Criterion Prediction #17: The Devils, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Devils
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, Dudley Sutton, Max Adrian, Gemma Jones, Christopher Logue, and Murray Melvin
Synopsis: Ken Russell’s massively controversial film is based on Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon, as well as historical notes on the life of Urbain Grandier, an actual Catholic priest who was burned at the stake after being found guilty for practicing witchcraft. The film recreates the events leading up to Grandier’s trial and the actions of a scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Logue) who uses Sister Jeanne, a sexually repressed nun to dismantle Grandier’s reputation and political interests. Grandier, whose progressive and defiant ideologies not only endeared him to the Protestant people of Loudon but protected them from a hostile nobility.
Critique: Hammer studios consistently found themselves under scrutiny for the level of violence in their classic monster remakes. Though tame by today’s standards, there was no way that Hammer could prepare British censors for Ken Russell’s explosive new film The Devils.
Critics slung every negative adjective one can imagine at Russell’s bawdy realization, which was looked at as a blasphemous and assaultive piece of filmmaking. It’s also shocking that the well-known and reputably stodgy John Trevelyan, whose last decision as secretary of the British board of film censors was to pass Russell’s film with an X rating. Trevelyan, whose discerning attitude towards decency in film panned Hammer’s horror movies of the late fifties decided that Russell’s film was undeniably extreme, but warrants a pass due to its artistic, and even religious merits. He managed to piss a lot of people off; however, he had done right by Trevelyan, which is a small miracle in a heap of critically implied blasphemy. Russell was no slouch. He has been frequently described as an indulgent and (even intentionally so) obscene filmmaker, but with material that’s recounting fact-based tales of possession, sorcery, cleric sexuality, exorcism, and witch hunters, how can one avoid hedonism? Ken Russell and set designer Derek Jarman construct a vividly detailed historical melodrama, punctuating the corrupt relationship between church and state, coupled with a debauched aristocracy. Stories of demonic possession sound like tales spun from the campfire, but if you approach the story with seriousness it will enhance the films credibility. William Friedkin worked this most famously to his advantage with The Exorcist. If you observe The Devils with the knowledge that it’s based on historical fact, it plants the viewer at an appropriate remove; this is one of those cases where the truth is stranger than fiction. The juxtaposition of the supernatural and the implied supernatural (or better yet, the process of belief the begets the supernatural) plays to great effect. Vanessa Redgrave is in top form, and Oliver Reed is doing what I consider to be some of his finest work.
Lavishly vulgar and indulgent, Ken Russell’s riotous imagination volleys the mythic proportions and the grim reality of the period with the grace of a master director. His subjects are respectfully drawn and he lets them run loose with reckless abandon. This film is madness and I love every second of it.
Why it Belongs in the Collection? There’s a lot that goes into my personal perception of what makes a great Criterion release. Artistic, cultural, or political significance play a significant role in the Criterion wheelhouse, and Ken Russell is a filmmaker that hits all of those marks, yet it seems like contemporary viewers overlook his staggering body of work. Criterion is successful because they love movies, so resurrecting great films that were overlooked is in their nature. Heaven’s Gate, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Salo are good examples, and in a similar tonal spirit. The Devils corresponds with the former black sheep movies in the collection.
Those similarities don’t exactly qualify it for a release, but the film’s artistic and political merits do. It’s also just a fascinating look into one of histories strangest chapters. As far as home video is concerned, you can only guess what you’ll get with each version of the film. The US cut is a barely watchable bootleg that looks like a VHS rip. The region 2 DVD is the superior route, although it’s only an SD transfer. You’d think time would have taken some of the edge off of this movie, but the contract between Warner (who has the rights) and the BFI forbid any Blu-ray upgrade of the 2004 restoration of the film. Given the legacy this movie has with the censors and its stalemate in the world of home video, it seems like The Devils is still cursed.
Though it seems like we shouldn’t get our hopes up for a restored Blu-ray, I feel like if anyone is up for the job it’s the Criterion Collection. Seeing that Russell’s 1974 film Mahler is featured on Criterion’s Hulu channel, perhaps we will see more in the days to come.