. For American audiences, this is still the first opportunity to see the six missing minutes of violence, nudity and excessive blasphemy, plus the 50 minute Hell on Earth documentary, plus various interviews from TV programmes about the history of movie censorship, in which The Devils always features!

Hopefully this astonishing film will soon get released and find new acclaim before we lose Ken Russell himself.


  1. The bootleg "restored" version is also misssing an important scene towards the end when Sister Jeanne makes contact with Grandier's charred leg bone.

  2. Thank you very much for nice review. I watched this film's short clip from YouTube and was very impressed.

  3. Warner spent tons of money restoring this for dvd a few years back then chickened out...they must have been afraid of the backlash!..the dvd case was already designed!..but a pristine bootleg has been around for a long time on dvd.The copy I have has the bone scene in it.This is Ken Russell's masterpiece as Mark stated at the top.