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The Devils (Devil’s Advocates) by Darren Arnold review – a potted history of Russell’s controversial masterpiece

The Devils is Ken Russell’s notorious 1971 historical drama telling the extraordinary story of a case of possession in 17th century France, in the city of Loudun. I start with possession because, were this any other story, that would be the most extraordinary part. But this isn’t a film about possession; it is a film about the dangers of religion and politics colliding, and it’s message is as resonant today as it was on release (and on publication of the Aldous Huxley book, The Devils of Loudun from 1952, on which the film is partly based).

The Devils (Devil's Advocates) by Darren Arnold book cover
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This analysis by Darren Arnold is one in an ever-increasing series of books analysing classic – and modern classic – horror films, published by Auteur Publishing, with a great number more on the horizon. The only other book I have read so far in the series is Jessica Gildersleeve’s analysis of Don’t Look Now, which I interviewed her about earlier in the year for the podcast. These books are slim, coming in at little over 100 pages, which makes it all the more important that the right themes and elements are focused on, or at least the most interesting. I don’t think Arnold’s volume quite manages that, and I’ll explain why.

The Devils courted much controversy, even before release, the rough-cut being censored not only by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) but by its own studio, Warner Brothers. Even when finally approved with an X certificate there were calls for it to be banned, in the UK as well as the US, where an even more cut version was being shown. This all led to a scarcity – the film has hard to see in cinemas and next to impossible to find on video. And if you did find a video copy, you’d be watching the heavily-edited and compromised US version of the film. This all lends, quite conveniently, to the mythos attached to the The Devils, in a similar but more minor way to the reputation The Exorcist had gathered up until it’s eventual release on video in the UK in the late 90s. Arnold’s introduction to this book begins with this context and establishes his own personal connection with the film.

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The first chapter concerns itself with historical context. As alluded to in the introduction, The Devils was a controversial film and was shocking to audiences in the early seventies. Some of this, Arnold writes, is due to the blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy – it was becoming more difficult to separate “real-life violence and on-screen entertainment”. Though The Devils can be seen very much as a product of 1971 – uncomfortable parallels can be drawn between the film’s events and the Troubles in Northern Island, a conflict fuelled by both religion and politics, for example – the film’s legacy is enduring and, largely, there is nothing to mark it out as a “nostalgia trip for present-day audiences”.

This fascinating beginning of the book helps us understand more about the themes of the film and to better read it – and though chapter four (“Themes”) does dig deeper, I feel too much of the book concerns itself with the surrounding themes and subjects or focuses on the aspects of the film that just aren’t the most interesting. Chapter two, for instance, compares The Devils against its two primary sources: Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun and John Whiting’s 1961 play The Devils. There is much here to be enjoyed, but spending so much time exploring all the ways in which The Devils differs from its source materials doesn’t tell us much about the film, especially as Arnold can only speculate as to the reasons, if indeed there are any. I’ve come away knowing more about Huxley and Whiting’s works than I probably needed to in a book of this size.

But the film very much remains, in essence, as it begins – a historical drama, not being eclipsed by, but rather dovetailing neatly with, its horror elements, which are something of a natural by-product. p59

The third chapter discusses genre – how The Devils is both a horror and not a horror film, or at least, much wider than just a horror film. It is also a film that has only really become a horror film in retrospect – at the time Arnold wasn’t known for horror, nor was it presented or marketed as a horror film: “The Devils…initially received wide distribution and was thrust on an unsuspecting audience lacking any meaningful reference point for categorising the film”. This discussion is useful for anyone interested in what makes horror horror – especially for this site, as we try and give us much airtime as possible to works that don’t entirely classify as “horror” – and Arnold brings in other films of the decade to use as comparisons, such as The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Fascinatingly, the Loudon exorcism is directly referenced in William Peter Blatty’s novel, where we’re told “the exorcists themselves at times became victims of possession”, a fate that goes on to befall Father Karras.

Chapters four (“Themes”) and five (Gender and Sexuality”) deepen our understanding of the film, but the closing chapters (six, “Versions and Censorship” and seven, “Legacy”) bring us again away from the film into discussions either not overtly interesting (as is the case with the pages discussing the various versions of the film that have existed between 1971 and 2019) or, as with “Legacy”, discussing films other than The Devils.

It isn’t that these peripheral subjects aren’t (always) interesting or important to someone researching The Devils, but for a book this short, I would have preferred greater time spent discussing the film – exactly why is The Devils the masterpiece it is? Nevertheless, none of these criticisms take away from the fact this is an engaging and well-researched book that will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the film that played a significant part in making Ken Russell, in the words of Mark Kermode, “one of the giants of British cinema.”

The Devils (Devil’s Advocates) by Darren Arnold is published by Auteur Publishing. Buy the book

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