The Devils was made by Ken Russell, who was then only an emergent name, with a number of acclaimed tv dramatisations of classical artists and composers biographies, and four films, including his celebrated adaptation of D.H. Lawrences Women in Love (1970) and his Tchaikovsky biography The Music Lovers (1971), to his name. The Devils is one of the finest of Ken Russells films. Throughout his films, Russell takes a schoolboyish delight in courting outrage. The Devils is filled with typically Russell-esque touches self-flagellating nuns, piles of rotting plague victims and corpses tied to wheels, sexual fantasies of nuns fucking Jesus Christ, and nun mass orgies. Of all of Ken Russells films, The Devils is one that contains his outrages within a plot. There is a beautifully literate script the dialogue positively sings at times. The surprise is that it is from the pen of Russell himself, although one suspects based on the relative hamfistedness of many other Russell-penned scripts, that this more due to Russell preserving the essence of John Whitings play intact than any writing of his own.
The Devils makes for fascinating comparison when placed up against The Exorcist (1973), which came out two years later. (The two would make a great double-bill). The Exorcist held that demonic possession was real and actual and that the Catholic Church was just and holy in stamping it out. On the other hand, The Devils holds the view that demon possession was a product of hysteria, that it was formed out of sexual repression and was brutally stamped out by a corrupt Church either as a tool of oppression or by insanely deluded fools. In fact, rather than a possession story like The Exorcist, The Devils comes out closer to Arthur Millers The Crucible (1954) about an innocent persecuted by frenzy and hysteria. The contrast between the two films is remarkable. The alarming thing for those frightened into believing in the existence of demons by The Exorcist is that of the two The Devils is based on historical truth.
There is a lot of greatness to the film. Oliver Reed considered Grandier his finest role and he is at his most sexually charismatic. The production design, whereby the entire town of Loudon, even the convent, has been built out of white brick tiling, such that the film seems to be taking place inside a giant antiseptic sanitarium, is striking. [The production designer is no less than later-to-be arthouse director Derek Jarman see The Tempest (1979)].
Ken Russells other films of genre interest are: the spy film Billion Dollar Brain (1967); the deranged and surreal adaptation of The Whos rock opera Tommy (1975); the mind-bending sf film Altered States (1980); the psycho-sexual thriller Crimes of Passion (1984); Gothic (1987), centred around the events leading up to the inspiration for Mary Shelleys writing Frankenstein; the campy Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm (1988); Mindbender (1996), a biopic of the psychic fake Uri Geller; The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002), Russells demented home movie take on Edgar Allan Poe; and an episode of the horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006).