Monday, 26 March 2012

First look at The Devils DVD

Favourite films are always the hardest to write about so I'll spare you my indelicate ramblings about Ken Russell's great masterpiece. When it comes to The Devils, I can only speak in superlatives. It's a shame that the BFI could not secure a Blu-Ray release of The Devils, but I've stopped speculating on Warners' very peculiar relationship with the film. Blu-Ray aside, the 2-disc BFI edition is about as definitive as it gets. The film itself looks stunning - it's been years since I've seen it in its original 2.35 aspect ratio, not since the Warners VHS edition released in the UK in the late '90's (as part of their Mavericks series). The DVD was sourced from an excellent print and restores some quick shots of gore during the torture sequences. Simply put The Devils has never looked and sounded so sumptuous. In addition to the fantastic presentation, the BFI have supplied some fascinating extras which I've cobbled together a few quick notes on.

Disc 1 kicks off with an audio commentary (recorded in 2002) with Ken Russell, Devils editor Michael Bradsell, Mark Kermode and Hell On Earth director Paul Joyce. I must confess I haven't had the time to listen to this yet but by all accounts it's a good one, Russell always good company for commentary tracks. Next up, are the UK and US trailers for The Devils, and both make for an interesting comparison. The UK trailer is surprisingly highbrow, and perhaps due to the film's bumpy ride through the office of the BBFC, plays down the more salacious aspects of the film. The voice-over offers a useful primer on the historical background of the film, and name drops some French scholars and writers who have studied the possession at Loudun (although strangely omits Aldous Huxley who's book provided the main source of information for Russell's screenplay). The US trailer is by contrast a little lighter, the film presented like a proto-nunspoitation drama but this time the voice-over offers a word of caution ("The Devils is not a film for everyone")

Title card from the UK trailer
US trailer
The second extra on disc 1 and perhaps the most enjoyable on the entire set is Russell's film Amelia & the Angel, a very charming 25min short about a little girl on a mission to recover a pair of angel wings in time for her nativity play. Her adventure takes her miles from home and Amelia encounters various oddball characters but finally persistence and a prayer pays off when she receives a gift from the Heavens... Made in 1958, Amelia & the Angel is remarkable in that much of Russell's signature style was already established - his imaginative use of music (a mixture of music box ditties, vaudeville tunes and classical cuts), surreal humour (a somersaulting dog) and Russell's talent with visuals. The film includes a number of striking travelling shots, some excellent location work - at one point Amelia's quest brings her to a dilapidated railway station where she meets a down on his luck circus performer, and a few magical Cocteau like touches, like a scene where Amelia encounters a strange apparition on a staircase, which turns out to be a man carrying a gown.

Mercedes Quadros as Amelia, offering up a silent prayer for a pair of angel wings

Disc 2 kicks off with Paul Joyce's excellent 48min documentary, Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of the Devils. Made in 2002 to coincide with Channel 4's one-off screening of the reconstructed director's cut of The Devils (which included the legendary Rape of Christ and bone sequences), this is a superb love-letter to Russell's film, with just about everybody involved in the production (as well as critics, commentators and then BBFC examiner Ken Penry) gathered together to share their memories. One of the more interesting participants in the documentary is a Catholic priest who worked for the Legion of Decency, and his comments on the Rape of Christ sequence (which he feels is an integral and justified part of the film) are particularly illuminating. Some of the anecdotes are priceless, like Russell beating critic Alexander Walker over the head with a copy of the Evening Standard on a TV talkshow, after Walker's put-down of the film. Elsewhere Vanessa Redgrave admits the gooey concoction she is forced to ingest during her exorcism was in fact soup, extras recall the joie de vivre of being a naked nun, and Russell remembers botching the cue for a explosion effect, which allows actor Murray Melvin the funniest line in the documentary. Incidentally, Paul Joyce had to recut his film when Warners this time refused permission to show the Rape of Christ sequence in the documentary - originally the sequence was seen in its entirety in the documentary, but now only a fragment of it remains (as well as quick edit of the bone sequence). It's not a major loss by any means, and Joyce compensates by extending some of the interviews but if you have a copy of the documentary in its original form, it's worth hanging onto.

A reunion of devils - left to right, DP David Watkin, Murray Melvin, Ken Russell, actress Georgina Hale and Mark Kermode, from the Hell on Earth documentary
Next up is a fascinating 22min promotional film entitled Director of Devils filmed during the production of the film, and featuring Russell en route to the set discussing his reasons for making the film. There's also some terrific footage of Russell choreographing extras and shooting scenes with Oliver Reed. Best of all is some footage of composer Peter Maxwell Davies recording the film's extraordinary score, the players armed appropriately enough with a battery of strange and exotic musical instruments and devices.

A youthful looking Peter Maxwell Davies recording The Devils fiery score
More footage of the production is seen in Michael Bradsell's silent 8mm footage shot around the Pinewood set, included here with a commentary from Bradsell. Some of this invaluable footage was incorporated into the Hell On Earth documentary but much of it has not been seen before. Bradsell camera catches gangs of set decorators working on Derek Jarman's huge sets, and actors and crew preparing to film the Blackbird sequence, while Bradsell points out some key personnel such as Russell's then wife and collaborator Shirely. This footage runs just 8min but is fascinating nonetheless.

Ken Russell in relaxed humour shooting at Pinewood gardens
The final extra on the DVD is a 13min Q&A with Ken Russell and Mark Kermode filmed at the NFT in 2004. Russell appears in good form and discusses his love of classical music (citing Prokofiev's 1927 opera The Fiery Angel as a key influence), the suppression of his 1970 Strauss biopic Dance of the Seven Veils, and his Catholic faith. It's not a terribly important piece but it's a worthwhile addition.

Finally, the DVD set comes with an excellent 44-page booklet featuring essays on The Devils, a fine piece on Derek Jarman's contribution to the film, tributes to Ken Russell and Oliver Reed, and the BBFC's Craig Lapper provides a detailed account of The Devils long and troubled history with the Board. All said, this BFI DVD is a magnificent and revelatory package for fans of The Devils who have waited years to see Russell's masterwork get the digital treatment. My highest recommendation.


  1. This sounds like a near-as-dammit definitive DVD release so goes on the must see list, especially (to my continuing shame) I still haven't seen the film yet...
    I'm also kicking myself because I missed a major retrospective of his work in London. Check out the link, Wes - can't believe it completely passed me by!

  2. Oh wow, that looks fantastic. What a shame. Having said that, only the steeliest of people could withstand a full blown Russell retro, and not end up a quivering wreck. Jon I envy you that you havn't seen the film yet. Without hyping it into the stratosphere, it is (along with Performance) one of the most dazzling British films ever made.

  3. Great run down there Wes. I actually listened to the commentary last night (well the first hour, I plan to finish it tonight). It is good and Ken's on form, but I was getting a little irked with Kermode's moderating which sometimes erred on the irritatingly naive, but it's a small quibble.

    Looking forward to the doc with Peter Maxwell Davies, as this is one of those scores that I'd love to have, but will never see the light of day.

    I saw Amelia and the Angel a couple of years ago when The Guardian gave a DVD of shorts away from famous directors (Tony Scott & ridley Scott were on there too). It is indeed a wonderful little film and like you rightly observe is a good example of Ken's already formidable talents as a visual storyteller.

  4. Hey Phil...yep, I plan to squeeze the commentary in at some point this week. I must say I like Kermode, I think he's done an awful lot to legitimize Cult Cinema in the eyes of mainstream audiences, and I'm all for that. And I generally like conceited opinionated film critics. A friend of mine hasn't much time for him and I remember someone on a board somewhere someone causing a fuss over the BFI putting his name of the cover of The Devils DVD, as if he was Paul Ross of the News of the World. I couldn't figure that one out...

  5. Wes, I've always liked Kermode too but he increasingly irritates me on his radio show, talk about doing flogging an idea to death. Anyway, I really enjoyed this post, while The Devils has never been a favourite of mine (I saw it at a fairly young age where it meant little to me) you've got me all psyched up to see it again, and I am adding it to my rental queue as I type.

  6. Yeh, I don't really mind Kermode and there's no denying he knows his stuff, and he does make me laugh from time to time, I just felt his prodding of Ken verges on the unnecessary quite a lot during the commentary.
    He's done more to publicly champion The Devils than anyone else in the UK, his name and blurb deserve to grace the sleeve.

  7. I really enjoyed this write up, Wes. 'The Devils' is a film I really need to revaluate. All the buzz about this new DVD release is giving me a hankering to do just that. I think I'll be watching it very soon.

    And for the record, I agree with you about Kermode. He has done a lot of good for cult cinema helping mainstream audiences sit up and take notice.

    By the way, are you still getting my updates in your reading list?

  8. I sure am Dave, no worries there. I'm hoping to grab a screening of Last House on Dead End Street before I read your piece on the film. I will pop over later to read your post on Ms. 45 - another great selection !

  9. Can't wait to revisit this, especially for the first time in full widescreen - I still have the Warners Mavericks VHS, and it's only letterboxed to 16:9. I remember being thoroughly annoyed at the time! It was (I'm fairly sure) the same version BBC2 premiered as part of some Extreme or Banned Cinema season around about the same time.

    Ha, I remember Alex Cox introducing The Music Lovers on Moviedrome many moons ago, talking about The Devils - his comment was "they don't make films like that anymore, and you're not going to see it uncut on TV anytime in the next five thousand years"!

  10. You're absolutely right Jez, The X-rated Devils played as part of the Moviedrome spin-off Forbidden Weekend. If I remember rightly they showed a slightly longer version of Performance as well, (than what was available at the time on VHS), not significantly longer but restoring some trims to the flaggelation scences. That weekend also featured among other films, El Topo, Soceity, Bad Taste, and Bergman's The Silence - it seems unthinkable now that BBC would show a Bergman film - Cinema on TV was so much better pre-DVD...

    A list of films which played on Moviedrome can be viewed here