The Devils (1971)

For too long discounted as a hysterical, over-the-top extravagance by its director, it's time for The Devils to stand up and be counted as a truly awe inspiring British horror film.

In fact, with its beautiful set design, solid performances, unflinching scenes of brutality and copious full-frontal nudity, it's actually a surprise to find that such a film has ever been made on these islands. And it's also a surprise to see Dudley "Tinker out of Lovejoy" Sutton being actively terrifying on-screen. But (as usual) I digress.

The sad truth is that Ken Russell's astonishing tour-de-force has been rather overshadowed by several tour-de-farces that came later on in his career - two of which grace this very site in the camp-as-Christmas forms of the bad-but-funny Lair Of The White Worm and the just-plain-bad Gothic. What we all need to remember, and keep repeating to ourselves, is that although there are vague similarities looks-wise, Ken "I've been growing my nostril hair for decades" Russell is NOT Michael "Relax dear, it's just a commercial" Winner. There's a certain amount of artistic merit to what Ken does (even in Gothic). Michael puts his doodles on his page in the News Of The World. Ken was once an auteur. Michael may have once thought he was, but then he made Death Wish. We must never mix the two up again, and Ken should, on the basis of The Devils at least, be lauded as the man who somehow managed to make Oliver Reed give a sympathetic performance.

And Ken aside, it's Reed's film - from the moment he first sets light to the screen to the one where his co-stars do the same to him. Anyone who thinks Reed couldn't act, or that he was a one trick (ie violent bully) pony, or that he was just a pissed-up fat bloke with a 'tache who used to liven up Wogan every so often, really needs to see The Devils. His performance (and I don't actually use this word too often) is astonishing.

Reed is Grandier, the priest in charge of the plague-ravaged town of Loudon. The city's proud walls have withstood the ravages of the war between Catholic and Protestant, and now that the war is over, he is fighting the corrupt French government in a bid to keep them erect. This priest is no saint - he enjoys the pleasures of the flesh a tad too much - but he's practically a moustachioed Mother Theresa when compared to just about everyone else. The King is a bizarre queen who opens the film taking the bollock-naked lead role in a play of The Birth Of Venus, his courtiers are all plotting for their own ends, everyone's on the take, and you're in serious trouble if you're a Protestant.

After getting assurance that Loudon will remain intact, Grandier returns to the city, sweeping past the local convent - where the nuns all clamour to catch a glimpse of him. "Yes, I can see him!" one cries, "He's the most beautiful man in the world!"

Enter Mother Superior (a hunchbacked, and just-slightly manic Vanessa Redgrave), who chastises her charges and then starts fantasising about Grandier being Christ and her being Mary Magdalene, her dream shattering when in it she grows the hump and gets laughed at by all and sundry.

Her fantasy, meanwhile, is enjoying a sweaty grope with a young lady who he's supposed to be teaching Latin. She informs the priest that she's pregnant, but he doesn't care. "How can I help you?" he asks her. "Hold my hand. Like touching the dead, isn't it?"

Leaving the girl in bed, Grandier strides out into the plague-ravaged city, where he comes across a (completely naked - eurgh) old woman being treated for the pox by a pair of charlatans using wasps(?) and a crocodile(??). Exposing the men as the cheats they are, he's then set on by the pregnant girl's father, who he easily fights off and then walks away, laughing.

Grandier is a puzzling character. He appears to be a committed social reformer, a dedicated priest and a man totally against the hypocrisy of the "doctors" who can't cure the plague, but can only come up with new ways of pretending to do so. On the other hand, he's what most ladies would call a "right bastard".

The old woman dies (what a surprise) and her daughter first attempts to join the convent, but confused by their teachings opts for a job in Grandier's house instead. She immediately falls for the old charmer, confessing to God that "In the convent I would have been safe…"

Luckily, he feels the same way about her, and they decide to get married in secret. But there are also other things to attend to - namely the continuing threat against his beloved city walls. As Grandier continues to make enemies at court with his demolition-stopping ideas, the Mother Superior's madness starts to infect the nuns in her charge (manifesting itself in several typically Russellian scenes of naked women screaming at each other). The Government wants to get rid of this annoying priest. The local nuns are gibbering that he's the devil in human form. Could these two things come together? What do you think?

But I'll tell you something - if you thought that Witchfinder General was the last word in unflinching sadism inflicted on people in the name of God, you ain't seen nothing yet…

Quite why The Devils doesn't make it into many histories of horror cinema is beyond me. Perhaps, as already stated, it's just Russell's name that puts people off. But it really is a film that everyone should see once. Not only are there astonishing performances from Reed ("Call me vain and proud, the greatest sinner to walk on Earth… but Satan's boy I could never be!"), Redgrave and Sutton ("I also have a saying… give me three lines of a man's handwriting and I will hang him!"), but there's just so much to see.

Whether it's the astonishing Loudon sets - ranging from sleek white walls to hideously plague ravaged streets, or the bizarre Protestant-powered demolition machines, the eye-candy on show is amazing. And when you're not marvelling at the sets or the lead performances, you can laugh at scenes which Mel Brookes would have been proud of (the king practising his marksmanship on terrified Protestants dressed as blackbirds), or cringing at the occasional OTT bit of acting (take a bow, Michael Gothard - a man who decides to play witchfinder Father Barre as a cross between Vincent Price and John Lennon). And if that doesn't float your boat, how about an "exorcism" involving boiling water, a large cake icer and Vanessa Redgrave's most private part? ("These priests are depraved!")

Like Witchfinder General, The Devils is all about how people with enough power can twist anything to suit their own ends. But unlike the previous film, this time the lunatics really have taken over. It would have only taken one person to stand up for Rupert Davies' priest in Witchfinder and Price's whole case would have collapsed, and in the end it's the forces of law and order who intervene to save the heroine. In The Devils the government are doing the hunting, and the general public are actually appalled - but there's nothing they can do. When Redgrave's character realises what she's done and tries to take her own life, it's blamed on Grandier. When she retracts her statement, it's blamed on the devils within her. Never has the hypocrisy of the government, or the church, been so powerfully portrayed on film. Poor old Grandier was doomed from the moment he stuck his "beautiful" head above the parapet.

"Do you love the church?"

"Not today…"

Last updated: February 27, 2010

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The Devils 1971

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