Bay of the Living Dead: Ken Russell's The Devils Is Worth Going to Hell For

Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice-a-month column about the horror genre.

Ken Russell's The Devils has been the subject of enormous controversy since its initial release in 1971. Depending on who you ask, it was a film that shocked, offended, or mesmerized people, and more than 40 years later, the controversy still rages. Banned in many countries for a number of years, the film has recently begun to resurface at screenings in the U.K., Canada and the U.S., including restored footage that distributor Warner Brothers deemed unsuitable for viewing in those more innocent days of 1971. 

In 2008, The Devils was announced for release on DVD here at home only for the announcement to be rescinded the following day. Rarely screened, The Devils is available stateside primarily on bootleg DVDs. 

[jump] “The Devils is a powerful and important work of art,” says Mike Vaughn, a contributor to Fangoria, Scream and Films In Review, and the owner of Gorehound Mike. “Unlike scores of junk food gore films, it has the ability to shock its audience and to move them as well. Warner Brothers shamefully locks it away, treating the public like children who need to be shielded from the truth.”

At the time of its release, film critic Judith Crist said the the film was “a grand fiesta for sadists and perverts.” Other critics spoke of how repulsed they felt upon viewing it. Catholics were outraged. 

So what's the problem with Ken Russell's The Devils?

The Devils
is an historical drama reimagined as a gory horror film. The events portrayed in the film have been well-documented by historians, and the characters were all real people. Father Urbain Grandier, a sexually active, politically dangerous priest in 17th-century France, was burned at the stake for heresy after being falsely accused of Satanism and of possessing a convent filled with repressed, hysterical nuns. The sisters honestly believed they were being controlled by demons. 

(In Hell on Earth, a documentary about The Devils, viewers get a glimpse of the actual house where Father Grandier resided, and the public square where he was burned at the stake in 1634. Hell on Earth can be seen on many of the bootlegs of the film and on YouTube.) 

As enacted in The Devils, Father Grandier's (Oliver Reed) trial was a joke. The prosecution's chief witness was Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) a mad hunchback who has regular masturbatory fantasies about having sex with Grandier as he hangs from a cross or walks on water.

The Devils often comes across like a manic episode. Much of the film is played at a hysterical fever pitch. Through Father Grandier, Russell questions many of the teachings of the Catholic church, and also exposes Church hypocrisy.

Though not a traditional horror, The Devils is frightening and disturbing. It's a film which has not lost its ability to shock first-time viewers. Sister Jeanne's Jesus inspired sexual fantasies, along with sequences in which naked, screaming, “possessed” nuns masturbate in a cathedral are among the most daring and envelope-pushing sequences ever seen in mainstream cinema.

“I don't think there is a filmmaker around that would work in Ken Russell's style, or even have the guts to try,” said indie filmmaker Ansel Faraj. Faraj said that the film's subject matter, possessed nuns, was usually reserved for Eurotrash cinema, and not something seen in a serious work of art. He calls the film Russell's masterpiece.

“It's powerful filmmaking,” Faraj said. “It's provocative and daring, blending sexual obsession, religious transgression, political chess games, and actual historical fact into 111 minutes of cinematic glory.” Faraj also referred to the fearless boldness of Russell and his cast. 

While we're glad that bootlegs of the film are surfacing, making it possible to view it again, it remains disappointing that Warners refuses to unlock a film that many people want to see. It should be noted that bootlegs are often not of the best quality. Some are heavily edited, though the disc that can sometimes be found at Amoeba Records on Haight Street generally includes the director's cut, which includes the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence. 

Film publicist and historian Shade Rupe, a friend of Russell's, was instrumental in bringing the auteur to the U.S. for a screening shortly before Russell's death. Rupe said he understands Warners' hesitation to make the film more readily available, especially in prints which include the Rape of Christ. 

“The nuns throw off their habits and engage in intercourse with a wooden statue of Christ,” Rupe explains, as he also recalled a cut sequence in which Vanessa Redgrave lovingly fondles Grandier's charred femur after his execution

“Whoever may have originally balked at The Devils is most likely long gone, yet the fear remains, most likely because the film remains a damnation of the behind-the-scenes ministrations of the Catholic Church,” Rupe said. “In a much more damning film, The Exorcist, the devil is defeated. In The Devils, he simply never existed. A much more terrifying reality for a church which uses this image as to control its believers.” 

Rupe reports that both Russell and the film were well received by recent audiences in Santa Monica and in the U.K. “It would be wonderful for Warner Bros. to take a chance and see how the film is received before deciding for viewers, who most likely don't include those who would be offended.”

“It's a spectacle of madness and grotesquerie,” added Ansel Faraj. “Warner Brothers is doing the film world, and the world itself, a disservice by burying this movie.” 

To contact Warner Brothers and request an uncut, remastered release for Ken Russell's masterpiece, click here, and help free The Devils!

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