Ken Russell’s 1971 infamous masterpiece The Devils is a vicious, surreal look at the downfall and decadence of a Roman Catholic priest and a Catholic nunnery in the 17th century. Inspired by Aldous Huxley’s historical book The Devils of Loudon, which chronicles the bizarre happenings and accused witchcraft in a small French town in the 17th century, Russell’s film provides a gloriously debauched vision of these events. The Devils is as sexually charged as it is ultraviolent and visually dazzling.
Oliver Reed stars as the ill-fated Urbain Grandier, a prominent and respectable figure in the Church who succumbs to his vices and the metaphorical snares of religious fanaticism. The Mother Superior of the local convent is obsessed with Urbain, and her obsession gradually progresses to the extreme, leading her over to the edge and spurring the inquest of amoral exorcists and religious prosecution. The film also examines the downfall of the proud and once respectable nunnery. Sister Jeanne is driven to madness by her own sexual repression and unfulfilled desires. Urbain is brutally tortured, humiliated, tormented and eventually burned alive by the witchfinders, as well as branded as a heretic and infidel and swallowed up by zealotry.
Russell’s view of the Church and organized religion in general is particularly scathing; the film culminates in a sequence referred to as the “Rape of Christ” scene, where naked nuns grope and caress a fallen life-sized figure of Christ on the cross. I watched the film uncut, and I loved the way it was shot; the lighting and special effects are remarkably effective. The dialogue is strong and the set design and costumes (when they are wearing clothes) are brilliant to behold. With regards to the surreal aspects, watching The Devils is a very hallucinatory experience. Like Tommy and Altered States, he subjects the viewer to the subconscious and the dream world, transitioning the narrative to erotic dream sequences. He returns the fantastic to reality and it becomes horrific. Tragic, stirring and still startling, The Devils is a brilliant film worthy of the Devil Himself. Oh, and I swear that one of those Inquisitors is an alien!