I picked up my phone on the morning of the August 17th, 2017 to see that the time was currently 2:05am. This is the moment that the closing credits rolled for my first ever viewing of Ken Russell’s highly-controversial, The Devils. This was the moment that my mind was blown.
Released in 1971, Russell tells a dramatised historical horror drama about Urbain Grandier, who is played by Oliver Reed, a phenomenal English actor who has also acted in roles for the movies Oliver!, The Three Musketeers, Funny Bones, Tommy, and his final movie Gladiator, to name a few. The story of Urbain Grandier is an incredibly dark and true tale about a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest who was executed and blamed for the use of witchcraft and demonic possessions of a convent of nuns. Also known as The Londun possessions, a trial that took place in Londun, France in 1634. I don’t want to say any more regarding this story, it just needs to be seen to be believed.
The Devils is a movie that has been on my list to watch for a long time, and now thanks to the horror streaming service Shudder, we can now see the full unrated cut of the film. If you don’t know much about the scenes that caused such controversy, I highly recommend that you just jump straight in without looking anything up. All I can say is that Ken Russell was one brave man to release this in 1971.
But even with all the controversy surrounding this movie, it’s not the only reason as to why you need to see it. Russell has created an absolute masterpiece in filmmaking, one that needs a worldwide Blu-Ray release and deserves to be seen by everyone. We all know that feeling we get after watching an incredible movie for the first time, there is nothing like it. Straight after the credits rolled for The Devils, I needed to read everything about the true story, the actors, Ken Russell etc. I just could not believe what I had watched. It disturbed me unlike any other movie, in the best way possible. And I needed to write about it here.
It was quite a similar experience that I had when I first viewed Stanley Kubrick’s incredible A Clockwork Orange. But there is also a tone to Russell’s directing in The Devils that is very reminiscent to Kubrick’s directing. Both of these movies are haunting and controversial, but they both achieve this strange emotion where it almost feels like I am being hypnotized as I am watching them. When I was doing some research on the movie, I found it pretty ironic that both movies caused such a stir and were released within the same year. Bringing a story that is so terrifying and messed-up, all while having flawless performances that are so believable, you would actually think that you are viewing footage of the real event. This achievement of directing is unbelievable. Now, the acting, every person plays their role flawlessly. But the performances that both Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, and Murray Melvin as Father Mignon, made my jaw hit the floor. They are quite simply one of the greatest on-screen performances that I have ever seen, it is just pure and utter psychotic horror. The character of Father Mignon is just well and truly bat-shit insane that you won’t be able to get your head around. But it’s the character of Sister Jeanne who completely steals the show for me. The only reason I can think of as to why this character isn’t held up there as an icon in horror cinema is simply because of a lack of viewings/releases that there is of the movie. How Vanessa Redgrave portrays the character with her body language and sinister laugh is unlike anything that I have ever seen. Simply put, no character has scared me this much for quite sometime.
Another element of the movie that blew me away was the cinematography by David Watkin. I personally don’t know much of his work except for 1985s Return to Oz and the title sequence for the James Bond movie, Goldfinger. But his work on The Devils is absolutely astounding. Almost every frame is picturesque. It reminded me quite a bit of the 2015 movie The Witch (and if you have not seen that movie, fix that immediately) I would love to know if cinematographer Jarin Blaschke took influence from Watkin’s work.
This is now without failure the movie I want most to be released on Blu-Ray. There is light very slowly showing itself for it happening, with the movie currently touring around and being screened in universities. But if Warner Bros. could just give the rights to a label like Arrow Video or Scream Factory for a uncut version, it would be without a doubt one of the greatest releases of all-time. There is so much that could be discussed in documentary features from the likes of the great Guillermo del Toro, who is a huge fan. And I think if Ken Russell was still with us, he would want it to happen also. The Devils is work of art that everyone needs to see, and do you know what else? It’s my film of the year.