Sometimes movie history is made quietly, when you least expect it… and so another landmark in boundary-busting cinema seems to have happened virtually overnight: I’m talking about the online streaming premiere of Ken Russell’s breathtaking 1971 masterpiece THE DEVILS.
Recently uploaded by horror streaming service Shudder, the film is considered by many historians to be the most controversial film ever released by a major studio.
Now, there’s good news and bad news… but first, a bit of backstory.
Often notorious but widely celebrated British director Ken Russell managed to draw critical acclaim and controversy in equal measure as far back as 1969, with his Oscar-nominated adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel WOMEN IN LOVE, and his films are noted for their insanely surreal imagery, operatic set-pieces and often explicit nudity, sex and violence.
After his ’70s peak, Russell’s outrageous visions eventually fell out of sync with big-studio execs, and he transitioned into smaller-scale productions (including some of his best, including GOTHIC, CRIMES OF PASSION and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM), as well as theatre and television.
But there was a glorious time when major studios like MGM, Columbia and Warner Brothers financed these spectacularl cinematic freak-outs — which include the big-budget screen adaptation of The Who’s rock opera TOMMY, and the mind-bending genre classic ALTERED STATES.
Widely considered Russell’s masterpiece, THE DEVILS is based on both Aldous Huxley’s 1952 historical novel THE DEVILS OF LOUDON and its 1960 stage adaptation by John Whiting. Based on actual events which took place in early 17th-century France, the story revolves around Catholic priest Urban Grandier (Oliver Reed), whose charisma and radical views toward religion, governance and sexuality made him mostly beloved to the citizens of Loudon, and the mortal enemy of Cardinal Richelieu, who is looking for any opportunity to unseat him from power.
That opportunity arrives with the accusations of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), an unbalanced, repressed nun whose growing sexual obsession with Grandier triggers a complete mental breakdown, resulting in her accusing the priest of consorting with the Devil… thus setting off a chain of events which quite literally brings the city down in the final act.
By the film’s apocalyptic climax, the viewer is assaulted with graphic scenes of depravity, torture, debauchery and blasphemy — all staged with Russell’s infamously surreal sense of spectacle, aided by gorgeous set designs from Derek Jarman and an abstract musical score by Peter Davies.
Much of THE DEVILS’ reputation comes from what its audience didn’t see — especially after British censors viewed Russell’s first cut, which was condemned as blasphemous by the Catholic Church and deemed virtually pornographic by its detractors. Even with several minutes removed, it was released to theaters with an X rating. That didn’t hurt the film’s box-office returns in the UK or the US (this was, after all, the era of MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the first and only X-rated film to win an Oscar), but the film remains banned or heavily cut in multiple countries today.
That missing footage, which included a notorious “Rape of Christ” orgy scene*, was believed lost until a large portion of it was discovered in 2002, and re-integrated into the film for a new print. The resulting 108-minute version — the closest we’ll ever get to a Director’s Cut — was only screened a handful of times, and apparently never in the US, reportedly due to legal reasons.
*If you’re interested, that scene can be viewed here… and be warned, it’s totally unsafe for work.
While an amazing double-disc PAL DVD release (cover art shown below) was released by the British Film Institute in 2012, a Blu-ray edition — uncut or otherwise — has yet to emerge from Warner. The studio offers THE DEVILS as a digital download via iTunes, but apparently has no plans to release it on physical media anytime soon.
So that brings us to the present, and the surprise release of the film on Shudder’s platform yesterday… and now for the bad news.
I just finished watching this version (I couldn’t resist), and while it does indeed clock in at 1 hour, 48 minutes and 9 seconds, I was admittedly disappointed to discover at least two of the most notorious cut scenes — particularly the aforementioned orgy — were missing.
It appears that Shudder is actually streaming the censored (but still X-rated) 1971 US release, possibly with alternate takes used to make up for missing or explicit scenes… but without a side-by-side comparison to the 2004 assembly, I can’t be certain which scenes were added or extended to make up the difference.
This discovery contradicts Shudder’s press release — which states this is the most complete cut available, and the same one that played fests and repertory houses over the past decade.
Regadless, if you’ve never seen THE DEVILS before, you owe it to yourself to check it out — even in its edited state, it remains one of the most shocking films ever released by a major studio.