Saturday, 4 February 2012

Hell on Earth: Ken Russell's The Devils is up for re-evaluation

Thanks to Living Dead Girl, I am horribly obsessed with watching any material by Mark Kermode right now, mainly due to just how much our tastes intersect. I'll spare you the diatribe (for now), and just get on with saying that Kermode has provided me with ample supplements to the late great Ken Russell's The Devils.

I first saw this notorious religious/political satire just months before Russell passed away and, after finding the opening act somewhat difficult, the plot took its footing and reeled me in for what I can only describe as a one of a kind film. Centring around Oliver Reed as a Roman-Catholic priest who, ahem, gets around with the pretty ladies in his village. He finds himself challenging the Protestant majority who seek to destroy the village, but is caught up in a sexually frustrated nun claiming to be possessed thanks to the good priest, which the Protestant authorities milk and use as reason to shame Reed's character to their own ends.


Not for everyone, the film is fraught with explicit nudity done only as a film from the seventies could, and achieved notoriety upon release for several particularly graphic scenes, the foremost being the 'Rape of Christ sequence', where a sexually manic group (gaggle?) of nuns run around naked, tear down a giant statue of Christ on the cross and sexually molest it, under the gaze of enthralled onlookers. Needless to say, this scene, among others, caused outrage and was stricken from the prints and thought to be lost for 30 years, until Mark Kermode led a campaign that unearthed the removed pieces.

I was lucky enough to see the film with all its pieces intact, and found it to be a hilarious and thought provoking satire, finding it unlikely that the same impact could be made with scenes, such as the orgy, missing, but the film has endured for years under the specter of these missing pieces, and it is the long-suffering fans who gain from their return.

Not as weird as it seems, I swear.

The film actually moved me as much as it disgusted me, initially spitting vitriol for Oliver Reed's character, but eventually seeing the flip side of the coin where the punishment does not fit the (nonexistent) crime, seeing the spiteful hunchback nun (gloriously played by Vanessa Redgrave) stir controversy to the Protestant authorities whims, even though they know outright it is all nonsense. The film is a biting look at the unjust mixture of religion and government, the underhandedness that favours the one instead of the many, and demands the viewer to bare witness to the atrocity right in front of their face. 

I was on the edge of my seat during the trial scene (I'm trying not give much away, though you can predict the outcome once it has been set up), knowing exactly where this was all going to lead to, but all the while hoping against hope that right would prevail over wrong. This, along with an added kick in the teeth a few minutes later, is an abuse on the senses, driving home a harsh point that cannot be misunderstood. Oliver Reed's character is admirable in his resolve to look after his village, even as they turn against him, making it all the more bitter as we watch his humiliation and torture. Director Ken Russell stated this was his only political film, and by God, he got his message across.

Subtly, of course.

I could write a thesis on this film, finding it difficult to contain myself to the few words I am entering here. I am overlooking the incredible set design, the mesmerising score, and all the enigmatic performances that really have made The Devils an important film. Yes, it was bashed upon release, but most films that stir controversy are. The Devils is being re-evaluated, and it is clear that its message has not withered over time.

Now, why will it be difficult for you to see this film? Well, the uncut version of the film was absent for 30 years until it's relatively recent discovery. Though all the leg work has now been done, Warner Brothers have yet to release the definitive version of the film, shockingly. As you can hear below, it was fully expected that it would finally be out there for everyone to watch, exactly as it was always intended, and there was even an audio commentary recorded in anticipation of the release that was not to happen.

I am unsure just how good a quality the version of the film I saw was, though I do know it to be uncut. It astounds me that the release has almost made itself. The uncut and definitive print has been made, Kermode mentions an audio commentary, and he also made a brilliant hour long documentary on the film a few years ago, which you can find below. Add in a trailer, and you have a very respectable special edition. The general consensus is that the studio are worried of the controversy it may restore, but in this day and age, I doubt it would be more frowned upon than Kevin Smith's Red State. 

But decide for yourself. If you can see the film uncut in its entirety, you could do a lot worse. It will almost definitely make you consider the social implications. Below is the Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of Ken Russell's The Devils, a fantastic and thorough retrospective on the film. I fully encourage watching the entire piece, with my favourite section being Ken Russell and some of the original cast seeing the 'Rape of Christ' scene for the first time in 30 years. It is remarkable that they have no shame or reservations about the sequence or the film itself, obviously understanding its intentions and knowing the importance that has surrounded it for all these years.


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