The Aberrations aren’t likely to spawn sequels or inspire remakes. No one will mistake them for classics; their supporters are a silent minority. Yet there’s something interesting about them, something odd or provocative enough to warrant a bit of consideration.
Ken Russell was a talented filmmaker who also happened to be bombastic, indulgent, and excessive. (Exhibit A). His movies were often exhausting, vulgar, and utterly lacking restraint or shame. (Exhibit B – NSFW). He was a provocateur with a short temper, known to fly into rages on the set. He once engaged in a televised argument with one of his critics and smacked the critic atop the head with a rolled-up copy of the critic’s own review. (Unfortunately, this footage is lost; otherwise it would be Exhibit C). In other words, this Englishman did his part to liven up British cinema.
Russell made his name directing artist biographies for the BBC in the ’60s. These were not your standard-issue biopics. Russell aimed to present his subjects’ lives poetically, through fantastic imagery. His film about Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), gleefully skewers Strauss for his anti-Semitism and cooperation with the Nazis. Among its many surreal sequences, Veils depicts Strauss cavorting about with Hitler and Goebbels, and willfully ignoring a Nazi assault on an elderly Jewish couple. Strauss’ family was unamused and withdrew the rights to Strauss’ music, effectively banning the film. (A washed-out copy is currently available online.)
Russell was no less willing to court controversy with his theatrical releases. His feature breakthrough, an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), featured a full-frontal nude male wrestling scene that few directors would dare to attempt in a major production today. His hyper-stylized Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers (1970) – which dwelt on the composer's tortured sexuality – sent critics into conniptions, the kind they reserve for brash directors who’ve gone too far.
Nonetheless, Russell outdid himself with The Devils (1971), which ran afoul of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) and deeply offended its studio, Warner Brothers. As a result, the film was cut and recut, leaving a mess of different versions, none of which matched Russell’s intent. To give you an idea of what the BBFC and Warners found so troubling, the film’s central set piece was a sequence known as the “Rape of Christ.” It showed nude nuns having an orgy in church, masturbating themselves upon a large-scale crucifix. One can only imagine the looks on the faces of the censors and Warners reps as this footage flickered before them.
The Devils takes place in 1634 France. Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII have struck up an alliance to consolidate their power and crush the Protestants, which in turn means breaking down the independent, fortified cities throughout the country. Loudon is one such city, where Catholics and Protestants peacefully coexist. However, Loudon’s governor has just died, leaving the Catholic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) to assume leadership. Grandier is soulful, respected, and a blatant philanderer. At the same time, the hunchbacked and high-strung Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), head of the local Ursuline order, secretly harbors sexual fantasies about Grandier. The priest falls in love with young Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones) and even marries her, which does not sit well with his previous (and pregnant) lover nor Sister Jeanne.
The church-state threat comes to Loudon in the form of Baron de Laubardemont, who orders his men to tear down the city walls. Grandier steps in, citing a longstanding hands-off agreement between Loudon and the king. Laubardemont backs down, and Grandier departs to see the king himself and clarify the situation. A conspiracy brews in his absence. Sister Jeanne, feeling spurned by Grandier, tells a priest that Grandier has possessed her through witchcraft. Laubardemont uses this information to bring the exorcist Father Barre to Loudon.
Barre, a madman in his own right, barbarically interrogates Sister Jeanne. (His methods include a piping hot douche and induced vomiting). She sticks to her possession story and her nuns join in the act, too. Whipped up to a frenzy by Barre, the “possessed” nuns have a full-blown orgy within Grandier's church. The king himself playfully exposes the nuns’ throes as a ruse, but they continue unabated until Grandier returns. Furious with the desecration Laubardemont and Barre have wrought, Grandier confronts his accusers and is arrested.
The Devils is essentially about a vicious power grab. While it provides nightmarish sights throughout, it truly becomes a horror movie during its last half-hour, when [SPOILER] the defiant Grandier is subjected to a humiliating show trial, tortured, and burned at the stake. Laubardemont and his men finally bring down the city walls and reduce Loudon to ruins. The baron also stops by the convent to literally throw Sister Jeanne a bone – Grandier’s charred femur – for her complicity. (In the uncensored version, Sister Jeanne masturbates with the bone, the sad culmination of her obsession.) Madeline scales Loudon’s rubble and flees to the country, and that’s as much of a happy ending as The Devils offers.
Clearly this isn't a crowd-pleaser. It’s easy to laugh at Warners’ marketing efforts, which flatly admitted that “The Devils is not a film for everyone.” But that’s just a blip of truth in advertising; and to his immense credit, Ken Russell never gave a damn about pleasing everyone. Even when one likes his movies, one tends to stagger away dizzy with a head full of lunacy.
The Devils certainly delivers on that front. It’s always visually arresting, thanks in large part to Derek Jarman’s production design. Russell felt that Loudon should look as modern to us as it would to its citizens. Jarman responded with a striking set that evokes Metropolis as much as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Russell’s cast gamely throw themselves into their roles, with Reed and Redgrave strong in the leads. Reed captures Grandier’s complexity – his pride, vanity, smugness, as well as his spiritual righteousness – making the character’s downfall all the more powerful. (That Reed himself was a notorious hellraiser happens to add another layer to the portrayal.) If he were any less of a presence, Redgrave would steal the entire film; her Sister Jeanne is a tittering neurotic wreck, as pitiable as she is menacing. Russell’s screenplay is commendable, too. Based on a true story as covered in an Aldous Huxley book and John Whiting play, it laces the gravity and depravity of its Crucible-like witch hunt with bits of black humor worthy of Monty Python. That’s no mean feat, and it works more often than it doesn’t.
For all The Devils’ many merits, however, any discussion must come back to its censorship and convoluted release. The topic has produced at least one quality book and documentary. To summarize: Russell submitted the movie to the BBFC and Warners in early 1971. He was forced to cut anywhere from four to eight minutes, including the “Rape of Christ” and Sister Jeanne’s masturbation. The U.K. cut was slightly longer than the U.S. cut, which received an X rating anyway.
The critics spewed bile on both sides of the Atlantic. Alexander Walker was the aforementioned critic who sparred with Russell on the telly. Writing for the Evening Standard, Walker called The Devils “a garish glossary of sadomasochism… a taste for visual sensation that makes scene after scene look like the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic schoolboy.” Vincent Canby snidely dismissed it in The New York Times, and Roger Ebert’s pan was an exercise in sustained sarcasm. John Simon likened it to a cesspool. Judith Crist went above and beyond, stating that Russell “slid so badly with the laughable The Music Lovers and has landed in a pile of excrement with The Devils… We can’t recall in our relatively broad experience (400 movies a year for perhaps too many years) a fouler film.” And so on and so forth. Keep in mind that these people had seen censored versions of the film. In any event, it was not a box office hit, either.
The U.S. version was cut even further to score an R rating in 1973, which was also the version released to home video in 1981. Slightly different versions of varying lengths circulated over the decades, but it wasn't until 2002 that film critic Mark Kermode tracked down the mother lode of long-lost excised footage, including the “Rape of Christ” and Sister Jeanne’s self-boning. The film’s original editor, Michael Bradsell, re-inserted that footage and assembled the closest thing to a full restoration to date. The National Film Theatre in London screened this cut in 2004, and so it appeared that The Devils would finally regain its form.
However, Warner Brothers retains the rights to the film and refuses to sanction a restoration. While the 2004 cut has occasionally screened since then, Warners hasn’t officially approved it or released it on home video. As of this writing, the most complete (non-bootleg) home video is a 2012 British Film Institute DVD, which contains the 1971 U.K. theatrical cut. Film buffs, horror freaks, and directors like Guillermo Del Toro have been advocating an official restoration for many years. Russell had also been hoping for as much up until his death in 2011. But Warners hasn’t budged, apparently fearing a backlash from the religious right.
Warner Brothers’ stance is especially hypocritical considering that the studio released and profited mightily from The Exorcist in 1973. That film includes an infamous scene in which a demonically possessed 12-year-old girl violently masturbates with a crucifix, and was rated R. Whereas The Devils depicted young adult women (who weren’t really possessed) pleasuring themselves upon a large-scale crucifix (or with a bone) and remains censored to this day. So, by the standards of Warners and the MPAA, a demon forcing a child to sexually molest herself is acceptable, but repressed nuns breaking out in a mass-hysteria-driven orgy are not. Good to know.
Pathetically enough, Warners re-released the R-rated Devils in 1973 to piggyback off the success of The Exorcist. Yet, more than four decades later, the studio still can’t find the courage to release the true version of the film. Perhaps one day it will, and we will be able to talk about The Devils as directed by Ken Russell instead of the cut Warners has allowed us to see. Until then, we’re left to make do with what’s on hand, much like Sister Jeanne.
Recommended Reading and Viewing:
I couldn’t have written this post without Richard Crouse’s Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils as a reference tool. It’s an irresistible read for anyone interested in this movie.
Raising Hell draws a good deal of its material from the 2002 documentary Hell on Earth: The Desecration & Resurrection of the Devils, currently available online.
For more on Russell’s entire career, there’s Joseph Lanza’s Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films.
Film Comment has two old and very interesting articles available online. One is a 1970 interview with Russell just after The Music Lovers and before The Devils. The other is a 1975 overview of his work up to that point.