Devils, The

  • Reviewed by: Dr Adam Jahnke
  • Review Date: Oct 04, 2012
  • Format: DVD
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Director

Ken Russell

Release Date(s)

1971 (March 19, 2012)

Studio(s)

Warner Bros. (BFI)

Review

Back in 2008, Warner Home Video briefly planned then quickly scrapped plans to release Ken Russell’s controversial The Devils on DVD. Officially, the leaked news was “an error”, although plans had progressed far enough that cover art had been created. As time passed, it began to seem as though The Devils would never be set free. But now, at long last, an excellent two-disc set of Russell’s best film is finally available. You just have to go to the UK to get it.

The Devils may not be typical Oktoberfest fare. IMDb classifies its genres as Biography, Drama and History without a mention of Horror. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not plenty disturbing. Oliver Reed stars as Father Grandier, priest and protector of the city of Loudun. King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu are attempting to exert control over the entirety of France but Grandier refuses to allow Loudun’s fortified walls be touched. So a plot is hatched to oust Grandier through the testimony of a hunchbacked nun (Vanessa Redgrave) who lusts after the priest. Grandier is accused of witchcraft, with the entire sisterhood half-crazed and under his spell. The entire thing is a sham but it’s performed with enough conviction, blood and thunder to whip the town into a frenzy and turn them against the only person willing to stand up for them.

Russell is well known for putting his own, some would say blasphemous, spin on Catholic iconography in everything from Tommy to Altered States. So it’s no surprise that when he takes on the church itself, he gives it everything he’s got. The movie has had more than its fair share of run-ins with censors (more on that in a minute) but it would be almost impossible to purge The Devils entirely of its disturbing imagery. There’s torture, both physical and psychological, hallucinatory dreams and equally hallucinatory reality, especially at the court of Louis XIII. Reed delivers one of his all-time best performances as Grandier, creating a rich portrait of a very complex, conflicted but ultimately strong-willed man. And Redgrave is supremely creepy as Sister Jeanne, revealing a deep well of dementia with just a cock of the head.

As I mentioned, The Devils has been cut and re-cut repeatedly since its release in 1971. BFI’s Region 2 disc is not a fully restored director’s cut but it is the most complete version to date, presenting the 111-minute original UK theatrical version. The BFI was not able to license the film for Blu-ray release but the widescreen image quality of the DVD is extremely good, certainly the best home video presentation of the film yet. The monaural sound is more than acceptable and faithful to the film’s original exhibition.

For many, it would be enough just to have a quality DVD of The Devils at all. But the extras make the BFI edition a must-have, especially for Ken Russell fans. The first disc includes an illuminating audio commentary featuring Russell, journalist Mark Kermode, editor Michael Bradsell and Paul Joyce, director of the documentary Hell on Earth. You also get Russell’s 1958 short film Amelia and the Angel, the UK and US trailers, and a new (and relatively unnecessary) video introduction by Kermode.

Disc two leads off with the aforementioned Hell on Earth, the definitive documentary on the making of The Devils. It’s particularly invaluable because of its glimpses of the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence, the longest scene deleted from the film. Even though we don’t see the full sequence or get to experience it in context, it’s still quite shocking. The disc also includes a vintage making-of called Director of Devils with fascinating on-set footage of Russell at work and composer Peter Maxwell Davies recording his amazing score. Michael Bradsell narrates several minutes of 8mm footage he shot during the filming. Finally, there’s a lively and amusing Q&A with Russell and Kermode from a 2004 appearance at London’s National Film Theatre.

Despite all its talk of witchcraft and Satan, The Devils isn’t a typical horror movie. But for my money, there isn’t much scarier than religious hysteria and this movie does a better job of capturing it than anything else I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable film and if you see just one Ken Russell movie in your life, you should make it this one. Barring a significant policy change at Warner, BFI’s edition is likely to remain the best version of The Devils we’ll get for quite some time. If you live outside the UK and have a region-free player, it’s worth the import.

- Dr. Adam Jahnke

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