Shortly before getting the extremely rare and in many eyes unenviable task of interviewing cantankerous, visionary British director Ken Russell on stage in front of a sold out crowd at the Bloor Cinema, CTV and NewsTalk 1010 critic and personality Richard Crouse heard some worrisome news from none other that frequent Dork Shelf collaborator Phil Brown. Apparently, only hours earlier Phil had interviewed Russell about the upcoming screening of his long suppressed and censored 1971 historical epic The Devils, only to have his questions answered in single words and short sentences. It’s death to read on the page and even worse if the then 83 year old filmmaker clammed up in front of a crowd. An awkward, almost silent dinner between the two of them nearly gave Crouse the fits, but once in front of an appreciative crowd, the seemingly reticent Russell roared back to life.
With such a personal connection to Russell and the material, it’s no surprise that Crouse was able to pull together a wealth of enthusiastically relayed information to write Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils (ECW Press, $19.95). With a particularly keen eye for both film and world history, Crouse creates a wonderful primer on controversial filmmaking and the definitive go-to resource for anyone looking to know more about one of the most divisive films from one of the world’s most colourful talents.
Drawing inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s trippy novel The Devils of Loudon and a stage version of the book’s true life inspiration from John Witing, Russell re-teamed with known hard partier Oliver Reed for a go-for-broke look at the true life account of an alleged mass possession in Western France in 1634. Blending sometimes aberrant sexuality and Grand Guignol styled hysteria, Reed was tapped to play controversial figure Father Grandier as a raging id that might have been at the heart of what might have been one of the world’s first elaborate hoaxes designed to lure unsuspecting tourists.
Not having too much of a notoriously troubled production to give him a lot of unnecessary dirt, Crouse spends the first half of the book discussing Russell’s thought process and his interactions to those around him. The relationship between the constantly hungry, oddly professional, and self-destructive Reed and the former photographer turned movie maker gets placed in an interesting light. In Crouse’s take, Reed sounds more like a casually assured and slightly aloof badass rather than as much of an actor, while Russell sounds much more academic than a single viewing of the film would suggest. He’s still the obstinate bastard who would set fires and blast aggressive music on set to get actors in the mood, but he wasn’t nearly the tyrant ruling a sinking ship that the film’s reputation would suggest.
On the production side of things, Crouse gets to espouse at some length about the talents of unsung heroes production designer Derek James – whose stark whites and purposeful anachronisms give the movie a certain sense of authorial weight – and composer Sir Peter Davies who cut his teeth on Russell’s film before coming an official musical advisor to the Queen. The bits and pieces of the work around Russell elevate Crouse’s story to more than a simplistic lamentation of what’s largely become a “lost film.”
But readers will most likely want to skip right ahead to the most infamous parts of the production, all having to deal with Russell’s fights with rating’s boards and with his studio, Warner Brothers. Crouse more than adequately describes a filmmaking climate in the early 1970s that could allow a film like The Devils to be made by a major studio and in the same year as similarly controversial productions like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. While talking about how the film, and its numerous cuts (including the still infamous “Rape of Christ” orgy sequence) vastly changed the tone of Russell’s film, Crouse speaks to quite a few of Russell’s contemporaries, fans and colleagues (including Guillermo del Toro, Rod Lurie, and a particularly insightful William Friedkin, whose adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist would cause far less of a shit storm for Warner Brothers only a few years later) to look at the nature of art and what happens when an artist’s vision comes into direct opposition to a volatile Vietnam War based political climate and to thousands of years of established religious dogma. It was an era where studios had no idea what their audiences wanted, but they knew that too few people wanted anything at all like The Devils.
Crouse not only tells the reader all the little things people might not know about a film they might not see, but he also provides necessary context to show how the production was borne from a brilliant mind as a result of a culture of madness and disillusionment. In the book’s waning pages, Crouse also intriguingly doesn’t praise the film, but he rather reinforces critic Mark Kermode’s efforts (despite not being a huge fan of the film) to restore the film to Russell’s original vision since many complaints levied against the film. It shows the critic’s dual purpose as an advocate for art despite possibly never understanding it, and towards the end it becomes an indirectly personal take on the nature of his own job. To date, most of the footage that has been excised from any official releases of the film remains in a Warner Brothers vault somewhere, simply wasting away. With the help of people like Crouse and Kermode, that will hopefully change in the near future.
Much like how The Devils will hover like a ghost over Russell’s filmography, the late director’s spirit looms large over Crouse’s recitation of facts and anecdotes. Russell was never one for bullshit, and Crouse never once indulges in any himself. Like a far less volatile Oliver Reed, Crouse seems like quite the kindred spirit to the man he once had to prepare speaking to by never saying a word at all.