in Review, Shocktober

The Devils (1971)

Welcome to another year of SHOCKTOBER on Mildly Pleased! This year’s theme is POSSESSION! You know it’s a good one because I’m using all caps! Why possession? Dude, look around you. A new Evil Dead came out this year, Talk to Me became A24’s highest-grossing horror movie, The Pope’s Exorcist is a thing, and so on. So, we got a few weeks of classics, cult classics, and a few movies that would probably be better if they were left buried. But hey, man, this is Shocktober, which means we’re digging ’em up! Because the power of Christ compels us to!

Almost a decade ago, I stumbled across Fangoria Magazine’s “Top 300 Horror Movies” of all time. As a genre fan with a completionist drive, Fangoria’s 2010 list was for many years my horror movie roadmap. Though eventually, my attention wandered from the list. Which wasn’t hard considering the decade that followed the list was, and still is, in my opinion, the second greatest decade for horror after the 1980s. Get Out, It Follows, Hereditary, Train to Busan, there’s no doubt that all of these films (to name a few) would unseat films from the original list. So why rely on something so outdated?

Yet here I am talking about “The Devils.” Meaning the list still has some power over me. Still, I wonder… If Fangoria were to redo the list in 2023, would Ken Russell’s 1971 period piece still nab a spot? Does this grisly retelling of the fall of 17th Century French Catholic Priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) deserve to stand alongside The Babadook and Pennywise in the Hallowed Hall of Horror? Or should the film be banished to an eternity in hellfire? Let’s find out.

I was weighing whether or not to read more about the event this film is based on. Considering I am a lazy man, I’ll go strictly off what I learned about this horrific event from Ken Russell. The Devils is the story of Urbain Grandier, a respected and popular (especially with the ladies 😉 ) priest in Loudon, France, working under the corrupt Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue).

Busy running the city (after the death of the Governor), Grandier is unaware that the mother superior of a local convent, Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), is sexually obsessed with him. Sister Jeanne asks Grandier to become the confessor for her convent, which he agrees to, only for her heart to be broken by Grandier when he falls in love with another woman named Madeleine (Gemma Jones).

How does Sister Jeanne get back at Grandier? By claiming Grandier practices witchcraft and uses his black magic to possess her. Believing Grandier has used his powers to possess the other nuns as well, an inquisitor, Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard), is brought in to perform exorcisms. In a panic, the nuns strip down and masturbate with crosses and, you know, other weird stuff. Sexual repression, man.

Grandier gets blamed for all this devil nonsense and is then tortured and put on trial until he confesses to being a servant of Satan. Which he refuses. Knowing how history works, I think you can tell this doesn’t end well for Grandier. So, I’ll keep it at that.

The Devils is a downer of a movie. A downer in that its main character has no way of escaping his dark fate. What is interesting to watch, though, is how people in power can weaponize religion to maintain that power. In the case of Grandier, the church saw a charismatic figure that they deemed a threat to their methods, so they “took care of him.”

Reed is a powerhouse as Grandier. Honestly, if this wasn’t an explicit avant-garde horror film, he could have won an Oscar as the doomed priest. He screams and cries and carries himself with a weight that few talents of his time could. Everyone is good in this film. Vanessa Redgrave, who I didn’t mention, is also a hunchback in the film, terrifies in disturbing monologues as the lovelorn Sister Jeanne.

Then there’s Ken Russell. Alright, the guy was a sicko, but I’ll give it to him; he knows scary. Earlier, I mentioned an orgy scene, and let me tell you, it’s not sexy. Just envision a camera that whips across screaming women as they writhe over the floor in abstract sets torn from a gothic art installation. Russell knows how to infuse the past with the excess of the 1970s, and his talent shines through in the sets, costumes, and rich performances.

Does The Devils deserve a spot on Fangoria’s “Top 300 Horror Movies”? Absolutely. If not for the fact that it feels unique from your typical horror movie. This is horror drawn from a real place. A fear of the unknown, an insecurity, a jealousy. Urbain Grandier was thought to be in cahoots with devils, but like, who are the real devils, ya know? Imagine I’m holding up a mirror at you.