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50 years of Ken Russell's magnificent film 'The Devils'

'The Devils' - Ken Russell

“You have one consolation, hell will hold no surprises for you.” – Baron De Laubardemont

Religion and horror have long gone hand-in-hand, from the exploration of its darkest, satanic corners in films like 1976s The Omen and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, to the delusion and solitary nature of faith in films like Rose Glass’ tragedy Saint Maud. Each film is often met with uproar from the body of the catholic church among others, though none more so than Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, a horror film set in 17th-century France recognised as both an impressive cinematic achievement and also the director’s most offensive piece of work. 

Emphatically interested in themes of sexual repression and its subsequent effects on the human psyche, the film is a dramatised historical account of the life of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest accused of witchcraft. Seeking to protect the city of Loudon from demolition and the corrupt establishment led by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), the accusation from a sexually repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) of witchcraft on Grandier proves the perfect lie to engineer his downfall. 

Though, of course, the whole concept of witchcraft is farcical, a lie made up against pagan communities, keeping the general population scared and therefore complicit to the will of the establishment. Whilst Ken Russell’s film is labelled as a horror, it is really a historical drama exploring the theatricality of government and the farcical nature of proposed ‘change’, with Grandier engaging in a show trial before his christ-like execution during the films shocking final act.  

The walls of the expressive yet desolate city of Loudon radiate this fact, loud with empty jagged whiteness, sets designed by none other than the great English artist Derek Jarman. Working with director Ken Russell, they designed a modernistic white-tiled city, with Russell influenced by the city space of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, wishing to recreate its busy architecture. Such creates a theatricality to much of the film’s proceedings, particularly in the eccentric characters that inhabit its impossible white walls, from king Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to the weedy Father Barre (Michael Gothard). 

Ken Russell would later say of his time onset of the film, “I was a devout Catholic and very secure in my faith. I knew I wasn’t making a pornographic film… although I am not a political creature, I always viewed The Devils as my one political film. To me it was about brainwashing, about the state taking over”. Whilst the allure of The Devils’ grand orgy scene or the nuns’ psychopathic breakdown will try and attract your attention, just like their effect in the story they are diversions from the genuine issue at hand, that of state control, power and manipulation.

Graham Armitages’ Louis XIII well represents this insulting arrogance of power when he arrives in Loudon in disguise as ‘Duke Henri de Condé’, claiming to carry a holy relic which will exorcise the devils possessing the nuns. Handing it to Father Barre in a crowd of jubilating onlookers, he takes the relic like a desperate glass of water, kissing its golden case before opening the box to find it empty. Metaphorically representing the empty truth of the oppressive society, the exorcisms fascinatingly continue unabated, showing just how far the manipulation goes. 

“We never set out to make a pretty Christian film. Charlton Heston made enough of those… The film is about twisted people,” Oliver Reed stated on following the film’s controversial reception. Ultimately, even in Grandier’s demise, he shouts “Look at your city. If the city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also!”, as the walls of his beloved city crumble before his eyes. In this moment the facade collapses, the theatricality ends, and as Madeleine, Grandier’s lover, fades into the barren wastelands outside the city, darkness prevails.

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