Ken Russell’s The Devils may be the biggest horror movie ever made--not in sales, not in cultural impact, and not even in notoriety, but purely in size. It’ll hit you about halfway in, all at once, how huge The Devils is, and you’ll sit there incredulous of its obscurity and in awe of its self-appointed, but well-earned prestige. Wikipedia’s summary gives us the structure of the movie: “The Devils is a dramatised historical account of the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier, a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest executed for witchcraft following the supposed possessions in Loudun, France. [Oliver] Reed plays Grandier in the film and Vanessa Redgrave plays a hunchbacked sexually repressed nun who finds herself inadvertently responsible for the accusations.” And that’s only the bones of it.
Watching The Devils is like watching some old-Hollywood mega-epic--think The Ten Commandments; Ben-Hur; Gone With the Wind--shrunken down into a vat of grindhouse trash and left to dry on a stack of softcore erotica. Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave prove themselves actors of the first order, instilling humanity and gravitas in characters that are really just bombastic archetypes, trouncing and crawling and brooding amid eye-wateringly lavish sets. There’s a scene of Redgrave’s Sister Joanne of the Angels simply walking toward the camera, her slumping figure locked in center-screen as she moves through the monastery, that is both sublimely unsettling and an example of the film’s ability to transform the simple into the extraordinary through little more than willpower. Characters unspool grandiloquent monologues to cathedral-like silence or to raving, stadium-sized audiences; they have asides, revealing their innermost motivations to the viewer as if they’re on a stage rather than in front of a camera, feeding into the delicious artifice of the whole experience. Characters indulge in the most repugnant of cruelties and the most debaucherous of pleasures with equal zeal amid a narrative that careens from scenes of torture to scenes of prostitution and bacchanalia; from nightmarish fantasies of the “rape of Christ” to passages of serious religious introspection.
The Devils has been cut, censored, banned, protested, slapped with an X rating. It’s been scorned and admired. It’s been buried and forgotten, dug up and reevaluated. Nothing like this movie has ever been made. Nothing like it will probably ever be made again--and now it’s streaming on Shudder.
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