Canadian film critic, writer and pop culture author* Richard Crouse spent two years chasing down answers to a question that puzzled him. Why had Ken Russell’s 1971 movie The Devils so irritated film critics that it was virtually removed from public view by the studio that greenlit it? Russell was, after all, a master filmmaker (Women in Love, Tommy) and although reviewers were unkind, few disputed his genius. The film was based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 book The Devils of Loudon in which a 17th century priest (Oliver Reed) is accused of witchcraft and sexual perversion and is executed. Russell’s scenes of naked nuns in mass orgies, sexual frenzies, madness, public exorcisms and murder were removed by censors wherever it was shown and as a result it hasn’t been seen in full in four decades and has never been made available uncut for home entertainment. When it came out, The Devils was considered blasphemous, pornographic and “sick”. Not much has changed today as release eludes it all these years later. Crouse journeyed down a long, hard road but his detective work paid off – he finally found answers. The result is the fascinating history Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils, made with the blessing of the late filmmaker.
The Devils is an obscure movie that the studio has not supported and few saw. Why were you so passionate about it?
For a couple or reasons. First, it’s a masterpiece and deserves to be seen. It’s shameful that it’s been hidden from view. Ken Russell was such a significant filmmaker, but for the last twenty years of his career he was forgotten. He couldn’t get movies financed and it’s a shame that you have this master who made Women in Love and The Devils, such high level films, forgotten about. I took the opportunity to detail the making of the film and the difficulties in making such a beautiful film.
Why was it so hated?
The thing that was so troubling was that there had been very violent films with torture that year — Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection. It was a great year for movies, but violent movies. Religion has been a topic on film since they first started threading film through projectors. It was nothing new. There has been sexuality in film since the beginning of time, but around this time, the sixties and seventies, sexual taboos were being broken down everywhere and they were explored on film. But this was the first time one filmmaker with the financial backing of a big studio and huge stars and this unholy trinity bundled into it.
Someone said it was a “Crazed exercise in Grand Guignol”, the implication being that he and his film were deranged. Were they?
Critics hated this movie so much that during a live debate on television with film critics, Ken took a newspaper, rolled it into a cone and started hitting [critic] Alexander Walker on the head and when it was said and done, he stormed off the set. He said, “Of course I regret it, that I had no iron bar in the newspaper”. Russell never cared what critics thought. He was singular in his vision. If you look at his work in the early days, the documentaries, through to the end of this career and life you’ll find thematic similarities in his films and that visual style. It never left him and he was never afraid to push people’s buttons. Guillermo Del Toro told me any film director would be envious of his thematic cohesiveness.
Did his documentary background make him too tough and independent?
Not so much. He was so confident in his abilities and someone who went through a great deal. His films were well planned, and going in they may have seemed effortless.He wanted to present his point of view and his attitude came from being supremely gifted and he didn’t suffer fools lightly.
What was the film’s fatal flaw for Warners, who virtually hid it?
Warners isn’t the thrust of the story although it is a shame they’re not putting it out there. It deserves to be seen in its full, uncut version. I’d love it if everyone could run to the bookstore, read this and go to the store and get a full uncut version of the film. He wanted it to be seen, and it’s a shame that he died. He knew about my book, he was on-board all the way and involved. But he suffered a series of strokes so his involvement lessened.
It must have been a massive undertaking over two years. Let’s crunch the numbers, how many interviews? How much detective work?
There was a huge amount of detective work, everyone in the film was middle-aged when they shot the film 41 years go. So they don’t work, they’re retired, don’t have agents. But I got Murray Melvin who played Mignon! I looked for him a number of ways and didn’t find him. Then I read on the internet that he volunteers one day a week at the theatre that gave him his start. I called the theatre every day for a month and got on a first name basis with the receptionist and eventually he was there. I got an amazing interview from him, everyone I spoke to was happy to talk about it. The only one who didn’t was Vanessa Redgrave. I was told that she spoke in public with Ken at an event and that she doesn’t really look back to her work and didn’t want to unlock all that. That speaks for itself. We found the editor, who is 91 years old and the guy who wrote the soundtrack who lives in the Orkneys off Scotland. So it was a fair amount of digging.
What did Derek Jarman, his production designer, whose films I love, say about working with Russell?
I think it wasn’t always smooth between the two of them. He has famously said he learned how not to make movies from Ken Russell but he says it with affection and love. Ken gave him his start in the movies but they butted heads. These are two idiosyncratic, powerful men. But think about it, without Ken Russell, you wouldn’t have Derek Jarman today.
The reviews are in. What’s the response?
The Hollywood Reporter loved it, and it got a great review on Popshifter.com. Online reviews have been extremely positive and that’s very gratifying to me. Before the book went to press, we sent out galley copies to filmmakers and we got replies from all of them. Terry Gilliam loved it, and David Cronenberg emailed me. One Saturday morning I checked my emails and his was there saying “Richard, this was a pure pleasure to read”. Joe Dante, John Landis, Del Toro all said it was a great and necessary book. Del Toro called me and we talked about the book. I will do more of these books. I’m too restless to do one thing. The whole idea behind building the career that I have; radio, TV, writing columns, books, broadcasting is so I don’t have to do the same thing every day. The idea of going into an office every day form 9 – 5 doesn’t work for me. For me, it’s important to spread out. There will be more books but I’m not sure what the subjects will be. If there is a story that is as rich in details as the story of the making of The Devils, I will throw myself into it.
*Rock & Roll Toronto (with John Goddard), Who Wrote the Book of Love, A Voice and A Dream, Big Bang Baby, The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Reel Winners, The Devils
Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils is now available at most major book stores.
Photo of Richard Crouse courtesy James Heaslip. Cover of Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils courtesy Gary Pullin.