Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece ranks as one of my favourite films of all-time and the opportunity to see it on the big screen with a Fantastic Fest audience was not one I was about to pass up. Add to the fact that the film was being introduced by Ben Wheatley, director of A Field In England (also screening at the festival) and cited as one of the primary influences on his film, the stage was set for a truly unique experience.
What we saw was the official US theatrical version, which sadly meant it was missing a couple of the film’s more notorious moments, which have only recently been restored in the UK, but the rare 35mm print looked great and the audience lapped it up with reverent enthusiasm. To my delight I discovered that for at least one friend I was sitting with, it was their first time seeing the film, which only added to the magic of the occasion.
However you see The Devils, it is a film that never fails to offend, enthrall and enrapture its audience. Oliver Reed oozes charisma as the debonair priest, Grandier, whose womanising and sex appeal sends the nuns of the neighbouring convent into raptures whenever he goes near them. Sadly this proves his undoing, as the deformed, embittered and ferociously frustrated Sister Jeanne (an incredible Vanessa Redgrave) takes out her own issues by fingering Grandier to the inquisition, and so begins a horrifying series of tortures and trials as Grandier is held up on charges of witchcraft as the bogus cardinals exact their revenge to take control of the city.
From Derek Jarman’s startling sets, to the over-the-top performance from Michael Gothard as a Godspell style rockstar witch hunter, who encourages the entire convent to indulge their pent-up sexual urges and place the blame on Grandier. It’s all a power play to win control of the walled city of Loudun, and proves an outrageously unique cinematic spectacle.