Richard Crouse’s book, (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 , 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 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 , hosted IFC’s show , Bravo’s 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 200 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 ), 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 and . Part of the controversy is that even though a film like was given a free pass, despite scenes of a child masturbating violently with a crucifix, among other things, was cut to shreds. Warner Bros. effectively green-lit a very expensive film with the biggest set since Joseph Mankiewicz’s , 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 . 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 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 artist Gary Pullin. The book is available from Amazon.com and most retailers as a paperback or in a Kindle edition. To hell with Warner Brothers.