The Devils

Dir: Ken Russell, 1971


devils uk

Okay, I’ve got a confession. I don’t care for “The Devils”. I’ve seen it many times. I even own it on video and have the BFI DVD. But it just doesn’t impress me. Why?

For me the film is too much.

Ken Russell doesn’t do things by halves. It’s all or nothing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Where “The Devils” is concerned it doesn’t.

“Tommy” and “Lisztomania” work for it. They are meant to be over the top. That’s the fun. But Russell’s magnum opus should have been a serious look at the Loudon possessions. Instead, he opts for dark comedy, maniacal performances and insane hysteria, revelling in it’s outrageousness.

The story goes that in 1634 in Loudon, France several nuns in a convent claimed to be possessed by demons. After an investigation by the Catholic Church Urbain Grandier was declared to have to been the culprit for the possessions bringing them with him. He was convicted of sorcery and burned at the stake.

Oliver Reed portrays Grandier, a handsome, womanising priest who is the obsessed sexual desire of hunchbacked nun Sister Jeanne of the Angels, here played by Vanessa Redgrave.

Reed shags and preens his way through the film, while Redgrave just looks spaced out in her sexual repressiveness.

Enemas, nudity, rotting flesh and plague ravaged bodies Russell doesn’t hold back in showing how far he can go  in his lusting to repulse the audience.

The events are lightened by Brian Murphy and Max Adrian, overacting their way through the picture, administering enemas to the demon held nuns and, effectively, providing a sense of comic relief.

Prior to it’s official release in 1971 the British censors balked at some of the stuff Kinky Ken had written in the script and told him, in no uncertain terms, that things would have to go. And go they did. But this didn’t stop him from filming the film’s most famous scene which, ironically, has never officially been seen.

“The Rape Of Christ” scene depicts the nuns in a sexual frenzy, gangbanging and masturbating their way through the whole scene. Candles, priests, each other. Anything goes. The pinnacle of the orgy ends with a four minute exercise of blasphemy and depravity when a statue of Jesus on the cross is pulled into the hysteria and used for copulation all the while being over seen by a wanking Murray Melvin.

With much to and froing between Russell and the BBFC the scene, in it’s entirety, had to go leaving only the build up. To be fair to the BBFC they did allow material in that they’d never allowed before and only asked for minimal cuts to rotting bodies and Redgrave’s use of the word “cunt”.

After these changes had been made it rightfully awarded an ‘X’ certificate. In America, however, the film fared worse. The MPAA demanded even more cuts than the UK censors did. After more cutting the film was released to paying patrons and it was this version that surfaced briefly on video in the UK, unsurprisingly, with an ’18’ certificate.

The Devils UK VHS (2)
Insert for the UK video release

Aside from a rare showing in the early 90’s of the Alex Cox presented “Moviedrome” the British theatrical version remained unseen. That is until film critic Mark Kermode located the deleted footage once thought lost and restored it.

However, the distributors, Warner Bros., have always been scared of the film and would only allow the BFI to release the original 1971 ‘X’ version and on DVD only.

Ultimately, the history of the film is more interesting than the actual film itself. If it hadn’t had the controversy it did I believe it may have just gone to the way side like so many other of Russell’s output.

The history is what’s keeping the film alive. Maybe Warner Bros. know this and that’s the real reason why they’re refusing to release the uncut version. To allow the uncensored cut be seen will take away it’s notoriety and it then becomes worthless. The secrecy and illicitness only adds to the appeal.


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