It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Today, it’s time to unearth a long-buried tale of possession and sensuality: The Devils.
1971’s The Devils is based on a real account of witchcraft and a series of public exorcisms in a 17th-century French town. Ken Russell’s take on the tale, which had previously been told in Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun, is no less salacious but all the more heartbreaking. A priest named Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) becomes the sexual obsession of a nun named Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). Unable to bear her lustful thoughts towards him, she accuses Grandier of being in congress with Satan. This accusation fits perfectly into the plans of several other priests and city officials. After all, they have been itching for an excuse to bring down Grandier.
The cast is stellar all around, and their performances add so much nuance to already complex characters. Redgrave’s chilling little giggle as she peers out from her habit sent shivers down my spine. Her turn as the devious, lovesick Sister Jeanne is frightful and heartbreaking. In one haunting scene, plagued by sexual fantasies of Grandier as Jesus, she hasn’t even noticed her rosary has stabbed into her palm, an imitation of the stigmata on Grandier she just kissed.
Oliver Reed commands the screen as Urbain Grandier. He is a flawed man, a priest known for radical ideas and sleeping around, misunderstood in his time. His downfall was not through his own mistakes, but through the mass abuse of power by the church and state. He is steadfast in his beliefs right until the end, crying out to the people of Loudon to beware of the corrupt men trying to destroy their city.
The film is a visual masterpiece. It combines the theatricality of 17th-century French style with a 1970s grit. The white brick of Loudon is a stunning, stark backdrop to the debauchery that defiles the city. The Devils is more than a titillating witch hunt tale with some nunsploitation thrown in. It is about ordinary people struggling between loyalty to God, to country, to themselves, and the way an abuse of power can exploit those struggles to benefit a larger conspiracy. Satan is not a mythic trickster seeking to corrupt the most loyal of God’s servants; Satan lies in the hearts of men.
Due to the highly controversial subject matter, The Devils has been near impossible to watch for many years. As of right now, it is not available on any streaming service. Your best chance of seeing it is tracking down a physical print (or getting creative with your online searches). Even if you manage to track it down, you will probably be watching the censored version. It’s a shame that such an incredible achievement of filmmaking has been relegated to dusty video rental shelves or low-quality torrents.
In a digital age where thousands of films could be erased in a second should the corporate overlords will it, this film deserves to be preserved. Horror films have pushed the boundaries of acceptable society since their inception, and archaic ideology shouldn’t stand in the way of cinema history. Vive le film de minuit! – Audrey Griffin