“How else is one to approach a historical episode involving humpbacked, sexually frustrated nuns; crippled autocrats; hammer-wielding exorcists; doctors armed with holy water enemas?”
The early 1970s was a heroic age for filmmakers wanting to push the envelope. With so much going wrong around them, audiences seemed to be of two minds about what they wanted on screen. On the one hand, they sought nostalgia in a supposedly simple time by making The Waltons, Paper Moon, and American Graffiti hits. On the other hand, they were willing to pay good money to view post-Hays Code ugliness enacted in such films as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Devils, and the more secular but still equally unsettling Dirty Harry.
Among these four, Russell’s extremely loose 1971 adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s study of a mass possession episode in 17th-century France endures as the most horrifying. Unlike The Exorcist, they are no actual possessions in the film; all of the naked, cavorting, contorting nuns are pantomiming what they think the authorities and swelling crowds want them to do. Nevertheless, the film is more shocking than Friedkin’s. Scenes stay with one longer than the head-swiveling, bull-bellowing Linda Blair — and not just the obviously sensational ones like Father Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) feet being crushed during an interrogation session. Facial expressions are just as disquieting, for example, the King’s feral look at Cardinal Richelieu’s emphasis on church partnering with state, or the chief exorcist grinning like a randy goat at his fellow conspirator as nuns grope him.
For some reason, comedy enhances the horror. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene where the King is shooting Protestants dressed as birds (his comment, “Bye-bye black bird” is so creepy it makes readers forget how out of context the line is); or Oliver Reed parrying the blade of an outraged father with a crocodile. Life is cheap in 17th-century France: corpses are dumped like so many logs into lye pits; skeletons of heretics still hang from torture instruments. To torture someone or treat him as disposable is cruel; to do both while joking is worse. This combination reaches its peak as Oliver Reed, shaven and bloodied, crawls gratefully toward his execution while around him a carnival celebrating his death goes on. The audience, the biggest turnout in Loudon’s history according to Huxley, chants, dances, drinks, and simulates sex.
Russell was accused then and now of bad taste. But how else is one to approach a historical episode involving humpbacked, sexually frustrated nuns; crippled autocrats; hammer-wielding exorcists; doctors armed with holy water enemas?
Huxley took the side of the defendant, the doomed Urban Grandier, the focus of the humpbacked nun’s anger and lust and the obstacle to Cardinal Richlieu’s plans to demolish Loudon’s walls, and so does Russell. With his long hair and seventies’ sideburns, Reed as Grandier resembles one of those New Left religious figures who somehow found scriptural backing for the slogan “make love not war.” Later in life, Huxley claimed the hysteria among the nuns was genuine and the result of hallucinations induced by rye bread. Russell will have none of this theory. The nuns belief that they were possessed does not fit into his thesis of collusion with the state in crushing a dissident.
The Devils — which, tellingly, remains officially unavailable on DVD almost 40 years after its release — stands the test of time because it captures the energy of an era when moviemakers were allowed creative freedom. Today, with horror movies shooting for the lowest common denominator (one can now predict when the villain will appear just by the camera doing a close-up of the victim and a darkened corner just over their shoulder), The Devils is that rarity: a literate, comedic horror film.