Ken Russell sadly died November last year, and The Devils is a work that haunted him throughout the last forty years of his life. It’s had a troubled history, with censors enforcing cuts upon it. Russell was pressured into reducing and changing certain scenes so as to avoid the film falling foul of the laws and regulations of Britain and the United States.
This beautifully packaged new restoration, courtesy of the British Film Institute, is the most complete version of the film ever commercially released. It doesn’t contain everything Russell filmed (sadly, that completely uncut version remains in film vaults with no sign of surfacing any time soon), but it is the version that audiences saw when they bought their tickets to see The Devils in 1971.
The film is deliberately provocative, extremely unsettling and more than a little ridiculous. It’s set in seventeenth-century France and depicts the alleged demonic possession of a group of nuns (with focus on Sister Jeanne, played with terrifying intensity by Vanessa Redgrave). The kind and powerful Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is held responsible for their possession, and lots of blood, debates about politics, church and state, and the danger of the Devil’s influences ensue.
The superb sets by Derek Jarman and frequently witty dialogue make this an entertaining feature, although one could be forgiven for feeling Russell’s message gets a little lost in the overwhelming hysteria of the picture. The Devils is a bold and brutal work by a master of cinema and I’m very pleased the BFI have honoured it with this sumptuously presented new release, complete with a booklet containing essays written on the film from University of Southampton Visiting Fellow Mark Kermode and BBFC Senior Examiner Craig Lapper.
I only wish the BFI had given it a high definition outing on Blu-ray disc, like many of their other recent releases. But even so, the transfer of the film to DVD has been painstakingly done, in collaboration with Warner Bros. Burbank, and the results are as gorgeous to look at as they are weird to experience.
The Devils (1971), directed by Ken Russell, is distributed on DVD by the British Film Institute, Certificate 18. The film contains scenes some viewers may find disturbing. For more information on the film and its new DVD release please go to http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/143
N.B. Since the publication of this post, the BFI has been in contact with the author about the decision not to release the film in an HD format. Due to them only having access to a standard definition master of the original cinema release of the film, they chose not to publish it on Blu-ray.