In seventeenth-century France, a promiscuous and divisive local priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), uses his powers to protect the city of Loudun from destruction at the hands of the establishment. Soon, he stands accused of the demonic possession of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose erotic obsession with him fuels the hysterical fervour that sweeps through the convent.
With its bold and brilliant direction by Ken Russell, magnificent performances by Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, exquisite Derek Jarman sets and sublimely dissonant score by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, The Devils stands as a profound and sincere commentary on religious hysteria, political persecution and the corrupt marriage of church and state.
Finally available on DVD for the first time, The Devils is presented in the original UK X certificate version with a host of new and exciting extra features.
Through some miracle BFI was able to licence Ken Russell’s extremely controversial film The Devils from Warner Bros. and have released it in a new 2-disc DVD special edition. Though it’s not the “near-complete” reconstructed version from 2004, which included many sequences that were first cut out, the version we do get is probably the next best thing: the original 111-minute ‘X’ rated UK version (because of PAL speed up the film runs 107-minutes on this disc.) The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this 2-disc set. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Unfortunately for North American readers the disc is Region 2 and is also in the PAL format so North American viewers will require the appropriate equipment (multi-region DVD player or Blu-ray players for example, and TVs that can handle PAL) in order to play the film back.
Unfortunately BFI was only able to licence the film for DVD and not Blu-ray but BFI has gone the extra mile with this transfer; in all it really is spectacular. It’s extraordinarily sharp, especially for DVD, and the finer details manage to pop. There are moments where you can make out very clearly the stubble on some of the actors’ faces. Though it has a darker colour scheme colours still manage to pop when they’re present, the creamy whites present also look clean, and blacks, despite some mild crushing in places, are nicely rendered. BFI has left some of the film grain intact and the transfer handles it surprisingly well, or at least as well as standard-definition can.
At worst the image’s problems are a few scratches and a few marks scattered about. Otherwise it’s really gorgeous. Yes, a Blu-ray edition would certainly top this and knowing BFI’s reputation with the format a high-def transfer would more than likely look exceptional. Yes, there are some limitations because of the format in comparison to Blu-ray, but they’ve really gone the extra mile here and even upscaled it still looks rather incredible. Beautiful job and a pleasant surprise.
The disc includes a surprisingly robust Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track. It can get edgy and screech in places but overall it’s very clean. Dialogue sounds natural with some excellent range, and the film’s music holds together rather well and has a nice amount of power behind it. The ending is especially chaotic and there’s a lot going on in it, even though it’s limited to one speaker. Like the video presentation it’s better than I expected.
BFI’s 2-disc set comes loaded with some intriguing supplements. Getting past a fairly flat 2-minute introduction by critic Mark Kermode (who just offers his praises of the film) the first disc features an audio commentary with director Ken Russell, editor Michael Bradsell, director Paul Joyce (who directed the documentary on the film, Hell on Earth, which is also included on this set,) and it more or less moderated by Kermode. It’s a fine commentary, most notable for the fact that we get Russell’s insights and recollections on the making of the film. They of course talk about the film’s controversy, the battle with censors and the studio, the cut footage, and so on. Russell also talks about, in great detail, the research that went into, Aldous Huxley’s novel on which it was partially based, as well as the play. And it also examines the themes and politics found within the film, while Russell and Bradsell also talk about the shoot, the actors, and share anecdotes. Overall it’s a very enthralling and informative track, well worth listening to, and I’m thankful they were at least able to get Russell to do one; he passed away last year.
The disc also includes an early 26-minute short film by Russell called Amelia and the Angel, which was made in 1958. It’s a charming little short with some religious undertones. It focuses on a young girl playing an angel in a school recital who takes her costume angel wings home only to have them destroyed. She then goes in search for new wings, meeting some rather eccentric characters along the way, including what could possibly be a real angel. Showing a director already comfortable with the medium (with a few rough edges) it’s a rather entertaining little fantasy.
The disc then closes with both the UK and US theatrical trailers.
The second single-layer disc features a number of video supplements. First up is the documentary Hell on Earth, a 48-minute piece about the making of the film and the controversy that surrounded it. Here we get into great detail about battle with the censors, the studio and the multiple versions that exist or existed at one time. There’s mention of the far more graphic original cut, the slightly toned down but still graphic ‘X’ rated version in the UK, and then the “might as well have cut everything out” American version. It’s an interesting documentary, which gathers cast and crew (including Vanessa Redgrave) and then members of the church (who actually don’t bad mouth the film and defend the more controversial aspects,) but what may prove most fascinating to viewers are clips from deleted sequences that were thought to be lost. These include further tortures against Grandier, what Sister Jeanne does with a tibia from a set of remains (trying not to add a spoiler as to whose they are) and then the infamous “rape of Christ” sequence. Since I assume Warner Bros. wouldn’t let them include the sequences as deleted scenes this is the next best thing. Unfortunately we don’t get entire sequences but we get a good enough idea from what we’re shown. Seeing the “rape of Christ” scene for the first time it’s not hard to figure out what upset people but it’s a stunningly directed sequence, incredibly unnerving. On its own it’s something else but I can only imagine how devastating the sequence would have been played properly within the film, and Russell is right on how the film’s impact is lessened severely because it’s missing. It’s a strong documentary but it’s these deleted sequences that people will probably be most after.
Director of Devils is a quasi-PR piece made around the time of the film’s release. Running 22-minutes it features Russell, being driven somewhere, talking about the film and its controversy. He talks about the Huxley book, the large amounts of research that went into it, and even goes over the historical facts he unearthed. The film also features behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, which offers alternate angles to certain scenes, looks at the sets, and even presents footage in the latter half of the film’s score being recorded for the final moments being recorded. Excellent little featurette.
On-set footage with Michael Bradsell commentary is exactly that. We get about 8-minutes worth of footage Bradsell filmed from the set, including the construction of the large, and incredibly impressive set for the film created by Derek Jarman, along with various other shots from other locations. In his commentary he talks about the sets, the shoot, and the various members of the cast and crew that show up. Another nice little addition.
We then finally get about 13-minutes worth of footage from an on-stage Q&A with Ken Russell, which is moderated by Kermode. In it Russell again talks about the film’s problems during production, and even brings up other past work, talks about his conversion to Catholicism, and then ever addresses the criticisms that the film simply shocked for the sake of shocking. Russell, who is always fairly humourous in these features is especially energetic here making it yet another great feature.
BFI then includes one of their gargantuan booklets, this one at 40-pages. Not surprisingly we get a written piece by Kermode (who is all over this set) followed by an absolutely fascinating piece by Craig Lapper that goes over all the various cuts made to the film, and the key versions that exist. It even includes reprints of notes written between Russell and the various people he had to deal with. Following that Sam Ashby writes a rather nice piece about Derek Jarman and his involvement in designing the film’s sets and then we get a couple pieces on Ken Russell that includes one of BFI’s usual biographies and then a rather affectionate remembrance of the director by Bradsell, and then we get more bios for the film’s two stars, Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. Michael Brooke then offers notes on the various features that appear in the set. Overall another wonderful booklet from BFI.
It’s a shame we couldn’t get complete deleted scenes for the film but I assume that’s related to the idea I get that Warner Bros. would rather the film was never made, and would prefer the more controversial cuts don’t see the light of day. But BFI have done what they could and they’ve delivered an absolutely wonderful set of supplements.
This is what you get when a film is released by people that actually care about the film in question: a wonderful audio/video transfer and engaging, informative supplements that go over the film’s history and get into the nitty-gritty of the themes present. Yes, like many, I would have preferred the reconstructed version but BFI did what they could and at least got the original UK version from Warners and went all out on making this the best edition they possibly could. And they’ve succeeded. This is an incredible, absolutely wonderful edition, and it comes with the highest recommendation I can possibly give it.