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RAISING HELL: KEN RUSSELL AND THE UNMAKING OF THE DEVILS
By RICHARD CROUSE (ECW Press; 2012)

In my view this is one of the very few essential movie making-of books, seeing as how it tells the story of one of the standout films of the 1970s: Ken Russell's delirious 1971 masterpiece THE DEVILS. That film has been profiled a fair amount over the years (see the 2002 BBC documentary HELL ON EARTH), but the full story of its conception, filming and ultimate undoing has remained untold until now.

     THE DEVILS was based on a series of alleged demonic possessions that afflicted 27 nuns in a French commune back in 1634 (related in Aldous Huxley's 1952 docu-novel DEVILS OF LOUDON and John Whiting's 1961 theatrical adaptation of same). As recorded in this book, the making of THE DEVILS was nearly as outrageous as the events that inspired it, with scenes of near-pornographic outrage that apparently took quite a toll on the performers, situated amid amazing sets designed by future filmmaker Derek Jarman and subject to the constant mood swings of the famously mercurial Russell.

     The real outrage, however, is what occurred after shooting was completed. Warner Brothers execs ordered a mass of edits, including that of one of the film's most important bits, the so-called "Rape of Christ" sequence that was removed from all prints of THE DEVILS. Even today the film exists only in mutilated form, with an uncut print existing somewhere in Warner Brothers’ studio vaults that executives steadfastly refuse to release. For that matter, the film has yet to show up on DVD in any form in the US, which if this book is to be believed is far from accidental. THE DEVILS, in other words, is the only controversial big studio release of the early 1970s (others include A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, PERFORMANCE and THE EXORCIST) that remains as reviled today as when it was initially released.

     Author Richard Crouse relates this strange and maddening saga in engaging fashion, with quite a few revealing anecdotes about the film and the controversy surrounding it (such as the televised encounter with Russell and windbag critic Alexander Walker that ended with the latter getting whacked in the head with a newspaper). Also included are testimonies by many prominent writers and filmmakers about their love of the film (although I'm not sure the concluding interview with Guillermo del Toro adds much), an account of the decades-long search for the Rape of Christ footage, and even some coverage of the 2005 DVDr version of the film that represents the closest thing there is to an uncut version. You may think, as I did, that you know everything there is to know about THE DEVILS, but with this book Richard Crouse unquestionably has the last word. 

     

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