SOFT RIOT Film Klub | The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) - Original Theatrical Poster
14 February 2024
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Well, here we are after a nice, massive three year gap since the last post in Film Klub. So much for consistency. Life has a lot going on and I watch a lot of films, too much choice really — these being obvious barriers to settling on a film to write about. We’ll leave it at that.

So moving on… over the past couple of years I’ve honed things down in terms of my avenues for watching films — these being a subscriber YouTube account (I watch a lot there as there’s always rare, uploaded, high quality gems, and now without ads), a very bountiful and endless pool of films with a Criterion Channel subscription, and then of course — good “old-fashioned” DVDs and Blu-ray. You’d be surprised at what sort of deals one can find with just buying films, either online, shops or even charity shops, as the general public eschews them in this streaming age.

With Criterion they bring in new film collections at the start of each month, and I was happy to see a Ken Russell collection there entitled Shocking Rhapsodies as the new year kicked off after a rather high octane holiday season. Of course, I’d seen pretty much all of his films at one point with the exception of a few of the lesser known ones, but as there was a nice selection there in one list it seemed like a good time to give a few a re-visit after having seen them sporadically over the years.

While not covering nearly close to everything in the controversial, British director’s catalogue (likely due to licensing), there were a number of key items in that collection, including the lush, visual musical that is 1971’s The Boyfriend, as well as the 1974 biopic of the German composer Mahler (a personal favourite of mine starring Robert Powell and Georgina Hale), as well as lot of his lesser known 1980s output and a few lesser known films such as Savage Messiah (with a young Helen Mirren in a supporting role). And also on this list was arguably his most intense and infamous film, 1971’s The Devils, which found itself banned in numerous countries over the years, sometimes for a couple of decades. It’s Russell’s own interpretation of the possessions and witchtrails that took place in the French city of Loudon back in the 1600s, in which a parish priest, Urbain Grandier, was accused of summoning evil spirits by then Louis XIII of France and the catholic church — by sexually arousing a convent of nuns which eventual led to the destruction of the city and seeing Grandier burnt to the stake. As with most Ken Russell “biographical” films, the actual facts and history get a liberal dose of interpretation, heightening and twisting the original, key elements into an over-the-top, spectacle of a story.

The film is packed with acting talent, with strong and memorable performances from Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, but also from Ken Russell regulars such as Murray Melvin and Georgina Hale. The costuming is very stylised, lush yet grotesque — from Hale’s exagerrated hair curls and white pancake make-up, to the almost “Klu Klux Klan” styled robes of the religious jurors as Grandier’s show trial. And of course, there’s the incredible sets designed by yet-to-be-filmmaker Derek Jarman, including the whole town and wall fortifications being made out of sterile, white bricks with black mortar, apparently all built on a backlot in London’s Pinewood Studios. There’s many amazing custom set designs here, with one notable one being the extremely tall wheels on posts on which skeletons of those imprisoned and left to die outside the castle which line the roads on the castle approach. It makes for some incredibly memorable scenery.

As the film progresses, the pacing accelerates and the action gets more “over the top” in typical Russell style, including a particularly frantic scene where the Catholic clergy arrives as the nunery to find them all possessed, naked and writhing and contorting in sexual depravity. The last 5-10 minutes of the film are particularly rife with alarming imagery as Grandier burns on the stake and we see warped, demented figures laughing during his demise, only to have Madeleine de Brou (played by Gemma Jones) dazed, wandering aimlessly in the smoky remnants of the stakeburning, only to climb out through the half-destroyed town fortifactions and into the distance along the barren, death-lined avenue leading out of the city.

Russell is well known for his love of classical music, getting his footing with motion pictures in the late 50s and 60s with his groundbreaking documentaries on a number of classical composers, including Bartok and Debussy and then starting in the late 60s, creating feature films that relied heavily on classical music, including The Music Lovers and the aforementioned Mahler, which is actually about the composer. In the mid-70s onward Russell embraced more popular rock music, working heavily with The Who and more so Roger Daltrey, who had starring roles in both Tommy and Lisztomania — both pumped out in the year of 1975.

However, The Devils stands out greatly from these usual approaches Russell opted for his films, with a very atonal and uneasy soundtrack provided by British experimental composer Peter Maxwell Davies. He was a classically-trained composer but as his career went into the 1960s his compositions became more experimental, atonal and even described as “violent” — which are qualities that can definitely be heard throughtout the film. He was also a strong supporter of gay rights starting from the 1970s onward, and later in life he ended up moving to the Orkney Islands up in the north of Scotland.

The 70s were definitely Russell’s decade, with his last successful film in that run of releases being 1977’s Valentino. He then took a massive shift in direction away from the high camp British spectacles he was creating over the previous five years — with a move over to a US cast and crew for his only “science fiction” film Altered States (1980), which is probably one of my Russell favourites. That film for me also marks a definitive divider between his 70s and 80s output, with the latter aforementioned decade starting to see what is a shared, popular viewpoint of his decline in output, both in budget, quality and recognition. The excesses of his style which seemed to work so well in the 1970s didn’t seem to fit in this newer, sleeker decade. As per usual, tastes change and styles and attitudes go in and out of favour. As the 1990s kicked off his output was diminished to one feature film and a number of unrelated, “Made-For-TV” movies.

Russell’s films have been covered a few times in Film Klub, which probably shows my own interest in his films and their overall influence. There’s a number of documentaries on the filmmaker out there, including 2012’s A Bit Of Devil, released shortly after his death that’s worth checking out.


Theatrical Trailer

“The Execution of the Grandier” Scene

Peter Maxwell Davies Soundtrack Sample

A Bit Of A Devil documentary


SOFT RIOT Film Klub | The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) - Murray Melvin
SOFT RIOT Film Klub | The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) - Trial Jury
SOFT RIOT Film Klub | The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) - Oliver Reed at fortification walls
SOFT RIOT Film Klub | The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) - Remains and skeletons on wheels