THE DEVILS (Devil’s Advocates) by Darren Arnold
Opening with engaging personal flashbacks of author Darren Arnold’s mission to seek out Ken Russell’s hugely contentious THE DEVILS (1971) within censorial 1980s Britain, this analysis of one of the most notorious major studio films of all time covers a lot of territory in its 120 page framework.
Arnold offers historical context – pondering if the picture would ever have been made in either Heath’s or Thatcher’s Britain – while making the distinction between Russell’s still-controversial film and others from the same period (STRAW DOGS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE etc) that have long been available (unlike THE DEVILS) in their uncut form. There’s a valuable comparison between the movie and both Aldous Huxley’s original book and John Whiting’s play of the same name, with Arnold contrasting Russell’s portrait of Loudon with the pestilent, shit-covered vision in the novel, while noting the humorous directorial touches that almost tips the film into MONTY PYTHON territory (complete with an appearance by ‘George’ of GEORGE AND MILDRED).
The significance of THE DEVILS emerging from the same Hollywood studio that later produced THE EXORCIST, both dealing with similar themes (and both featuring a spider walk), highlights the difference between the detached Russell (eroticising possession) and the empathetic William Friedkin (who employed a child possession victim for maximum audience manipulation). The amusing irony is noted of THE DEVILS remaining a hot potato – despite all of its implied horrors – while THE EXORCIST is now shown on TV complete with its scene of a child masturbating with a crucifix.
Elsewhere, Arnold intelligently tackles charges of misogyny aimed at Russell while considering his portrait of homosexuality and transvestism as offensive as Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. A thorough and very useful guide to THE DEVILS’ censorship history runs parallel to the author’s conclusion that the inclusion of the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence is to the picture’s detriment. This is a wholly accessible, insightful monograph about a movie that will always be the source of debate and discussion. Arnold brings things up to date by drawing comparisons between its fate and later controversial titles such as A SERBIAN FILM (significantly censored in many territories) and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST – the latter as graphically violent as any of the aforementioned films but untroubled by worldwide censorship boards.
Review by Steven West