I was looking for a copy of Lair of the White Worm (1988), my favorite Ken Russell film, but couldn’t find it. So we’ll have to make do with The Devils, another extraordinary (and far more notorious) film by the late master.
The Devils was hard to find uncut for a long time, and was even banned in the UK, because it’s giddily blasphemous and offended a lot of people. I watched it in the late 90s and thought it was “OK.” Either I saw a severely edited version, or I was half asleep at the time, or just feeling jaded, because The Devils really is pretty nuts.
And, sure, it’s blasphemous. So what? People blaspheme daily, and so art should, too. And it’s not as though Russell was targeting only “Catholicism” or “Christians” or “religion”; he got a rise out of criticizing everybody. He had too solid an understanding of humanity—of its many accomplishments and its many failings—to take anyone’s sensibilities too seriously. (In that regard he’s a lot like Paul Verhoeven and even Peter Greenaway: folks who’d rather be honest about what is grotesque in human nature.)
The Devils (1971)
Directed by Ken Russell
Written by Aldous Huxley (novel), John Whiting (play), and Ken Russell (screenplay)
Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed
It’s a somewhat wonky copy, in terms of its formatting, but I kind of like all the extra space at the bottom. It’s like sitting in the front row of a theater!