Film Review: The Devils

If there were a prize for world’s most controversial film, a top contender would certainly be The Devils, Ken Russell’s scathing look at the abuse of power by the French 17th-century Catholic church. We are living in an age where Blu-Rays of I Spit On Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust can be purchased by anyone at the click of a button, but a complete release of The Devils remains conspicuously absent despite desperate efforts from many people — including Russell himself until his death in 2011 — to make it available.

Ken Russell has been considered a provocateur, and The Devils has been considered exploitation. Many have gone as far as to label the film a shining example of the subgenre known as “nunsploitation.” That sub-genre enjoyed some popularity in the ’70s and ’80s and was infamous for depictions of nuns and priests either behaving badly or being the victims of the naughty behaviors of their superiors. While The Devils arguably deserves a place in any discussion of films that depict such material, to label it as strictly nunsploitation misses the point by a rather large margin. To understand why, the term “exploitation” must be properly defined.

Exploitation has an elusive definition because artists, including Ken Russell, have manipulated its conventions to make statements through their craft — a phenomenon that alters the very idea of exploitation. As it is rudimentarily understood, however, an exploitation film could be defined as the depiction of sensationalist and provocative material with the express intent of cashing in on the base morbid curiosities of the buying public. Many exploitation films fit that definition quite nicely; others have dared to defy it. The Devils did the latter, and unfortunately the film and its director paid rather dearly for it.

If there were an award for most sensitive topic, then religion would certainly be a top contender, and politics would not be far off. Russell chose to tackle both in one film, and he pulled no punches. Indeed, he used some brass knuckles on what he called his “only political film.” The story concerns the scapegoating of a flawed but respected priest named Grandier (Oliver Reed) who is the interim governor of the French town of Loudun. Cardinal Richelieu, who has ambitious plans for France, sees Grandier as an obstacle to his plans, and takes advantage of some local scandals to get him tried for witchcraft.

The Devils

The cinematography and art direction are exemplary, the performances involve you in the lives of the characters, and the anachronistic use of music serves to enhance the madness on display. It is a truly masterful film. While many actual exploitation (or nunsploitation) films were able to find audiences and profits by flying under the radar and playing in disreputable theaters, The Devils — with its high profile, Oscar-nominated director — suffered severe cuts and censorship that have lasted over 40 years and remain in place as of this writing. The lack of availability has relegated it to an obscurity greater than that of films created by the most underground of filmmakers.

Why is this? Was Russell’s indictment of the Catholic church so vitriolic that it reduced its producers to quivering shame? Upon scrutiny, the answer is no. While the director was certainly not beyond making such indictments, The Devils is not critical of religion, religious symbols, or the people who practice their faith. It is instead an examination of what happens when those in power choose to abuse it, based on actual historical events that have been written about and performed in other media. The Devils simply chooses to explore the consequences of hubris and ambition thoroughly, bluntly, and in full visual detail.

The images in The Devils were considered so inflammatory that the studio and the censors couldn’t, or chose not to, see the heart of the messages they conveyed. This reaction was mirrored by much of the critical consensus of the time, which refused to understand that the film could deliver much more than sadistic joy for maladjusted people. Exploitation, in other words. If the definition of “exploitation” could be altered to include films that exploit human fears, vices, and squeamishness in order to provide a stark and sometimes disturbing mirror of human nature, then The Devils would absolutely be an exploitation film.

A rare screening of the UK X-rated version of The Devils will screen for one night only in San Diego on Saturday, January 25th at the Digital Gym Cinema on 2921 El Cajon Blvd. (Full disclosure: reviewer Miguel Rodriguez is one of the programmers for The Film Geeks, which screens unique and fringe film at the Digital Gym Cinema, and is hosting this screening.)

6 thoughts on “Film Review: The Devils”

  1. I apologize for the late reply again. Our correspondence here has been very refreshing, so I thank you for your reaction to the film, and again for intelligently disagreeing with me. Your argument makes some very salient points that I would like to research further. Your political reading of the film in particular is very interesting.

    Most of the interviews I have read with Russell elucidate little–he was notoriously monosyllabic in his responses. From what I understand, he embraced Catholicism in the 1950s, and used the film to condemn the corruption of too much power. As our conversation indicates, Russell’s success in communicating that condemnation is open to interpretation.

    Regarding religious hysteria (and it’s anti-feminist implications) you also make points I would like to look into further. Indeed, misogyny is a common word to be thrown at works in the horror genre. Sometimes it has some veracity, and sometimes not. I would like to read an interview with Redgrave about her experiences on set.

  2. I know that what is shown on screen during this film may be shocking enough to obscure what is being said through the film. For me, that is not the case. I find the images in The Devils, not to mention the cinematography and most notably the art design, to be quite beautiful in a very confrontational way. I am suddenly reminded of Cronenberg’s assertion of horror as “confrontational art,” but that’s just a passing thought.

    Anyway, you are definitely not alone in your feelings that the film is too over the top. I disagree, but it’s disagreement like this that makes discussing film so fun and interesting.

    You make interesting points about the left/right argument. I was definitely not making that argument with this piece at all. I do think the film boldly displays the consequences of radical abuses of power–but that can come from anywhere on any political or religious spectrum. My main focus of this piece was simply to say that I personally find there is a lot more to The Devils than what many consider exploitation from it’s basest definition.

    You cite other films I love (Mark of the Devil, Witchfinder General/Conqueror Worm), and it just makes me want to see them again. I don’t think they make me want to see The Devils any less, though. I still find myself entranced and in total love with this film. I don’t expect everyone to have the same reactions to it, though.

    One thing I am glad about is the positive feedback I received from a variety of audience members at the recent screening. Only five people out of a sold out theater had seen it in the past and, regardless of how some people interpret the film, I still think it is worth seeing.

    Regarding the first paragraph, you’re right, I should have worded that last sentence “including Russell himself until his death in 2011.” Anyway, thanks for posting a comment that disagrees without having a trolling tone! This is all personal opinion!

    1. Interesting interpretation, although I would say you are in the minority for your own peculiar reasons. I read somewhere that the final ten or so minutes of Pasolini’s SALO, the torture scenes which are even a bit more graphic, were “beautifully” photographed. Frankly, I don’t remember the photography since I last saw it in the early 80s. But in DEVILS, there is nothing “beautiful” to be seen. It is cold, dark, grey and shadowy. The very first shot with the worm coming out of the skull sets the stage for the rest of the movie! And it’s a very effective shot, don’t get me wrong, but if a filmmaker is trying to make an “important” statement, don’t go over the top because all else will be lost. The fantasy/dream scene really pushes it over the top, not to mention its offensiveness. If DEVILS would have been cast with lesser known actors at the time (Dudley Sutton was one of Britain’s most over the top and odd character actors at the time or anytime) or unknowns, you would have to admit that it would have been outright camp, albeit horror camp. (Some film critics have also pointed out to Russell’s supposed contempt for women, so that’s another little issue you must grapple with.)

      I think, though, I understand where you are coming from, now that you say to be a fan of CONQUEROR WORM (US title) and the British-German co-production, MARK OF THE DEVIL, which also received an “X” rating at the time. I am going to take an educated guess here and say that you are a fan of horrorschlockmeister Jesus (Jess) Franco! If that is the case, I can totally understand your point. But think of this for a minute, compare the movie to another British movie, Schaeffer’s THE WICKER MAN. In both movies our ill-fated protagonists perish by fire. However, in the Hardy film, it is done far more subtle (as far one can stretch that word here), and thus, MORE effectively, because for myself, the climax of WICKER MAN, though much less graphic than either DEVILS or SALO, is actually MORE horrifying, more impotent for the character’s sake, and lingered in my mind, for much longer. Less, is more, remember.

      A final word about Russell, and in passing, you neglected to state the source material: “The Devils of Loudon,” a novel by Aldous Huxley and a play by John Whiting. I have yet to see a movie I like by Russell, with the exception of TOMMY, although I certainly have not not seen all his movies.

      1. Forgive any incoherence of these thoughts, I am taking a short break from teaching a class. For me, the beauty of the devils comes from aspects that could be considered very cold. I love the use of geometry when the framing of subjects is mingled with the lines on the sets. Tilt of Vanessa Redgrave’s head or the angles made by the elbows of Father Mignon’s stance line up with their surroundings in ways that interest me. The set design of Loudon actually does take my breath away in how surreal it looks. I enjoy the muted, grey colors of that set, especially when transposed against the colors of Louis XIII’s court. All of these are cold, and they do communicate gloom or despair, but I do find myself drawn to them in a way I’d call beautiful.

        My tastes are, perhaps, peculiar, and I may be in the minority. I’d be ok with that, but my own limited, anecdotal experiences with discussing this film would tell me otherwise. Aesthetic tastes are, of course, highly subjective, and trying to explain them is a difficult exercise. It is fun, though!

        I will concede that the same scenes given to other actors would very easily have melted down into camp. On a personal level, I see a lot of the over-the-top scenes in experiences I have had working with children who inherited the drug addiction of their parents. It’s not the same thing that happens in the film, of course, but a lot of the behaviors on screen in The Devils seem less over the top to me because I have seen adults behave in similar ways. I can’t help but make a connection when I see the film. In that way, I am fascinated by how much people’s experiences and baggage can influence their film experiences. I should make the point here that the connection doesn’t make me enjoy those scenes for their entertainment value, but it does make them seem less over the top to me, and thus more of a frightening phenomenon of the Ursuline nuns. I do enjoy Dudley Sutton as the Baron, and it is interesting to note that he gives one of the more toned down performances.

        Regarding my affection for Jesus Franco–guilty as charged. Your educated guess bears fruit. I love your comparison to The Wicker Man, as I adore that film. I can’t disagree that the final scene has stuck with me more intensely in that film, not to mention the fact that it has had far, far greater replay value for me; I’ve seen The Devils only a handful of times, but I’ve seen The Wicker Man countless times. One doesn’t negate the others, though. I’d like to see a variety of ways to communicate something visually, even if one is considered more or less effective.

        I did fail to mention Huxley’s historical novel and the play this was based on in this writing. I wrote the piece in a very short time, so thanks for making their mention here. I’m just happy I included those sources in my introduction of the film at the screening last week.

        I guess the last thing I’d like to consider is your point about Russell’s contempt for women. If I were to write about that, I’d like to research that a lot farther. It is indeed something I’d have to grapple with. As of my writing of this article, which was a direct reaction to re-watching the film and my immediate reactions to it and its story. Great conversation!

        1. Very well expressed. I only wish there were more intelligent cinephiles such as yourself posting (I can excuse the idiosyncrasies), instead of the usual aggressive DVD-era buffoons on Amazon and other website and blogs.

          In his personal life, Mr. Russell converted to Catholicism, and as to whether he remained for long, I have no information. I recall reading back in the early 80s a book about his movies where he says something about making movies that only a Catholic would make, or words to that effect. Anyway, whether he was still a believer by the time he shot DEVILS, I don’t know, but if he was, he certainly had a twisted way of expressing matters! On the surface, it looks blatantly anti-Catholic, but who knows–maybe it is not, thereby diffusing those salivating over an anti-Catholic tract. I haven’t read any interview with the director. I can only reiterate that our “hero” is a monarchist, and the villains are calculating Republicans so in the end it is a conservative piece.

          As to Russell’s “contempt,” I am on the borderline. I can point out that the Redgrave character is the impetus for his downfall, or that the Ann-Margaret character in TOMMY is unlikeable, but I haven’t seen all his movies so I am not fully convinced by the charge.

          You may think about this, that the movie is just as much about mass religious hysteria as it is about political machinations. (According to Freud, hysteria was only applied to women, so maybe there really is contempt here?) In the must-have book, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR, edited by Phil Hardy, Overland, 1984) and co-written by the well-known British film critic, Tom Milne, of TIME OUT, the review makes a reference to Russell’s camp and “contempt” for women. i would actually take that comment with a grain of salt since you will find in the book, that every other horror movie with a negative review, includes the word “misogynist,” justified or not.

  3. If it was called exploitation, it’s because the film is so shockingly over top! It’s not “blunt,” it’s visual shock for the sake of visual shock–obscuring whatever political (if we can call it that) “message” Russell was attempting to make (let alone its over-the-top characters). The entire film is cold, ugly and of course, shocking.

    1971 was a watershed year in screen violence: Britain’s THE DEVILS released in July, followed later that year by EL TOPO, DIRTY HARRY, STRAW DOGS, and of course, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Warner Bros/7 Arts led the way, distributing THE DEVILS and three of the others, and would continue challenging/shocking audiences in 1972 with DELIVERANCE. Today, however, out of this group, THE DEVILS still shocks, so I will give it that much credit.

    If you are trying to turn this into a Left vs. Right argument, however, well, you have not paid very close attention to the film as the vow-breaking “Father Grenier” is a royalist and the calculating Cardinal Richileu an anti-monarchist, and probably even a Mason!!! To interpret it as if it were criticizing hierarchical power abuse, well the argument has already failed.

    As for originality, well, not so much as Mr. Russell was doubtless “inspired” to mutate the Whiting play thanks more to West Germany’s MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) than his own country’s THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968).

    PS: In your opening paragraph, you write as if Mr. Russell were still among us.

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