Color, 1971, 111m.
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Max Adrian, Gemma Jones, Michael Gothard, Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin, Georgina Hale, Christopher Logue, Graham Armitage
BFI (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Warner (DVD) (Spain R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1)
Color, 1971, 111m.
Ken Russell's The Devils is not only the director's finest films; it is also one of the greatest works of the 1970s and, as time has proven, one of the pivotal works of British filmmaking and still perhaps the most dangerous title ever released by a major studio. More timely than ever in our age of growing evangelical and political fervor, this is one of those rare films often classified as "horror" (a la Witchfinder General) despite the fact that it contains no monsters, supernatural elements, or mad killers. Instead what we get is an unflinching, fiery gaze into the darkest corners of humanity, and by the time the end credits finally roll, no viewer is left without a scar or two.
Based in bits and pieces on Aldous Huxley's novel The Devils of Loudon and the stage version by John Whiting, the film charts the disturbing fate of Loudon, an independent French city surrounded by a fortified wall. Charismatic and sexually active priest Father Grandier (Reed) currently holds sway over the locals and publicly attacks the schemes of Cardinal Richlieu (Logue) and King Louis XIII (Armitage) to steal power over this crucial locale. An opportunity arises for them when fanatical, sexually frustrated, hunchbacked nun Sister Jeanne (Redgrave) develops an obsession with Grandier which, when properly manipulated, turns into wild claims that he's a demonic force infecting all the sisters within the convent. A wild-eyed exorcist, Father Barre (Gothard), is brought in take care of the nuns who are all too willing to go mad and let loose their inhibitions, while a much nastier plan unfolds behind the scenes.
Both on artistic and exploitation fronts, The Devils is a film whose power is difficult to overestimate. It's the film that officially established Russell as the official enfant terrible of English-speaking cinema after the one-two period film punch of Women in Love and The Music Lovers, veering him into the increasingly fantasy-driven and freewheeling territory of The Boy Friend, Mahler, and Tommy, along with serving as a calling card for its young set designer, Derek Jarman, whose stunning work here led to a directorial career with such films as Caravaggio and Sebasatiane. Almost every actor in the film delivers a career-best performance-- Reed masterfully depicts Grandier's transition from arrogant sinner to abused martyr, Redgrave unleashes true madness onscreen in an extremely difficult role (originally offered to Glenda Jackson, who declined after playing enough madwomen onscreen), English actress Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey from the Harry Potter films) makes a deeply moving screen debut as Grandier's idealistic lover, and the late Michael Gothard (the serial killer from Scream and Scream Again and the assassin Roger Moore kicks off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only) steals all of his scenes as a very dangerous religious fanatic. David Watkin's beautiful scope cinematography, Peter Maxwell Davies' deliberately abrasive and abstract score, and Shirley Russell's striking costumes are just a few more of the perfect elements here, creating a whole even greater than the sum of its already formidable parts.
Not surprisingly, this potent cocktail involving the misuse of both religion and political power struck an awful lot of nerves, coupled with its extreme visual content combining grisly medical procedures, rampant hysterical nudity, and one of the most unnerving torture scenes in film history. One entire infamous sequence now known as the "Rape of Christ" (with the nuns and priests having a blasphemous romp over a giant Christ statue) was pulled in its entirety from the film before it was ever released and has never been included in any formal print of the film (though Russell did assemble a 2004 personal edition for video projection which made a few fleeting public appearances), along with a brief, twisted coda to Sister Jeanne's final scene involving a significant human bone. The longest version ever officially released was the first run British edition, which clocked in at 111 minutes; however, the American brass at Warner Brothers was appalled by the film and demanded numerous cuts, including the wholesale removal of every shot of pubic hair. Now running up to eight minutes shorter in most prints, this version was still slapped with an X rating in the U.S., and public response on both sides of the pond included numerous protests and the expected harsh response from many critics (including the most bizarre review Roger Ebert ever wrote). It probably didn't help that the film opened in the middle of the infamous bloody year of 1971, bookended by other controversial films like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, and Macbeth, among others. It really says something that among all those films, this is the one that still provokes the most outrage and sends censors into a frenzy. On a less reputable note, Russell's film also inaugurated an unexpected wave of nunsploitation films (due in no small part to its stormy but very successful release in Italy), which poured out throughout the '70s and even inspired a Jess Franco semi-imitation, The Demons.
The advent of home video didn't prove to be much help for this film either; in the VHS age almost all versions were muddy, fullscreen travesties taken from the butchered American version, while a better but still deeply compromised 1.85:1 version (only halfway to the correct aspect ratio) made the rounds on a couple of TV airings and one tape release (while also inspiring some pretty mediocre DVD bootlegs). Nevertheless, the film's critical and fan reputation continued to grow each year, with repertory screenings (including at least one American screening of a mint UK print that's now gone AWOL) and fan demand leading to rumors throughout the DVD era that various companies were trying to wrest the film from the grasp of Warner Brothers. The studio's attitude to the film still showed no signs of budging, but in 2002 the tide really turned with the UK TV airing of "Hell on Earth," a marvelous 51-minute documentary about the film presented by Mark Kermode and featuring interviews with many of the primary living participants including Redgrave, Russell, and much of the supporting cast. This not only boosted the film's status even further but finally offered the first (and only sanctioned) public view of the Rape of Christ scene in its entirety, for the initial airing only. What was most fascinating about this discovery was not the nature of the content itself (which is pretty strong but certainly not as graphic as reports suggested) but its crucial status as the visual link in Russell's filmography to the orgiastic editing rhythms found in Mahler and particularly Tommy (especially the Acid Queen sequence). It also intercut beautifully with Grandier's "communion" in the Lake District, a powerful juxtaposition of a pure gesture of faith against the corruption by false men of the cloth occurring at the same time.
In 2010, another minor bombshell occurred in the history of The Devils when the first scope version of the film appeared with no fanfare as a digital download from iTunes. Again this was still the standard American cut of the film, but it offered the first chance for home viewers to see the film in its full aspect ratio. Shockingly, Warner pulled it a mere two days later, leading to even more speculation about the studio's queasy relationship with one of its most important and mistreated titles. A Spanish DVD surfaced shortly thereafter the same year from Warner, in non-anamorphic scope and once again the American cut, making it of less value than the rare iTunes version.
That brings us to the two-disc 2012 special edition on DVD from the BFI, which is about as close to satisfaction as fans can get for now. Ideally Warner would wake up and give the world a Blu-Ray that reinstates the banned Rape of Christ and bone scenes (which, to reiterate, have never been included in any official print of the film and can only be found spliced into poor quality bootlegs), but until that blessed day comes (hopefully in all of our lifetimes), this release is a real gift to Russellphiles. First of all, this is a major first as it's the only time the much, much longer British cut (111 minutes, or 107 minutes here in PAL) has ever been available on DVD, and it's the only time in the world it's ever been released in scope. The nasty highlights most viewers outside the UK never got to see (the extended leg torture, the filthy nun and candle shot, etc.) are all here and intact in glorious widescreen at last. This is a major upgrade in every respect for the film, and the image quality is excellent, about as good as standard def will allow; it appears to be from the same excellent source that provided the now-elusive UK print that once made the rounds in the last decade. Optional English subtitles are included, and the film can also be played with a video intro by Kermode explaining the version you're about to see and the late Russell's feelings about how he'd like it to be seen. The first disc also includes both the British and American theatrical trailers (the former more racy than the latter) and one terrific extra, the 26-minute "Amelia and the Angel." This 1959 short was one of Russell's earliest works (just a couple of years after his quirky "Peepshow") and was shot silent, with narration and an oddball score added after the fact. It's a nifty little story filled with freewheeling camera work as a young girl named Amelia loses her angel wings she swiped at a school play and chases them across town, even when they wind up attached to the back of a trained dog named Rocky running through an abandoned train station. Eventually she finds an unlikely source of inspiration and redemption in the form of an "angel," of course.
Of course, the real prize on disc one is the audio commentary with Russell himself, joined by Kermode, editor Michael Bradsell, and "Hell on Earth" director Paul Joyce. Some of the material here reiterates what was in the doc, but a lot of it is new (and frequently hilarious) as well. You know you're in for a fun time when the opening scene kicks off with Russell observing, "The king was as camp as a queen bee, and we got a leading transsexual to play the part, since deceased" (which, for anyone who knows who actually played the part, gives an indication of the fast and loose nature of the discussion). Other anecdotes involve the fragility of Jarman's sets, the powerful influence of a literary comparison between Sister Jeanne's exorcism and a public lavatory, how Oliver Reed appeared to be walking on water, the accuracy of that freaky green lipstick, Twiggy's cameo, Oliver Reed's oft-remarked "moody" scale, the hallucinogenic properties of bread mold, and the onetime popularity of doll enemas.
On to the second disc, you get the standard broadcast version of "Hell on Earth" (which still contains the infamous extended bone scene with Redgrave voiceover and some fragments of the Rape of Christ sequence). It's still a terrific piece years later, kicking off with Kermode visiting Russell at his country home before launching into a series of frank interviews with the participants sitting in appropriate church settings and often railing against the absurd censorship damage inflicted on the film over the years. Then some equally nifty extras surface, particularly the 22-minute documentary made to promote the film in 1971, "Director of Devils." This creepy and fascinating piece begins with a series of historical drawings incorporated with voiceover about the film's disturbing nature, followed by Russell discussing the film during a car ride interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of the set construction, on-set footage during the filming of the tribunal scene, and a lengthy, compelling look at the score's studio recording with Davies. An additional, raw 8-minute chunk of 8mm footage from the set comes next, with Bradsell offering commentary about Jarman's plans for the sets. Last up is a 13-minute Q&A with Russell and Kermode from a 2004 screening, with topics ranging from Russell's discovery of classical music to the film's rocky reception and history to the music he played on the set to "get the nuns going." Finally, the impressively hefty insert booklet contains liner notes by Kermode (who focuses on the historical and literary basis of the film and Russell's interpretation), notes by Craig Lapper about the two-pronged censorship waged on the film by the film boards and the studio (whose continued baffling behavior is only rivaled perhaps by Disney's shameful current suppression of Song of the South), an essay on Jarman's handiwork by Sam Ashby, and a short remembrance of Russell by Bradsell. Also included are bios of the director and stars, short notes on the extras, and an additional essay about "Amelia" by Michael Brooke. While we still don't live in a world developed enough to allow the best possible version of this important, beautiful, horrifying work of art, at least we move several major steps closer with this vital and highly recommended release.