Ken Russell’s cinematic universe is a historian’s worst nightmare. The English filmmaker has played fast and loose with the lives of everyone from Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt to Gaudier, Mary Shelley and Rudolph Valentino while making big-time film kitsch like Tommy (1974) and Crimes of Passion (1984) inbetween. Critical reception of his work has all too often been clouded by the director’s colorful personality and the scandals surrounding his sensationalized subject matter. Stylistically he is about as subtle as a bugle call at three in the morning, and when given a large enough budget his baroque fantasies are allowed free reign in the form of drunkenly hypnotic camerawork, decadent stage design, wild overacting and hallucinatory dream sequences that combine the best elements of fashion photography, Artaudian cruelty and American vaudeville into an extraordinary Gesamtkunstwerk of the senses.
While many despised Russell’s treatment of Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers (1971), his follow-up later that year with The Devils would offend both critics and censors alike. The film, based on the trial of Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) for sorcery in seventeenth-century France’s provincial town of Loudun, depicts religious exorcism as a brutal spectacle wherein throngs of unclothed nuns writhe agonizingly onscreen for 111 minutes. (As Ebert opined in his zero-star review, it is “all the more horrendous because, as Russell fearlessly reveals, all the nuns, without exception were young and stacked”—bold words for a man who helmed various Russ Meyer scripts throughout the seventies!) The church prioress who claims to be possessed by Grandier’s demons, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), has recurrent erotic fantasies about the priest which involve him appearing in the likeness of Jesus whilst walking on water, being crucified, and having Jeanne assume the role of Mary by drying his feet with her golden locks before sucking the wounds of his stigmata. A delirious score by avant-composer Peter Maxwell Davies, as well as lavish sets by filmmaker Derek Jarman, help envelop the actors in a nightmare world of filth and putrescence, the ground littered with the bodies of plague victims and the sky a black void.
Reed’s Grandier is a barrel-chested, high-flown orator who, when confronted with two quack physicians healing a woman on her deathbed, chastises them and throws their taxidermied crocodile out a window screaming, “What fresh madness is this!” Redgrave’s Jeanne is a deformed hunchback with a hysterical, high-pitched laugh that courses through her face in sudden eruptions, who flogs herself with a cat-o’-nine-tails, wounds herself with the rosary and, in the uncensored version, masturbates with one of Grandier’s charred bones. She is as notable for her willingness to be stuffed into the most uncomfortable of positions—head locked to one side beneath a claustrophobic arch, leaning on all fours in order to stare out at the world from a floor-level window—as Reed is for his burly dominance of screen space.
The rest of the cast is made up of a ghoulish rogues gallery, including a cross-dressing Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) who shoots Protestants dressed as blackbirds for sport; a long-haired witch hunter with blue-tinted glasses named Barré (Michael Gothard) conducting exorcisms in a shirtless frenzy; the sniveling Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton); and a jealous father (John Woodvine) capable of chestnuts like “Lucky little bastard! It's not every day baby sees daddy burn to death!” during Grandier’s execution at the stake. Exorcisms in general take the form of a spectacular choreography of nude bodies in candle-lit space, displaying rows of bald heads with savagely gesticulating tongues crammed into terrifying tableaux. Overall, the film is remarkably faithful to the Aldous Huxley study on which it is based; fewer cartoonish distortions abound than in the typical piece of Russellian “pornobiography,” as Pauline Kael once described the director’s oeuvre. Still, Russell is no Von Stroheim, and this history is riddled with anachronisms reflecting his own personal obsessions.
Alas, the cultural Gestapo at Warner Brothers refuses to release Russell’s opus for home viewing. Rumors of an uncensored DVD began circulating c. 2008, and cover art was leaked in February of that year. Shortly thereafter the title was mysteriously pulled from Warner’s scheduled output and hasn’t been heard of since. Recently, a columnist for The Nation lamented the fact that an institution as corrupt as the papal Church still dictates public taste and social mores. We can probably chalk the loss of The Devils up to the studio’s reluctance to offend a religious order on its last legs of respectability. Oddly enough, Russell considers The Devils to be an overwhelmingly pious film. One of its most fervent defenders is Gene D. Phillips, a Reverend of the Society of Jesus and professor at Loyola University; his Ken Russell (Boston: Twayne, 1979) paints a portrait of The Devils as a first step in the filmmaker’s “search for a hero” that would culminate with 1977’s Valentino.
Things are starting to look up, however. The film had a very successful Halloween showing at Anthology Film Archives in ’08 (where Russell appeared for Q&A wearing a bizarre mask and calling out for his deceased ‘mum’), and in January of 2010 an uncensored print was finally shown in New York at the IFC Center. Previously lost footage like the legendary “Rape of Christ” sequence has been restored to its proper place as the film’s pièce de résistance. A fascinating documentary (see video above) narrates British film critic/horror aficionado Mark Kermode’s hunt for the missing pieces and their miraculous retrieval. Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of 'The Devils' (2002) aired prior to the restoration of Russell’s filmic blunderbuss on England’s Channel 4; bootlegs of the reconstruction have been in circulation in lieu of a real release. It rankles somewhat that this timeless piece of British moviemaking has been held hostage for so long by an American studio. But no matter. The Devils lives! It is a profound union of form and content, truth and fiction, spirituality and sensationalism.