Controversial and near-mythical historical horror drama The Devils premieres on Shudder in 109-minute cut
What more can be said about master Ken Russell’s unhinged and brilliant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon that has not already been said before? It’s hard to believe that Russell and company were influenced by the success of such European religio-hypocrisy shockers like Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, but the song is certainly the same except Russell, God bless him, sings it far louder than any of them.
Oliver Reed stars as the passionate (too passionate, as he’s sleeping with almost every willing female in town) rogue Priest Urbain Grandier, whose refusal to let the state bring down the walls of his beloved city, launches a serpentine political witch hunt (with deep ties to McCarthy-ism). Using the testimony of a mad, sexually-twisted and hunchbacked nun (Vanessa Redgrave), the hysterical Father Barre (Lifeforce‘s Michael Gothard, who is totally over-the-top here) is brought in to gauge Grandier’s Satanic influence and, using threats, torture and violence, whips up the entire convent and city into a rabid, histrionic, sexual frenzy. Grandier is forced to stand trial for being a witch (or, warlock) and having an evil hold over the women and the people. So here, we have political forces with an agenda, attacking an individual and using his flaws against him, putting on what equates to, under Russell’s wild eye, a gigantic, bloody, psychosexual rock opera to convince the people that the King is Godly and just, while an innocent person is evil and must be done away with. The presentation may be insane but, at its core, the message of persecution and media manipulation is profound and oh, so timely.
Famously, Warner Bros. had kept The Devils out of wide release for decades (the uncut version, featuring a staged rape of a statue of Christ is even harder to find) and some have suggested that its anti-theological bent may be the culprit. If that is the case, that’s just sad and frustrating. Because The Devils may be one of the most honest, progressive documents of what true faith and Godliness represents than any other film ever made. Grandier is a flawed man, but, despite the hideous ordeal he endures, he does not buckle. Betrayed by all, he goes to his grave knowing that he stood for something greater than the amalgam of flesh and bone that he was. It’s a gender reversal of the torments typically at play in these sorts of films, but the threat of the powerful exploiting faith and fear and committing atrocities of political and financial gain is sound.
Today, horror streaming heroes Shudder will release the longest unrated existing US version (109 minutes) of the film (that cut is also available on iTunes in Canada and the UK). There’s no rape of Christ here, but it’s debatable how much the extra madness that sequence supplies ultimately matters. You’ll still get swept up in its visionary mania and will never, ever forget the experience.