An aspect that becomes particularly relevant as we follow the films that are considered controversial and shocking, is that they are not all necessarily designed to be classified as horror films. In abundance are the films that were created without any sense of the word horror, yet through their subject matter have garnered a notorious reputation for themselves as something that is “extreme” and therefore they get put on the iMBD lists alongside the likes of Slaughtered Vomit Dolls. This change in scenery for the film isn’t always a negative connotation, as it often opens the film up to more recognition and helps a wider audience discover and share with like-minded cinephiles.
In July 1971 the UK found itself outraged by a film that was trying to make its way out into the wide world, this was a historical drama film called The Devils, which came from director Ken Russell. Set in 17th century France, we follow Father Grandier who is a priest with a rather dedicated following and a chastised coven of nuns, all of whom are mesmerised by his unorthodox and very liberal views on sex and religion, which are typically two bodies not to be conjoined. Cardinal Richelieu will do everything in his power to feed his need for authority and to rule, which means he must find a way to completely decimate Grandier and take control for himself. In order to do this, he devises a malicious plan to campaign against Grandier on the terms that he is a satanist who rapes, molests and abuses the nuns in his coven for his own sexual perversions.
When the film was first brought to the British Board of Film Classification, the immediate problems came from the marriage of sexual violence and religion. How could they possibly allow such lewd and blasphemic images to present themselves onto the large screen? It would seem that Russell has presented them with a case that was almost laughable. At the exact time when the film was passed over for certification, the BBFC were under a lot of pressure from conservative groups, that would never have allowed for something so demeaning to be shown to the public. Therefore Russell was informed that in order for the film to pass with an X certification, available to those of 18 years or older, he would have to strip scenes back and make some cuts to entire sequences. Russell did what he could, and then the studio made the further cuts before handing The Devils back over to the BBFC for their classification.
It comes as no surprise that the BBFC were having problems with this film when it first landed in their hands of fate. The Devils focuses on a theme that will always be seen as controversial, even until this day where we live in a society that is much less led by religion and has become more open in terms of the commandments around religion. The audience are presented with these nuns that are afflicted with lust for their priest; they want him to fill their inner most desires and take them with more passion than Christ had. They want to feel him inside their untouched bodies, and succumb to his seed of power, representation and holiness. By representing nuns as ruled by their own sexual urges and needs, it meant there would be a lot of backlash because it is an outrageous move to even suggest that such pure and holy trinities could ever let their human instincts get the better of them, especially when God is watching their every move.
But Russell wanted to show this shocking movement to the audience, and what’s even more unfathomable is the fact that Russell himself was a “devout Catholic and very secure in my faith.” and therefore it seemed impossible that he would want to make a film that showed imagery of religion and sex. However, this was a film inspired by The Devils of Loudun from Aldous Huxley, that is based upon historical facts that detail how one priest was executed for sins he did not commit due to someone having an insatiable appetite for power and doing whatever they could to ensure they fed that hunger. Therefore it seemed that this film was less about the religious aspects and more about the telling of corruption in a political sense, and how it is very easy to completely defame an upstanding member’s name with a mixture of hearsay and false confessions from a supposedly vulnerable person.
In The Devils, it is clear that Grandier has an affliction towards his sexual tendencies, in the first few scenes we see him embroiled in coitus with the relative (it could be presumed she is perhaps his daughter or niece) of another Priest, which shows that although religious, Grandier is open-minded and liberal when it comes to his views on fornication. Sister Jeanne des Anges is depraved in her obsessions for Grandier; she is overwhelmingly infatuated with his very presence and becomes consumed with jealousy when she learns that he has married another woman and does not extend his affections towards her. Sister Jeanne becomes the basis for which the downfall of Grandier begins, as she acts as informant to those trying to overrule Grandier and she tells them about his marriage, his affairs, his fuckeries and how he has become bewitched by the Devil himself.
The exploitation of nuns is what really makes this film so controversial; not only are they diseased with their own sexual compulsions, but they are abused by the Cardinal and his minions in order to make them become delusional and seem as if they are possessed. It is a constant throughout the film that the nuns are exposed in flesh and in mind to be used as pawns in a game of power that will never give them any justice. There is one scene in which the nuns are frolicking naked and partake in a moaning, writhing orgy in a house of holiness, which culminates in them sexually assaulting an alter. These scenes of fornication, femininity and desire are still to this day considered as highly problematic as nuns are the epitome of non-sexualised beings who dedicate their souls to the Lord, and do not even entertain the idea that they may have an animalistic craving to be united in a passionate embrace.
The Devils continues to shock and disturb the audience with scenes of exorcisms of the nuns, some of which include forced enemas, and the torture and subsequent execution of Father Grandier at the hands of the atrocious Cardinal and his lackies who have committed more sins that anyone. Russell created a disgraceful duality of showing these scenes of lust, abuse and violence in a highly religious setting which is the reason why The Devils has earned itself such a recognisable prominence not only in cinematic history but more particularly within the history of extreme and controversial cinema. It is not a film that can harmoniously kneel alongside the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because it was not designed to be a horror film that frightened and disgusted the audience. The Devils is a political film that exposes the truths behind pre-occupations with power, and the committal to gain said power through any violent, sadistic and immoral needs that must. Although it is horrific in its nature, and notoriously controversial for this, it is a piece of cinema that could sit alongside Saló or A Clockwork Orange because it depicts a story that can be reflected onto many societies and communities that we see today. This cinematic masterpiece is a slither of history that happens to exploit the sexuality of normal humans who have been bound, gagged and restrained by religion itself for selfish gains by those reckoned with a devotion to power and control only.