The Devils is not a movie for everyone. In fact, according to Warner Brothers, it’s not a movie for anyone.
The Devils is a 1971 drama written and directed by Ken Russel set in 17th century France chronicling the final weeks of Catholic Priest Urbain Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) life in the fortified city-state of Loudun. King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu have begun plotting the destruction of all of France’s fortified cities in order to rule over them all, however, Louis XIII has made a deal with the Governor of Loudun to keep its walls standing. The Governor, recently deceased, has passed control of the city over to Grandier who is now a target of the united heads of Church and State. Louis, Richelieu, and a local Baron decide to set in action a devious plan to remove Grandier from political power by framing him for demonic possession and heresy so they can finally take control over Loudun once and for all. As wild as all this sounds, this is all loosely based on real historical events. Ken Russel based his screenplay on Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction novel, which itself is based on the 17th century Loudun possessions. The Devils is quite removed from the original source material and is very clearly a dramatized retelling of the events that transpired.
Remember how I said that Warner Brothers said this is a movie for nobody? Wondering how you’ve never heard of this movie? Curious how after quickly IMDb-ing The Devils why it’s so highly rated but that there are less than 10,000 ratings? Well, let me tell you, dear reader.
The Devils was released in 1971 and was considered too obscene, extreme, and offensive to the Catholic church and was given an X rating and was promptly banned in many areas of the UK. Ken Russel then cut the most extreme scenes from the film for different film rating boards, and the eventual cut that seemed to survive into the 21st century was a 111 minutes long. As these things go, slowly the film was cut more and more down to an R rating for distribution, eventually reaching a 108 or 109 minute cut. While all this was happening, Warner Brothers had released a couple VHS copies of The Devils, but then decided that this movie needed to die and never gave it a proper DVD release once VHS started dying off. To this day, the only DVD copies of The Devils are bootlegs, either suffering from awful film and audio quality or are heavily censored or cut versions claiming to be unrated or uncensored. Allegedly the film originally had a cut that was roughly three hours long, but as far as I know, this version of the movie is completely lost.
So there you go. Between censorship, terrible initial reviews, and bad luck with distribution, pretty much nobody has been able to see this movie.
Horror streaming service Shudder has acquired the rights to the 109 minute cut of the film properly letterboxed and with prety decent audio and video quality. So if I manage to pique your interest here, definitely see if you can check it out on Shudder. I should really just do a proper review of the whole site and service sometime.
SO! On to Ken Russel’s masterpiece: The Devils.
I don’t understand how this film seems to be lost to a mainstream audience. Sure, it’s controversial, but far more offensive films have found their way into popular culture, and considering how much times have changed since 1971, The Devils (at least the cut that I saw) would be considered pretty tame by our standards now. That being said, I definitely don’t see this being a film the average 2017 moviegoer would adore, it’s a loud and brash film about 17th century religious politics and fanaticism. Transformers 8 this is not. As someone who was raised in a household pretty much free from religion, I’m even further removed from the on screen depictions of zealous nuns and priests in The Devils making them seem even more intense and intimidating. One of the first things you will notice is how alien Ken Russel makes the screaming nuns and fiery priests that adorn this film. They’re depicted as acting so far beyond reasoning that often times, they’re terrifying.
The Devils, at it’s core is not an anti-religious film. At it’s core, it is a film about the power dynamic between the different socio-economic classes. Those religious nuts I was writing about earlier? Those nuns and priests are only the second rung on the ladder. We see how Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu use their power and influence to take advantage of those below them in order to further their own selfish agendas. When Grandier does not relinquish control of Loudun over to the crown, those in power have no qualms about using their power to force Grandier’s hand. They investigate Loudun, and while they cannot find any direct evidence to impeach Grandier from his position of power, they can manufacture it. Finding the sexually repressed nuns of a local convent (some whom lust over Grandier), they twist their tales into one of corruption and possibly demonic possession. Louis XIII, Richelieu and their Baron know that if they can frame a man of the cloth to be a devil worshiper, there will be no hesitation of backlash from anyone if they decide to snuff him out. None of this is the fault of the religious general populace, it’s all set in motion and carried out by the powerful upper class, whom understand the dynamics between them and those below them, allowing them to play with people like game pieces.
Visually, The Devils is on a whole other level. The cinematography is really solid, but this film stands on it’s production and set design. I remember a quote I heard a while ago about this film saying how its “sets are built with extras”. Many of the scenes in The Devils use an almost obscene number of extras, filling out the frames with clusters of human bodies. Sometimes, extras are placed to fill out empty space in a frame, but if you look closely, there’s no logical reason or possible way for somebody to get to or stand in the location they are. Not that it matters, though, since Ken Russel apparently comes from the Akira Kurosawa Academy of Making Everyone On Screen Show the Same Emotion to Compound Cinematic Effectiveness. In a Kurosawa film rather than showing one person being sad, show everyone in the same room as them being sad as well, and you’ll translate the emotion much more vividly to your audience. In The Devils, Russel takes it to the next level. Don’t show one frantic nun, don’t show a room of hysterical nuns screaming, show an entire hall crammed full with frenzied nuns ripping their clothes off and assaulting anyone and anything around them. Compound that up in scale to involving the hundreds of citizens of Loudun and you’ve got yourself some mighty powerful scenes.
It’s honestly a shame to me that this film has suffered the way it has. I think The Devils deserves to be inducted into the Criterion Collection, and not just for the great injustice posed on to it. The Devils is a film that definitely deserves the title of capital “A” Art between its impeccable execution in production and its strong themes that are represented wholeheartedly by the script and direction, but it never devolves into self-servicing Arthouse wankery. Russel keeps the film cohesive and together enough to string a full, proper narrative through it and while the film doesn’t shy away from the disturbing or the controversial, it never overloads itself with shock for the sake of shock.
Unless you want a bootleg copy, the only legal ways I can find to obtain and watch The Devils is on Shudder or by picking up an original VHS copy. Even the version on Shudder isn’t even the full film proper, leading me to believe that finding a 109 or 111 minute cut of the film is nigh impossible. And a little birdie has told me that trying to obtain it through less savory means is an equally fruitless endeavor.
If you are legitimately interested in tracking a full physical version of The Devils down, the only words I have for you are: Good luck.