By Less Lee Moore
As part of this year’s FanExpo, Rue Morgue presented “Confessions of a Gothic Messiah: An Evening with Ken Russell” at the Bloor Cinema, a special screening of Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils, hosted by film critic Richard Crouse and attended by the director himself.
Crouse set the tone for the evening when he remarked on his own introduction into Russell’s body of work, 1975′s Tommy. He recalled his fervent desire to see the film as a teen, one which he knew would not play in his small town for months (or perhaps even ever). He hitchhiked a couple of hundred miles to the closest theater featuring a showing. Then, as soon as it was over, he bought another ticket. And then another, until he realized those couple of hundred miles were going to seem even longer on the return trip, especially when he hadn’t told anyone in his family where he was going.
Such is the obsessive, addictive, and transformative power of cinema. For those of us who have experienced such fanatical devotion to certain films (in my case Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Velvet Goldmine, and Fight Club, to name just three), Crouse’s introduction made perfect sense. It was also the perfect introduction to The Devils, which is a film not easily forgotten, or in the case of its detractors, utterly loathed.
I first saw The Devils as a lowly film student of 19 or 20, but it wasn’t actually for any of my classes. My boyfriend at the time had rented it, which was a bit of surprise as he was not one for campy melodrama. I remember being absolutely horrified and hypnotized by the grotesque tableau of the movie, as well as Oliver Reed’s piercing sensuality when portraying Father Urbain Grandier, and the wicked malice of Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne.
As one who grew up Catholic, and was pious for the first third of my life, anything that evoked possession, devils, and witchcraft was particularly frightening to me (and still remains so, despite my years of agnosticism). I was the kid who worried about being too holy lest I become corrupted by a demon, as I’d read somewhere that the Devil considered it a particular victory to poison the souls of the devout. Hence my years long love/hate relationship with The Exorcist.
Yet The Devils is not a horror movie in the classic sense; the horror it conveys and evokes is not one of blood and guts and pea soup, but one in which the world portrayed is simultaneously far removed from yet disturbingly similar to the current one.
Based the Aldous Huxley non-fiction book The Devils of Loudun (which was later turned into a play), the movie is an exploration of how religious persecution is used to mask political machinations. Sister Jeanne, who lusts after Father Grandier, resents his refusal to accept her invitation of becoming the convent’s new confessor. She then accuses him of possessing her through witchcraft. In the meantime, Grandier, who has publicly opposed Cardinal Richelieu, refuses to allow the stronghold of Loudun to be destroyed. These events coalesce into an evil synchronicity that results in mass hysteria, torture, public exorcisms, a sham trial, and Grandier’s eventual execution at the stake.