The late Ken Russell (1927-2011) was one of my all-time favorite directors, a visionary British auteur who populated his frame with beautiful visual compositions fueled by his febrile and lusty imagination. Renowned/infamous for his excesses in the realms of warped sexuality, over-the-top art direction, and an unabashedly psychedelic sensibility, the man directed a number of classics, but none so accessible or divisive as his 1971 masterpiece, THE DEVILS, a delirious retelling of a true story that all-too-believably shows there is no worse horror than that wrought by man upon his fellow man in the name of religious hypocrisy and the pursuit of power.
In the France of 1634, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) seeks more power so he can suppress Protestants from rising up against the Catholic church, power that he acquires by convincing King Louis XIII (a flamboyantly fey Graham Armitage) to let him destroy the fortifications of cities across the country. (Exactly how that's supposed to work completely eludes me, and I've seen the film about a half-dozen times.) The sole town excepted from the wholesale demolition is Loudon, which is exempt thanks to the king having promised its governor that no harm would come to it. That status changes when the governor dies and leaves the place under the control of Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in a terrific performance), who's a far cry from anyone's concept of an exemplary priest. Grandier doles out spiritual aid to the populace, but he's a handsome, virile man who greatly enjoys the pleasures of the flesh and the power his rank in the Church allows him. The women of Loudon openly fantasize about being bedded by him and Grandier's priapic hobbies are common knowledge to all and sundry, including, unfortunately, his serial impregnation of young girls sent to him for personal religious instruction. Grandier dismisses his latest knocked-up conquest when she tells him of her condition and he could not care less about what becomes of her or his percolating bastard, being the smug, entitled prick that he is.
Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave): deformed, highly unstable, and jonesing for some Grandier dick.
Unbeknownst to Grandier, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the hunchbacked and rather unstable top nun at the local convent, has intense sexual fantasies/religious visions starring Grandier as Christ and herself as a yearning Blessed Virgin, a situation inflamed by damned near the entire population of the convent sharing the local women's lusty appreciation of Grandier. (What the hell kind of convent is this anyway?) Sister Jeanne's obsession spirals into well-hidden madness and boils over when news of Grandier's secret marriage to one of his religious groupies (Gemma Jones) gets out. As the nuns stage a lusty costumed reenactment of the nuptials within the convent walls, a new confessor arrives to see the sister and in an act of jealous vindictiveness, she accuses Grandier of sorcery and demonically possessing her mind and body. From there, Grandier's political enemies descend like locusts and, with the help of a clearly insane "witch hunter" (Michael Gothard), convince the entire order of nuns to fake being in the constant throes of satanic influence, which results in a license to publicly blaspheme, get butt naked in droves, thrash about on the ground like fish out of water, and engage in all manner of un-nun-like sins of the flesh, all while announcing up and down that their deranged state is the gleeful handiwork of Urbain Grandier. In the midst of a spirited orgy within the convent's walls, a disguised Louis XIII proves it's all a sham, but, amused by the decadent excess, tells all involved to have fun and takes his leave, which results in the licentiousness reaching new manic heights as the nuns desecrate and literally rape a large statue of Jesus Christ. (A scene that I'm certain raised a few eyebrows at the Vatican.) With so much stacked against him and the public believing the false accusations, there's absolutely no way out for the not-so-good father, whose date with the torture chamber and death by immolation at the stake is a forgone conclusion. But will Grandier go to his horrible death defiantly steadfast in his claims of innocence of witchery, a stance that would give hope to unbelievers and undermine the Church, or will he confess and burn anyway, but going to that fate knowing that he did right in the eyes of the Almighty?
Sister Jeanne: How much better off would she have been if Toys in Babeland had existed in 1634?
In every way the polar opposite of MARK OF THE DEVIL and the logical progression from the template set by WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE DEVILS stands as the final word in the witch hunt sub-genre. It takes its material very seriously and while its liberal doses of nudity, sacrilegious offensiveness, perverse cruelty and torture could be (and were) seen as crassly exploitative by some, there really was no other way to tell this story minus its visceral rawness and have it retain even a shred if its impact. Even today it remains strong stuff, and Russell's beautiful and stark art direction offers a visually arresting counterpoint to the ugliness committed as the story's events unfold. If THE DEVILS truly is exploitation, then it is exploitation as legitimate cinematic art and a beast of terrifying, lasting beauty that all devotees of film in general and horror of the all-too-human kind in particular should give serious consideration. And while it's technically an historical drama, make no mistake and bear in mind that there is stark terror to be had here. If you only see one film from the historical witch hunt hysteria genre, THE DEVILS is hands down the one not to miss.
Poster from the original theatrical release.