‘The devil it seems departed from the Mother Superior at 10.45 precisely’
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gothard, Dudley Sutton, Gemma Jones
Plot: In seventeenth century France a sexually neurotic nun can’t stop having pervy thoughts about Father Grandier. Thwarted in her desires, it’s only a matter of time before the destructive accusations of witchcraft start and a kick-ass witch-hunter (and his bag of torture tricks) arrives in town…
What do you get if you cross the late enfant terrible of British cinema, Ken Russell, with a room full of nuns? Only one of the most contentious, provocative and flamboyant films you’ll ever see, that’s what. Even over forty years later THE DEVILS (1971) has lost none of its power to shock, whether by confronting the viewer with naked and masturbating nuns, blasphemous iconography, torture, plague pits, self-flagellation or forcibly received enemas…at times THE DEVILS almost seems in danger of parodying itself.
But Russell never allows THE DEVILS to descend into total farce, helped mainly by Oliver Reed’s performance. Reed is magnificent as Father Grandier, right down to his smouldering gaze and twirly moustache. At first glance he seems to be a pretty rubbish priest – even worse than anyone living in the parochial house on Craggy Island; he’s vain, materialistic and sleeps with members of his congregation. But soon it becomes clear that Grandier has a very humanist attitude to those around him. In one scene he drives witch doctors away from a dying woman, disgusted at their use of leeches and hornets to “ease” her suffering. He’s also a freedom fighter, keen on championing both individual liberties and those of the city. The King’s favourite Cardinal Richelieu is dead set on blowing up the city’s walls to stop it becoming a hotbed of Protestantism, and he wouldn’t mind getting rid of the rebellious priest too (although Catholic, liberal Grandier clearly has Protestant sympathies). Grandier’s the archetypal tragic hero: a figure of authority and power who falls through his own hubris – in his case, excessive pride and the inability to keep it zipped up behind his priestly flies.
It’s once he decides to marry the girl-next-door type Madeleine in secret (he’s a Catholic priest remember?) that the obsessive Sister Jeanne’s jealousy goes into overdrive. Perhaps some of the most shocking scenes in THE DEVILS feature Vanessa Redgrave’s creepy performance as the sexually repressed and neurotic nun. She’s twisted both mentally and physically, her spine contorted into a hunchback that causes her to scuttle crabbed over sideways, although in a number of scenes impressive cinematography makes it look as if she’s floating rather than walking. We get a disturbing glimpse into her inner fantasies that feature Reed crucified semi-naked complete with a crown of thorns. He glides down and proceeds to make the beast with two backs with Sister Jeanne, as she licks his stigmata. I’m not even joking. It’s no wonder the Italians banned the film and threatened Reed and Redgrave with jail should they ever step foot in the country. And there’s even worse to come.
Sister Jeanne soon replicates the strategy used by pent-up teenage girls in Salem and accuses her lust-object of witchcraft – well, sort of. But it suits the authorities to make Grandier a scapegoat and they send along the most zealous and fervent interrogator they can find in the shape of the amazing Michael Gothard. Cue enemas, vomiting and a wave of hysteria. Before you can say “Lucifer” ALL the nuns are whipping off their robes, fondling candle sticks in suggestive ways, screaming, writhing and defiling a statue of Jesus – in the so-called “rape of Christ” sequence (ever a catchy title), which was later censored. It’s hardly surprising the film had a large number of cuts to get into cinemas, although the studio snipped more than the BBFC. I love the fact that genre film buff Mark Kermode found the missing reels when he was rooting around (like you do) somewhere in the depths of the BFI and made them available on Channel Four documentary HELL ON EARTH: THE DESECRATION AND RESURRECTION OF THE DEVILS (2002). But what makes Russell’s film so powerful is the clear message that there is no demonic possession; the real evil comes from humanity and those that would manipulate others. Did I mention this film is based on historical fact?
Sound and cinematography combine to heighten the power of THE DEVILS. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ orchestral score is discordant, frenzied and cacophonic, suggesting lunacy, while the set itself is pure hell: a nightmarish landscape of death, plague pits and piles of rotting bodies. Even the townsfolk are ugly with painted white faces, rotting teeth and boils, while Derek Jarman’s highly stylised and anachronistic set-design brings to mind asylums (this was Jarman’s big break before he started directing himself). But there’s black humour here too; one of my favourite scenes shows Reed engaging in a sword-fight with a stuffed crocodile as his weapon of choice, while shouting about how even lilies decay. THE DEVILS: provocative, obscene and utterly bonkers.
Horror Highlights: Watching Reed’s legs getting smashed up with wooden wedges is particularly bloody and vile. “You’ll have one consolation; hell will hold no surprises for you,” his torturer quips before the hammer smashes down.
Shocking Scene: Seriously, where to start? Sister Jeanne masturbating with Father Grandier’s barbecued thigh bone – all that’s left of him after being burned alive – is definitely a show stealer. But you’ll have to watch this clip in full (if you actually want to) in the HELL ON EARTH documentary as Kermode’s “lost” (then found) footage has never been re-integrated into the film for mass public consumption.
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