If you live in or around Toronto, Ontario, Canada and you like movies, then you’ve already heard of Richard Crouse. For the rest of you, he’s a Toronto-based film critic and TV personality, who can be seen on both Canada AM and CTV’s 24-hour news channel (as well as at nearly every film event and festival in the Toronto area). Most importantly:, he’s also a tremendous, lifelong fan of filmmaker Ken Russell.
Crouse’s latest book (he’s written six others) is all about Ken “Enfant Terrible” Russell’s most controversial and frequently misunderstood 1971 film The Devils, starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils begins much like my own recent reintroduction to Ken Russell: a prologue detailing Crouse’s 2010 meeting and interview with Russell in conjunction with Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear screening of The Devils.
Anyone in attendance that night will never forget it. A rare North American screening of The Devils with Russell in attendance and answering questions from both Crouse and the audience. The prologue details the events leading up to and including that night and much like Crouse himself, it is engaging, witty, and a bit self-deprecating.
The rest of the book is a must-read, must-have for any fans of Ken Russell, The Devils, or groundbreaking cinema. If you have not yet seen the film, this book will make you want to. And if you have seen the film, this book will make you want to watch it again immediately.
As we see in the Prologue, Crouse has a distinct voice, but he never allows it to overshadow the story that needs telling in the subsequent eight chapters. Crouse knows to begin this particular tale with the relationship between Ken Russell and actor Oliver Reed, one of the most remarkable and rewarding director/actor relationships of the last few decades.
Crouse then moves forward through the historical aspects of the real-life events that inspired The Devils film as well as Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun and John Whiting’s stage adapation of Huxley’s book.
The casting, set design, art direction, costumes, musical score, and filming of The Devils are all discussed in great, lively detail, as is the most controversial part of the history surrounding the film: the censorship, critical outcry, and subsequent loss (and rediscovery) of key scenes from the film. Crouse also addresses the release of The Devils within the sociopolitical and cinematic context of the time (1971) and how the film has recently been restored. . . mostly. He even gets into the nitty gritty of the various versions of the films, both official and bootleg, in a way that diehard fans of underappreciated films will immediately recognize.
Those who’ve followed the long and complex history of the making and unmaking of this film will be familiar with BBC critic Mark Kermode (he is the main voice in Hell On Earth, the 2002 BBC documentary on the restoration of the film) and Crouse makes sure to pay tribute to his role as “the man most responsible for the film’s renaissance.”
In addition, there is much commentary and insight all through the books from members of the cast and crew of The Devils, various filmmakers, and horror film gurus like Joe Dante, David Cronenberg, Rodrigo Gudiño from Rue Morgue magazine, and others. Check the quotes on the back and you’ll also see names like Terry Gilliam and John Landis. There are also two appendices: one with details on the historical cast of characters and a bibliography. (Full disclosure: My own article on Crouse, Russell, and The Devils appears in the bibliography but I was not aware of this before I received the book for review.)
Raising Hell has a lot of praise for The Devils and its legacy, but Crouse is not afraid to reveal the faults and flaws of its cast of characters. The book is not an endless stream of blind praise but a vital critical assessment of how and why The Devils is as important now as it was in 1971, perhaps even more so.
Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils will be available on October 1 through ECW Press in both physical and electronic form.