Monday, February 25, 2013

Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of THE DEVILS by Richard Crouse

I’ll never forgot the first time I saw The Devils (1971), Ken Russell’s blasphemous masterpiece about a 17th century priest who is accused of possessing a convent full of nuns and is subsequently tortured and executed, despite his innocence. I was 19, and someone brought me a (very bad quality) VHS copy because they knew I liked extreme cinema. I cannot express how unprepared I was for the insane, beautiful mixture of sex, violence, and religion that followed. I spent the next hour and half watching it with my jaw basically scraping the ground. From that moment, it has been one of my favorite films, if not my favorite, and I have gone on a ten year quest to find a restored, uncut print of the film. So far I have found an uncut bootleg and the British Film Institute released an absolutely beautiful, restored DVD (with the cut scenes included on a second disc) in 2012, but Russell’s classic of hysteria, repression and political persecution remains elusive, particularly for American audiences. It is, unarguably, one of the most controversial and inaccessible films of all time.

Richard Crouse’s book, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils(released last October from ECW Press) documents the long, arduous journey the film made from pre-production to its first official DVD release 40 years later. Crouse explores Russell’s primary historical source, Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon, as is packed with details about the chaotic production. Everything from the casting of stars Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed and many other major and minor players; the set design from British wunderkind Derek Jarman; costumes from Russell’s then wife Shirley; the score by avant-garde composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies; and more is covered in depth. Crouse also looks at the disastrous reception of The Devils from Warner Bros., audiences, and film critics, and the recent attempt at a revival after footage thought to be lost was found and restored to the film. This warm, funny, fascinating book is recommended to Ken Russell fanatics, cinephiles in general, and anyone interested in the dubious process of film censorship.

Toronto resident Richard Crouse has had a long career as a film critic and Canadian TV personality. He has written several films books, including The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, hosted IFC’s show Reel to Reel, Bravo’s In Short and has appeared on many Canadian TV and radio programs. He is a regular fixture at North American film festivals, and is obviously a huge fan of Ken Russell. Allegedly, he has seen The Devils200 times. In a few years, I will hopefully give him a run for his money, but his devotion to this criminally neglected and censured film is the driving force behind Raising Hell.

The book is chock full of detailed interviews. Crouse managed to track down most of the surviving cast and crew, film historians, and contemporary directors who (rightly) love the film, such as Guillermo del Toro, David Cronenberg (who gives very positive feedback about working with Oliver Reed on The Brood), Joe Dante, William Friedkin, and more. He was fortunately able to interview Russell before his death in November 2011 and many snippets of this are included throughout the book. Crouse also examines the loving, but volatile relationship between the very similar Russell and Reed, two personalities fascinating enough to span several volumes.

Crouse goes into depth about the late ‘60s/early ‘70s film scene, and the evolution of censorship in the short period between The Devils and The Exorcist. Part of the controversy is that even though a film like The Exorcist was given a free pass, despite scenes of a child masturbating violently with a crucifix, among other things, The Devils was cut to shreds. Warner Bros. effectively green-lit a very expensive film with the biggest set since Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, then demanded a never-ending series of cuts and made sure audiences and critics ignored it. Two of the scenes in question – the “Rape of Christ” scene, where a room of hysterical and mostly naked nuns have sex with a giant statue of Christ on a crucifix, and a concluding scene where their Mother Superior masturbates with the charred thigh bone of the executed priest – were ordered removed by Warner and thought lost for 25 years. Film historian Mark Kermode recovered them after a long and impassioned search, and Crouse gives credit where it is due, including Kermode as one of the first champions of the film. Despite the fact that a complete version is now available, Warner has continued its ridiculous treatment of The Devils. Currently, they have only begrudgingly allowed a region 2 DVD release from the BFI, with the cut scenes sequestered on a second disc and no Blu-ray or region 1 permissions in sight.

My complaints about Crouse’s book, which was clearly a labor of love, are few. I would have enjoyed a transcript of his interview with Russell before the screening of The Devils at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto in 2010, as well as photographs and illustrations from the film’s production. But these are minor issues. Also included are appendices and absolutely wonderful cover art from Rue Morgue artist Gary Pullin. The book is available from and most retailers as a paperback or in a Kindle edition. To hell with Warner Brothers.

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