The Devils: Ken Russell’s Controversial 1971 Film of Heretical Horror is Back, Baby

nunsploitation the devils

The Criterion Channel is now showing The Devils, and an accompanying documentary, and it’s a thrilling and long-awaited cinematic event. Ken Russell’s 1971 masterwork is available now for public viewing for the first time in years. Causing an almost immediate sensation upon its release, The Devils has been widely banned, and official DVD versions (there are plenty of rogue copies) have been mostly unavailable for purchase (apart from a UK edition DVD sold by the British Film Institute). The film has also rarely been exhibited, owing in part to content that has caused divisiveness and even calls for censorship. Despite being the center of controversy, the film has had an iconic impact on cinematic storytelling. 

Ken Russell’s filmic legacy is full of daring aesthetics and bold, often subversive themes and content. Eager to topple staid interpretations of history, Russell’s provocative style wove in visual, musical, and cultural anachronisms. Even elaborate period pieces like Mahler (1974) and Gothic (1986) have a fever-dream quality about them, infused with an almost-contemporary sensibility of frank sexuality and political innuendo. Russell’s refusal to conform to accepted dictates of style or genre made him a bad boy of cinema’s most iconic decades. The Devils is often considered his most shocking work, dealing as it does with the hypocrisy of religious institutions and morality, alongside intense scenes of violence and sexual degradation. The film initially was given an X rating in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and a heavily edited version was made the standard for its exhibition and distribution.

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This absurd, brutal tour de force, written by Russell, is loosely adapted from Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon, and from John Whiting’s stage play The Devils (commissioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961). These works are based on the true story of Father Urbain Grandier, a French Catholic priest who was convicted of witchcraft and heresy, and burned at the stake in 1634. Grandier was a handsome, charismatic man who inspired devoted followers, whose impassioned speeches pointing out the hypocrisy of the Catholic church (which was actively imprisoning and executing Protestants at the time) were seen by many as inappropriately political.

After Grandier was accused of bewitching the nuns in a local convent, the accusations led to a frenzied response, not unlike the one that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts a half-century later. Russell artfully constructs a narrative that excoriates the sociopolitical intrigue of the time, suggesting Grandier’s persecution was motivated by the quest for power by Cardinal Richelieu, who saw Grandier’s popularity and influence as a threat.

The film opens with an elaborate theatrical production starring King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage), whose reign seems characterized by a persistent display of decadence. It ends with a cynical display of fealty between the mischievous but savvy king and  Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue, who starred in Russell’s Savage Messiah the following year). In the nearby village of Loudon, open pits of corpses are buried or burned as the plague ravages the countryside. The Mother Superior of the local Ursuline convent, Sister Jeanne (a career-defining performance by a young Vanessa Redgrave) tries to steal a look at Grandier during a procession. It is a devastatingly manly Oliver Reed, with thick hair and smoldering eyes, who plays Grandier, one of the actor’s most celebrated roles. It’s clear Sister Jeanne is sexually obsessed with Grandier, as are the other nuns in the convent.

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Grandier is an eloquent speaker and a proud man whose sexual exploits are well known. His sordid affair with a wealthy merchant’s daughter (Georgina Hale, who died this past January at 80) telegraphs his sense of entitlement: he knows he is beyond reproach. When the priest visits a woman dying of the plague, her daughter also becomes enamored with Grandier. The ensuing jealousy of Sister Jeanne sets in motion a chain of events that Russell imbues with horror and grotesque violence, as a full-blown witch hunt hysteria shakes the village. The terrifying scenes of torture, implemented by the local “doctors”(a perversely comic duo, in classic Russell style) are not for the faint of heart.

Despite its controversial content, the film stands out as a powerfully original expression of religious and political hypocrisy, and the entire cast is first-rate. Oliver Reed in particular gives a stunning performance, notable for its restraint and brevity. Look for sets designed by a very young Derek Jarman, who later went on to become one of Great Britain’s most original and iconic filmmakers. Many fans of the film are still awaiting an uncensored cut of the film to be released. When some excised footage was discovered in 2002 by British critic Mark Kermode, a newly restored version was edited, and exhibited to much critical acclaim. The 2002 documentary Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils by Paul Joyce (now being shown on Criterion) was first shown on BBC’s Channel Four. Joyce’s film showed the previously missing footage for the first time to television audiences.

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But when the time came to release a new DVD version in 2012, negotiations between Warner Brothers and the British Film Institute resulted in the rather unsatisfying omission of the 2004 footage from the final disk, but Joyce’s documentary was included in the supplementary features. Russell’s wife, Lisi Tribble, helmed a “Free The Devils” campaign on social media some years ago, to try and get the director’s cut of the 1971 film released after Russell’s death in 2011.

The version available now, and being shown on Criterion’s streaming network, is still the only one commercially available. But deep fans will have seen uncut versions out there (a student copied one for me from a blurry VHS copy years ago) and may decide for themselves to explore the mystery. Despite missing some significant content from the original theatrical release version, which clearly Russell thought crucial to its artistic integrity, The Devils is still seen by many as Russell’s most enigmatic work.



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