Beyond Fest: Chris D says don’t miss Ken Russell’s X-rated, 108-minute version of “The Devils”

By on September 28, 2015

(Editor’s Note: Chris D wrote this post for us in 2015): It’s that time of year again – the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian’s Beyond Fest is just mere days away and begins on October 1 with filmmaker Brian Hegeland in-person for an advance screening of Legend, featuring Tom Hardy in a dual role, playing both of the sociopathic Kray twins who ruled gangland London in the sixties. The film opens wide in November.

There will also be a number of west coast premieres, including Takashi Miike’s hellzapoppin, hilarious and horrific Yakuza Apocalypse: Great War of the Underground, plus a salute to the late great Wes Craven with a double feature of Nightmare on Elm Street and The Serpent and The Rainbow, with star Robert Englund in-person, along with other guests. Go here for their full schedule.

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My favorite amongst the many superlative entries, though, is a film by the unparalleled Ken Russell, an auteur who surpassed the promise shown in his previous pictures such as Women in Love in an uncompromisingly subversive, shocking way.

The longer that Ken Russell’s film, The Devils, remains obscure in America (having never seen a DVD release here, suppressed by its original release studio, Warner Brothers, due to its controversial nature), the harder it is to point out to a younger audience – who haven’t seen it – just how powerful and important it is, especially in today’s global political climate.

And why is it controversial, despite being set in 17th century France, something that might suggest an innocuous historical drama? Because of a sensual, libidinous priest who is the flawed ‘hero’? Because of sex orgies disguised as exorcisms involving cloistered nuns? A gay French king who makes sport of killing Protestants and whose court is made up largely of drag queens? The beautiful, hunchbacked Mother Superior having a sexual daydream where Christ comes down off his cross, transforms into our clerical ‘hero’ and rolls around with her on the muddy ground?

Yes, for those reasons. But the deeper reason is politics – the film beautifully illustrates, with a balanced combination of rapier-sharp satirical wit and inevitable tragedy, a governmental strategy that has been handed down from time immemorial, since men have first ruled over others, positing a church and state in collusion to divide and conquer.

How? By keeping common people distracted by superstition and a climate of terror, creating an atmosphere of distrust and prejudice, ultimately attacking the sovereignty of city states, even their partial autonomy.

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Based loosely on the book, The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley and the play, The Devils by John Whiting, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed, in arguably his finest performance) is a fiery activist and popular priest who has inherited the leadership of the fortress town, Loudon, from the late governor, who has perished from the Black Death ravaging the countryside.

Unwisely, Grandier has been consorting with the spoiled daughter of one of the town magistrates, someone who is already jealous of Grandier’s political power. Simultaneously, two other women are winding their way inexorably into Grandier’s destiny, a destiny that will also affect the community at large in a catastrophic way.

Madeline (Gemma Jones), is a humble peasant woman who has fallen in love with Grandier. Grandier in turn, touched by her genuine goodness and humility, falls in love with her and ditches his libertine ways, marrying Madeline to himself in a private ceremony. However, this is witnessed by assistant priest Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), and the ‘sham’ wedding is soon the talk of the town, despite far worse things for the villagers to worry about.

The spread of the plague is torrential, and then there is the arrival of Cardinal Richelieu’s puppet, Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who has orders to destroy the town’s fortress-like battlements (manifested here in austere, eye-popping modern design by production designer, Derek Jarman), ostensibly to reduce the risk of a Protestant uprising. Grandier, appearing with soldiers loyal to him, stops the Baron.

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It is made clear throughout the film that there is no danger of civil unrest from Protestants, and that the Catholics and Protestants have been co-existing peacefully for years. Grandier departs for Paris to petition decadent, politically cynical King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage). The other woman, who will end up playing the most pivotal role in Grandier’s and Loudon’s destruction is the emotionally unstable Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the hunchbacked abbess of the local Ursuline convent.

Obsessed with Grandier, beset by nightly sex dreams about him, she is enraged when she hears of Grandier’s marriage to Madeline and, in a deranged state, claims to Father Mignon and later the Baron, that she has been bewitched and that Grandier has also possessed the rest of the nuns by proxy of his demon consorts. The Baron, in conclave with other jealous town leaders, decides this is the perfect opportunity to divest Grandier of his political power, and he calls in unhinged witch-hunter, Father Barre (Michael Gothard) and other officials of the Inquisition to begin questioning the convent’s nuns.

When Grandier returns, he is met by scenes of mob violence and mass exorcisms, and he is immediately arrested and put on trial as the satanic ringleader of the allegedly supernatural chaos. Refusing to confess, even after extreme torture, Grandier is found guilty and condemned to be burned at the stake.

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Critic Richard Crouse (who has written a book on the subject, Raising Hell), explained in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “Ken set out to make a film that told a true story, and the subject matter – he converted to Catholicism, and was a very devout Catholic – the religious angle of it, really interested him. It was about someone who was an outsider…and I think that probably really struck a chord with Ken Russell. So you bring all these elements together, and you don’t have someone who’s just simply trying to shock us and titillate us. You have a filmmaker who’s trying to make a serious statement, in an entertaining and provocative way.”

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There were a number of other “pariah” films released around the same time, including Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, and Tinto Brass’s Caligula. While Pasolini’s Salo is most similar on the surface to The Devils, depicting a specific horrendous, reprehensible outing of hypocritical government and religious leaders, albeit in a much more recent timeframe, Performance is probably the most similar in tone.

The subject matter of Performance, gangland violence intersecting with on-the-fringe rock ‘n’ roll mingled with psychedelic genderbending and the nature of life/rebirth/doppelgangers is in a seemingly different world. But the troubled production, release and ignominious reception – not to mention the meticulously-crafted production design and cinematography – of the two films has many striking parallels.

Coincidentally, Performance, was a film greenlighted by the same studio, Warner Brothers, on the basis of a participating member (i.e. Mick Jagger) without the powers-that-be having thoroughly vetted the script or understanding the filmmakers’ concept. Similarly, The Devils received a go-ahead from Warners based on the breakout success of Ken Russell’s Women in Love. Russell was looked on ¬– rightly so at the time – as a wunderkind.

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Ken Russell/ Photo by ITV / Rex Features

However, even before its release, the subject matter of The Devils, coupled with Russell’s obsessive attention to detail and performance, his unflinching commitment to not compromise, created fissures in the firmament of his kingdom – his cast and key production team. His marriage imploded. Halfway through the production, when Warners executives finally read the whole script, they went ballistic.

Richard Crouse muses, “It was a time when the studio system was falling apart…So they were crazily green-lighting all sorts of crazy movies. And this was one of them…All of a sudden there were people from L.A. on the set in England all the time…Edits were being insisted on…Some of the power was taken away from Ken, even though he was fighting desperately to hang onto it. But he was also an artist who was willing to work with the money people because he wanted to continue working.”

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Banned in several countries, X-rated upon its original release in 1971 here in the USA as well as in the UK, it has become increasingly difficult ever since to find a theatrical screening or a video release. Shorn of a few shots of more explicit sex and violence, pared to a running time of 111 minutes to receive Britain’s X certificate, the studio reputedly excised another three minutes to bring the length down to 108 minutes. Although its original American theatrical release featured the X-rated 108 minute version, for subsequent re-releases and the one-time 1995 VHS issue, two minutes (some say more) were excised to earn the film an R rating.

Since this VHS release, it has become well-nigh impossible for most people to see The Devils, despite its critical rehabilitation in the intervening years (after its initial drubbing amid the self-righteous outrage promulgated by 1971’s reviewers). It has been on-and-off again of numerous Warner Brothers’ DVD release schedules, especially here in America, since the early 2000s.

Fortunately, the BFI finally managed to sublicense the film from Warners and released the 111 minute cut of the film on Pal DVD in the UK in 2012 (ironically sped up to 107 minutes to accommodate the Pal conversion). The BFI was prohibited from including ‘lost’ controversial footage (approximately 6 minutes found by crusading critic, Mark Kermode) or to issue the film on Blu-Ray.

Warner Brothers has allowed a few select screenings of the original X-rated, 108 minute version of The Devils in North America over the last 15 years.

One such screening will occur on Thursday, October 8, 2015, 10:00 PM at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre’s Beyond Fest in Hollywood. Filmmaker Bernard Rose (Paper House, Candyman, Frankenstein) will be on hand in-person to introduce the screening.

If you have never seen The Devils, mark the date. You really should.

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About Chris D.

Chris D. is a writer, producer, director, actor and musician. He produced three seminal albums of the LA punk and Paisley Underground scenes: Fire of Love by the Gun Club, Days of Wine and Roses by Dream Syndicate, and Gravity Talks by Green on Red. He wrote directed the movie I Pass For Human. He is also the author of fiction and non-fiction; his latest book is the 800-page Gun And Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980. He also recently contributed a chapter to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun, which is scheduled for publication on April 26, 2016. He lives in Los Angeles.