Raising Hell: The Unmaking of Ken Russell’s The Devils by Richard Crouse (2012): Fascinating account by the ubiquitous Crouse about Ken Russell’s The Devils, possibly the most controversial film ever released by a major studio. And I was fascinated even though I, like a lot of people, have never actually seen the movie.
Russell was a stylistic iconoclast in even his most pedestrian films, but never moreso than in The Devils, which adapted a non-fiction-based Aldous Huxley book about a possession frenzy in a 17th-century French nunnery into a metaphysical and carnal horror story about faith and politics.
Widely reviled by critics and moral pillars alike when first released in 1971, The Devils was cut and recut by the studio afterwards. Today, I’m pretty sure it’s still impossible to get a non-bootleg director’s cut of the film. Puritanical Warner Brothers has spent 40 years trying to pretend the film doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, it’s a cult film among viewers and film-people alike, as testimonials in this book to its greatness from Alex Cox, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and many others show.
Crouse also does a solid job of demonstrating how studios have changed since 1971, and not for the better in an artistic sense: no major studio would even think about making or releasing an expensive, controversial ‘Art’ film like The Devils today. The blockbuster mentality has pushed most movies that aspire to do something more than sell action figures to the fringes, while ‘serious’ studio movies must be dignified or feel-good in their quasi-artistic pretensions. Because as we all know, mental illness can be cured by ballroom dancing. David Cronenberg taught us that in Spider. Oh, wait a minute, no he didn’t.
If there is such a thing as an auteur, Russell was one, though Crouse does a fine job of laying out the necessity of Russell’s collaborators, most especially the protean wild-man actor Oliver Reed and set designer (and later director) Derek Jarman. Man, I really want to see The Devils now. Highly recommended.