There were two disturbing films that I saw in the early 1970s. Both films were about demons. Both films scared the stuffing out of me. The Exorcist and The Devils were both controversial for their time because of the subject matter. Even though I have not watched either film since, the torture scenes from The Devils are forever seared into my mind. But as blasphemous as that film was back in the day, there were lessons to be learned. I will share them with you… if you you’re not afraid…
Ken Russell produced and directed this historical horror film based loosely on the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun. The film stars Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave and the story tells the account of a Roman Catholic priest named Urbain Grandier who was tortured and executed for witchcraft in 1634. The story is about a convent of Ursuline nuns exhibiting the signs of demonic possession.
It is in reality a story about power made corrupt when government and church joined forces to control the cities of France. Because the church aka Cardinal Richelieu, and King Louis XIII feared a Protestant uprising, they joined forces. Unfortunately for Father Grandier, he stood in the way of Richelieu and Jean de Laubardemont’s plans to tear down the walls surrounding Loudun.
Urbain Grandier was the parish priest of the church in Loudun. He was a vain man who used his good looks to charm the maidens. He was a man who loved women. There is nothing wrong with this except for his vow of celibacy.
Most priests during that period had illicit affairs, but because Grandier stood up against the state, his dalliances with Phillippa Trincant and Madeleine de Brou (Gemma Jones) would be his undoing. Grandier came from money and he was well-educated, and most importantly, politically connected. Oliver Reed played his character, in the beginning of the film, as an elite snob who enjoyed the power given to him by the church just as much as he enjoyed his women.
To understand Vanessa Redgrave’s character as Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges (Joann of the Angels) we need to understand the position of women in the Roman Catholic Church. Women had no rights. Got it? Young women, who were considered a burden to their family because of poverty or the lack of a prospective mate, were sent to the nunnery to spend the rest of their lives in servitude to the church.
Most of these women were poor and uneducated. In the film, Vanessa Redgrave’s hunchbacked character, Mother Superior, had asked Grandier to become the confessor for the convent. She was obsessed with the priest, but when he refused; Mother went ballistic. She convinced the young nuns under her to say that Grandier was in league with the devil.
Torture and slaughter under the name of God is not new. It’s been going on since Moses received the Ten Commandments. In the film, Ken Russell uses the mass hysteria that overcame that convent in Loudun to show how the political and religious schemers, Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) with the help of the king (Graham Armitage) joined forces to control the populace and confiscate the wealth. The persecutors knew that Grandier was not in cahoots with any demon, although his lust for women was enough to at least kick him out of priesthood. These evil men made the people of Loudun turn on their beloved priest with stories of demonic activities. This was a media circus similar to what we’re dealing with today.
In the film, Russell shows that the church and Laubardemont knowingly used the innocence and inexperience of the sexually repressed young nuns to lie about the priest. The scenes of the naked nuns behaving wildly in the midst of participating onlookers was upsetting and not because of the nudity but because we understood Russell’s message. The powerful take advantage of the young for their own wicked reasons.
The torture scenes in the film were overwhelming; hitting me in the mind and soul with a physical force. I was unable to leave my seat. While I watched the innocence of the poor nuns decay more and more as the torture increased, I began to notice a change in Oliver Reed’s character. Yes, he was vain and yes, he was a womanizer, but he did love God and he did love his people and the town they lived in. The final scene with the burning at the stake after so much gore and torture was in my opinion one of Oliver Reed’s best performances. The music by Peter Maxwell Davies not only matched the horror we witnessed on the screen, but rattled my already assaulted senses.
My friends and I left that theatre in tears. We were young and had not become hardened and cynical about the world around us. Not yet. We had heard about the controversy of the film and still we went. We had heard the whispers and reports of the torture scenes and naked hysteria, but we were, we thought at the time, ready to handle the horror. We were not. The film was rightly given an X rating and was banned in several countries. One scene was eliminated by the time it was seen in the States: The rape of Christ. You can watch it on YouTube if you dare. It’s upsetting and disturbing and will chip away at your psyche.
I guess you’re wondering why I picked The Devils as my contribution to the 31 Days of Horror. Maybe it had to do with the political circus we are being forced to witness this year that brought back memories of Russell’s film. The 2016 Presidential Elections have been seen by me and other clear-thinking mortals as a witch hunt. When one side can’t get enough votes, they bring out the “GOD Card” to shame us into hating those who are different, poor or female. How long will it take before we begin our own inquisition?
I did this review without watching the film. I didn’t need to watch it again because I’ve seen it play out over and over again in the news. There was a reason that America’s Founding Fathers were so against the union of church and state. Ken Russell, who died in 2011, was never truly appreciated for this film. I think his intentions were good, but he went a little crazy in the details. I was not physically or mentally able to watch the film again, but I did remember the message that I was supposed to get all those years ago. The best weapon against a political opponent is to demonize them. I had hoped we’d evolved past the events that took place at Loudun. We have not. Thank you, Ken Russell, for your film and for opening my mind.
I have included a video of Oliver Reed’s interview about his part in the film. Happy Halloween.