Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Devils, 1971: "Hell holds no surprises for them"!

Viewing Ken Russell's THE DEVILS now (Sky Movies are showing it, uncut as far as I can see, several times) after a gap of 40 or so years, is a potent, sobering experience. I initially saw it on the big screen on its initial run in that year 1971 of big movies one had to see, like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, DEATH IN VENICE, THE STRAW DOGS, SOLDIER BLUE etc. all pushing the boundaries on what could be shown on screen. Ken's THE DEVILS topped them all, even more so than his previous ones, THE MUSIC LOVERS and WOMEN IN LOVE.
After seeing Oliver Reed sleepwalking though so many later movies it is amazing to see him here .... ditto Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne, a deformed hunchback nun (both her actress daughters worked for Ken too), and the usual team of Russell regulars are all present and correct .... Graham Armitage is a treat as the very effete King, particularly when he produces that box with the relic which sends them all into a frenzy, and then he shows them it was an empty box! and I love his "bye bye blackbird""! Michael Gothard too tops all his other crazy roles as the demented torturer in chief, doing the bidding of devious Dudley Sutton, a pawn of Cardinal Richelieu who wants the city of Loudon demolished, but Father Grandier stands in his way ...

Cardinal Richelieu and his power-hungry entourage seek to take control of seventeenth-century France, but need to destroy Father Grandier - the priest who runs the fortified town that prevents them from exerting total control. So they seek to destroy him by setting him up as a warlock in control of a devil-possessed nunnery, the mother superior of which is sexually obsessed by him. A mad witch-hunter is brought in to gather evidence against the priest, ready for the big trial.

What follows is both a savage satire and critique of religious mania (like Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE) and a crazed, over the top excerise in Grand Guignol, all based on historical fact. Only Russell could have gone this far, showing religious hysteria and human depravity as Grandier is shaved, tortured and cooked before our eyes, and the hysterical nuns strip and run amok, while the inquisitors and their torture instruments seek out evidence of devils ...... it is of course based on Aldous Huxley's novel and John Whiting play "The Devils of Loudon". Ken's vision was realised by Derek Jarman's expressionistic sets and Shirey Russell's costumes, and that cast, including Murray Melvin, Max Adrian, Georgina Hale, Brian Murphy, Christopher Logue - there is perhaps too much of Gemma Jones as the young innocent love of Grandier's. The depictions of plague and torture from that opening image of maggots crawling out of a rotten corpse held high on a wheel, are images not easily forgotten. 

After its initial run THE DEVILS was probably considered too shocking by Warners (who also had problems with Roeg and Cammell's PERFORMANCE) - this was two years before THE EXORCIST - and was unseen for a long time. Now it is back on television and uncut on dvd, it may be time to re-appraise it a one of Ken's best. I caught up with his LISZTOMANIA and VALENTINO last year, - see Russell label for reviews - which I did not like much though liking the grand vision behind them, though I like THE MUSIC LOVERS and his later THE RAINBOW. We still have to see his SAVAGE MESSIAH and MAHLER. TOMMY of course was a big hit in 1975 - we had to go to a late night show to see it. 

Reed was also amazing in Russell's BBC film on Rossetti in 1967: DANTE'S INFERNO, and Vanessa is a revelation here, stepping into Glenda Jackson's shoes .... Ken did THE BOYFRIEND next. THE DEVILS remains a shocking, searing experience but if you can bear the more gruesome moments, then you will find it fascinating viewing, and no matter how hard you try you won't be able to ignore its intensity. 1970s audiences eventually got tired of  Ken's excesses and he fell from favour, dying aged 84 in 2011, but his key works continue to fascinate.  

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