"Devil's Advocates: The Devils" Book Review
Written by Rebecca McCallum
Published by Auteur Publishing
Written by Darren Arnold
2019, 120 pages, Reference
Released on 18th April 2019
Much has been written of Ken Russell’s The Devils, a provocative meditation on sex, religion and politics. It’s useful and illuminating for the book to begin with a reminder of the historical context, pointing out that with a backdrop of the Manson Murders and the Altemont Free Court tragedy, such events ushered out the free love and peace of the sixties and signified a shift to a climate of fear and apprehension. Furthermore, Arnold points out that, despite the film’s 17th century historical setting, The Devils acts as a cautionary tale of state power and in doing so it enabled audiences to identify with events rooted in their own lives such as the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Watergate. The chapter also explores how, through this historical setting, Russell creates an awareness that The Devils is based on real life events and in this sense, accentuates the horror in a way that fictionized narrations cannot.
In his second segment Authorship and Adaptation, Arnold traces the origins of The Devils by examining its two key source materials remarking how Russell drew upon Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon for historical information and upon John Whiting’s play The Devils for dialogue. What follows is a comparison of the two texts against the film. In particular, it’s interesting to read about the central figure of Urbain Grandier and the various choices made by the writers and director in order to serve their specific intentions. Derek Jarrman’s incredible set design is also given space here with Arnold observing how the cleanness of the aesthetic contributes to the timelessness of a film that allows us to project anything we choose onto the white brick background.
The impossibility of being able to neatly pigeon-hole The Devils is covered in the third chapter that focuses on genre. Here, Arnold observes how, while the film is fluid and therefore in many ways defies categorisation, it has in retrospect become more firmly associated with the horror genre. This is followed by a deeper examination of the film in the context of the genre, most notably how it is concerned with ‘man made horror’. A discussion on how the film’s ambiguity has proved problematic for distributors (who prefer films to more neatly convey ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and provide a hero to root for) is particularly engaging. This is owing to the fact that in The Devils we get neither of these things as Grandier is not a conventional hero and institutions that we should be able to trust, such as the state and church, are represented as morally questionable.
The women of the film are the subject of the chapter titled Gender and Sexuality. Here, Arnold assesses how female characters are only defined by their relationship with and response to Grandier and how certain criticisms have been levelled at Russell for what some propose to be a misogynistic film. It’s fitting then that he also uses this chapter to explore the conflicting nature of Grandier, noting that while he is able to be both a man of the church and able to satisfy his carnal desires, he is also perhaps the most well-adjusted character of the film.
In Versions and Censorship, a great deal of time and attention is given to the myriad of versions available due to censorship from The BBFC and Warner Bros, all making for a complicated film history. Here, Arnold argues that rather than being the film’s centrepiece, the infamous Rape of Christ scene does little to drive the narrative forward and in no way supersedes any other components of the film.
In drawing to a close, the chapter titled Legacy affirms that the uniqueness and timelessness of The Devils is what makes it continually relevant for modern audiences. Arnold notes that while it has been said to be ‘an influential film’ conversely it is difficult to cite the names of other works that even come close to conjuring up the aesthetic and the atmosphere of The Devils. Russell’s film is indeed particularly singular in that it exists within and outside of horror and Arnold’s book has much to offer for both newcomers and fans alike.
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