In 1534, Urban Grandier, a lustful priest in the town of Loudon, France had his legs broken in a torture session known as “The Question” and was then burned alive for the crime of directing his demon masters toward a group of nuns. This incident, the largest known case of mass possession, in which the nuns put on an erotic and blasphemous show for audiences who flocked to the town, provoked nausea in those who studied it. Aldous Huxley, who wrote about the episode, believed that the event should never be made into a film.
Enter Ken Russell, who disregarded Huxley’s advice and made a film recounting the events with The Devils (1971). Russell not only put naked cavorting nuns sexually employing religious objects on screen, as well as graphically showing Grandier’s torture and public burning, but he pushed the envelope even further. He added a scene, infamously known as the Rape of Christ, in which the allegedly possessed nuns committed sex acts on a statue of Christ. The Devils had almost every conceivable affront to the Moral Majority: masturbation, lesbian sex, dream sequences in which men came down from the cross to have sex with nuns, etc. and, literally, ad nauseam.
In this excellent book, Richard Crouse takes us back to the early 1970s, a period where Hollywood had jettisoned the Hays Code, a Depression-era list of no-nos for filmmakers, and unleashed a torrent of profanity, nudity, and graphic violence. Even more advantageous for the film was the theme of God being dead but Satan alive and well. The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and a whole rash of possession films would follow The Devils. But like Huxley, Russell portrayed the possessions as inauthentic and merely camoflague for repressed nuns to let off sexual steam. Cardinal Richeleu, hating both Grandier and the walls that protected the religious diversity of Loudon, capitalized on the nuns, claiming that Grandier had possessed them and had the town’s chief proponent of religious freedom burned alive.
This theme of individualism versus the fist of the state was very much in tune with the anti-establishment feelings at the time. And cosmetically, the film betrays its time period. The chief exorcist, played by Micheal Gabon, looks like Mick Jagger, and the nuns with their shaved heads resemble Manson girls allowed to run amok.
Russell, who wrote the script, claimed to have based it on Huxley’s historical work and John Whiting’s play, but neither author was able to portray a town going mad the way Russell did. And Russell intuitively understood that comedy enhances horror. The sight of King Louis shooting protestants dressed as birds is so chilling that the viewer doesn’t even mind the ruler anachronistically saying “bye bye black bird.” Equally unsettling as a backdrop to a freshly tortured Oliver Reed almost gratefully crawling to the stake is the carnival atmosphere of the town. They drink and sexually cavort as if they are at a sporting even rather than a public execution.
To his credit, Russell never claimed his film was satire—a characterization that directors like Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone grab at when audiences believe they have gone too far. Neither does Crouse, who characterizes it as extremely political film designed to shock. Crouse could have focused exclusively on the controversy the film garnered when released. There was a tug of war between Russell and Warner Brothers over what needed to be cut. Russell complied on a few scenes but the film was still deemed unsuitable to American audiences (it has never been released on DVD in the states). Religious groups in both countries denounced the film, while reviews of it from more secular audiences found it deliberately manipulative and pompous. But Crouse doesn’t write a book that gallops through the making of the film in order to get to the controversy. Like Russell...