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.