Written by: Ken Russell (screenplay), Aldous Huxley (novel), John Whiting (play)
Directed by: Ken Russell
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed and Dudley Sutton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďSin can be caught as easily as the plague."
As a British film released in 1971 with a title like The Devils, Ken Russellís masterpiece certainly carries a lot of connotations. Since movies of the occult sort were being churned out on a seemingly weekly basis at the time, one might conjure up images of hooded cultists, goat sacrifices, Christopher Lee in drag, and maybe even the devil himself. You wonít really find much of this in The Devils; in fact, youíll mostly be treated to a bizarre, grotesque historical drama where the title characters eventually refer to a band of depraved people whose society was teetering on the brink of hedonism. Typically, the term ďapocalypticĒ is reserved for future, bombed-out wastelands, but, in many ways, the film feels like itís glimpsing into what should have been the end of the world, as the level of decadence captured here has been matched by few films since its release.
Loosely adapted from both Huxleyís The Devils of Loudun and John Whitingís play, the film recounts the exploits of Urbain Grandier (Reed), am immoral 17th century French priest. Though heís a degenerate, he is actually quite popular with the locals, and they end up in his charge after the governor of Loudun passes away. A corrupt bishop (Christopher Logue) sees this as an opportunity to seize the city and fortify it against a Protestant revolt. Louis XIII agrees, but decrees that the city canít actually be destroyed, and Grandier forcibly contests his forces when they arrive in town. In response, the clergy summons a witch-hunter (Michael Gothard) to attack the character of Grandier, who has been accused of using witchcraft to possess the entire town, including the head nun (Vanessa Redgrave) who happens to be sexually attracted to him.
This is such an orgy of debauchery, as pretty much every corner of this film is populated by thoroughly scummy people, many of whom are supposedly acting out of Godís will. Really, though, God has never seemed so absent despite having his name evoked so much, because The Devils is pure madness from beginning to end. It may be draped in prim and proper period trim, and Russellís lens might elegantly capture it all, but this is seedy, ugly stuff that reminds us that you donít actually need Satan to meet the devil. Instead, just check out the cast of corrupt characters here, from the diabolical mad scientist duo, to the impetuous clergymen, to the downright insane exorcist that recalls the impossibility of facing an inquisition. In his eyes, youíre damned if you do and damned if you donít--literally.
At the center of it all is Reedís Grandier, a turn that has to be among the most interesting in his distinguished career. When we meet him, heís knocked up the daughter of a fellow priest and has shrugged her off, even when she comes to beg at his feet. He hasnít just disavowed that whole celibacy thing--heís completely obliterated it and become a total heathen, wallowing in carnal pleasures. To the town of Loudun, heís an enigmatic pariah, and I wonder if he isnít respected mostly out of awe or fear. As their priest, heís often bemused at the quaintness of the sins that are confessed before him. An early scene finds him strolling down the flaming, plague-ridden streets of Loudun, and he seems to be right at home, breathing in the fumes of the apocalypse. Reed certainly carves out a memorable scoundrel, the type of guy we somehow are drawn to because heís so brazen, and, also because he inexplicably becomes the hero here.
Perhaps thatís by default (heís kind of the least of a dozen evils) and because he does seemingly make an earnest attempt to reform by marrying a virginal girl (Gemma Jones, who is arguably the only innocent one in the whole movie). For his opponents, however, this is all the ammunition they need to accuse him of witchcraft. Somewhere beneath all of the amoral posturing of the character, Reed finds a sympathetic core--yeah, heís a bad guy, but heís not all that bad, especially when compared to those around him. He transforms from a roguish knave to a pitiful martyr, especially once heís subjected to the unholy torments of the inquisitors.
Those sequences are among the most searing ever committed to film, as Russell takes us through a demented, hallucinatory trip through religious hysteria thatís dripping in perverted iconography. If The Exorcist caused a stir, this must have aroused audiences to near riots; Jesus being implored to violate a young girl via crucifix almost feels quaint here, as we get nude nuns (young and old) heaped upon each other in a horrific bacchanalia that eventually finds them raping a statue of Christ. You can perhaps summarize the wayward co-option of Christianity in one image: Redgraveís deformed, crooked-headed nun, a lustful, biting creature brimming with self-loathing. She dreams of reveling in the body of the crucified Christ, fresh off the cross (who she also imagines to be Grandier); her perversity finds her on the receiving end of an exorcism herself, which involves a giant enema, among other tortures.
Those torments are easily the filmís most haunting, disturbing aspect, and they help to qualify The Devils as a horror film. They recall the historical methods of witch-hunting, the type of stuff that was immortalized in Haxan; of course, this sort of thing wasnít exclusive to Loudun, as it recurred throughout history. This is why The Devils continues to resonate; its insistence that this is indeed based on real events is a reminder that the heart of a zealot is arguably the darkest of all. Itís appalling to think that this sort of persecution actually occurred; even more appalling is our realization that they have recurred. Maybe they didnít always climax at a burning stake, but their horrors consumed its victims with the voracity of a flame.
At the time of this filmís release, American audiences were only a couple decades removed from the Red Scare; while The Devils might not act as an overt allegory for that age like The Crucible, itís definitely a distinct echo, carrying the same satirical fervor. As long as hedonistic, predatory leaders are there to whip up people into a fervor, there will be a place for films like The Devils. Not that itís particularly easy to hear what it has to say; of course, this did cause quite an uproar, which has lead to a tumultuous life once it left Russellís hands. Even after it was cut to get an X-Rating, it was still banned in some areas in his home country, while the MPAA was even less forgiving, requiring all sorts of cuts just to get it released with an R. As such, its home video history is troublesome--some VHS versions do have the whole 111 minute uncut version, though the film has never appeared on DVD. Warner definitely remastered it (in its native scope ratio) and apparently had it prepped a few years ago, but the release never came to fruition for whatever reason; instead, it was dumped onto iTunes, where it still pops up sporadically. Thankfully, the BFI has acquired WBís restoration, which will be used on their upcoming DVD release next year, which will certainly be one to look out for in the UK. A shocking, excessive, obscene, but masterfully incisive display of human dissoluteness, The Devils is certainly one of the last great horror films yet to make its DVD debut. Essential!
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