British director Ken Russell has never shied away from controversy. Films like 1972’s Women In Love or The Who’s Tommy caused a stir in their day but seem tame by today’s standards. Not so with 1971’s The Devils, which still retains its power to shock nearly 4 decades after its release. Lambasted by critics upon its original release, the film is now hailed by many as a masterpiece. Audiences can decide for themselves on Friday when The Devils kicks off “Brave New Worlds”, a series of Russell’s films at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
Based on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon”, the film takes an unflinching look at the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu and his fellow Catholic leaders to consolidate their power in 17th century France. Frequent Russell co-conspirator Oliver Reed plays Grendier, a priest who’s sincere in his duties, but also indulges a weakness for the local women. Brimming over with religious fervor and unholy lust, Vanessa Redgrave plays the crazed reverend mother of the town convent. When she’s unable to have Grendier for herself, she convinces the church authorities that he’s possessed by devils and must be destroyed.
Filled with ample amounts of graphic nudity and violence, Russell’s hallucinatory approach threatens to derail the proceedings at times, but the performances of Redgrave and especcially Reed provide the film with much needed gravitas. A notorious character off screen for much of his life, the actor could deliver the goods when he was motivated, and The Devils shows him in peak form.
Released in the UK in a 117 minute version, the film was heavily edited in Britain, and even more so in the United States, where it was released in a 103 minute version. A small DVD release restored about 5 minutes of footage, but the film is currently out of print on home video, and has become very difficult to see. The Aero appears to be showing the 108 minute version, but ths question will likely be answered by Russell himself, who will be present for a post screening Q & A..
For a truly freaky Friday, audiences can stick around for the second feature, 1980’s Altered States, in which William Hurt takes drugs with Indians, climbs into an isolation chamber, and mutates into a hairy ape man. Altered States marked the unholy union of Ken Russell and Network scribe Paddy Chayefsky, who so disliked Russell’s approach to the material that he took his name off the film.