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In his entertaining and hyperbolic Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils, Canadian movie critic Richard Crouse attempts to answer why Russell’s 1971 film The Devils — based on a story about an incident of mass hysteria among a convent of nuns in 17th century France — became such a flash point in what would seem to have been an unshockable era. (A Clockwork Orange was nominated for the best picture Oscar that year.)
Crouse’s contention that Devils is “the most controversial movie ever made” deserves to be taken seriously, if only for the fact that Warner Bros. still refuses to release a director’s cut. Called blasphemous, cut to ribbons by censors and outright banned in some countries in its day, it also set off battles among critics.
Inspired by Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction book The Devils of Loudun (1952), the film stars Oliver Reed as radical priest Urbain Grandier, who is accused by his corrupt enemies of perverting the “possessed” nuns led by Vanessa Redgrave’s sexually frustrated mother superior.
Through interviews with Russell, who died in November at 84, Crouse turns in a “making of” that is also a case study on censorship. By 1971, the director was no stranger to controversy, having made such films as Women in Love (1969), which depicted a nude wrestling match between its two male stars, and his banned BBC biopic Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), which portrayed the German composer Richard Strauss as a Nazi. But even he was ill-prepared for the outrage that awaited Devils.
Russell never found virtue in understatement and, with a large budget, left nothing to the imagination. The outcry was tremendous, with the film being condemned by the Catholic Church after its screening at the Venice Film Festival and British and American censors cutting scenes including a “Rape of Christ” sequence in which naked nuns writhed over a lifesize Christ effigy.
But as Crouse points out in Russell’s defense, everything depicted in Devils was thoroughly documented and believed to have taken place. Russell said that once he decided to make the film, he “went along with the truth as reported.”
Informed by his own Catholicism, Russell always maintained that Devils was not as blasphemous as Warners has contended. When Crouse asked him what the film was about, he replied, “The inability of sex and religion to marry.”
Although Crouse did not get to interview Reed, who died in 1999, or Redgrave, who remains a staunch supporter of Devils, he has assembled conversations with the film’s supporting cast, its composer and its editor. It also is fascinating to read the views of filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro (who professes to watch portions of Devils at least once a week), Joe Dante, Alex Cox, David Cronenberg, and William Friedkin.
Released two years after Devils, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which also examined demonic possession in sexually explicit terms, had nothing resembling the same problems with censors or the Catholic Church. Crouse suggests this is because in “Russell’s vision, the corrupt church — represented by zealots and fools — uses possession as a tool to intimidate and manipulate the innocent … [whereas] The Exorcist treats demonic possession as an actual phenomenon, a scourge which the Catholic Church is able to nullify through prayer and sacrifice.”
Russell’s more subversive, fact-based vision scored a fraction of the audience numbers that Exorcist did. Far from being Russell’s big break as Exorcist was for Friedkin, it effectively spelled the end of his career as a sought-after film director.
“Ken Russell doesn’t report hysteria, he markets it,” wrote Pauline Kael. A far more generous appraisal and fitting tribute to Russell’s brave film came from The New York Times critic Stephen Farber, who called it “a visionary work, a prophetic warning of the tenacity of ignorance and superstition.”
Raising Hell by Richard Crouse
(ECW Press, 200 pages, $19.95)
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