There’s a scene in Ken Russell’s long-controversial, rarely-screened-in-its-entirety film, The Devils, wherein Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) riotously exclaims, “Don’t look at me! Look at your city! If your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also. If you would remain free men, fight. Fight them or become their slaves.” By the time this speech unfolds, we have seen Grandier become the victim of Otherness, a martyr to hypocrisy and the lies of men, and an image of what it means to push the limits of social acceptance. For a film that has been accused of various levels of indecency for over four decades – where The Devils now lacks in its ability to shock via its viscera or willingness to expose pubic hair to the masses, it manages to shock in its capacity to mirror both the ideology of the time in which it was produced, as well as our own. It’s not often that a film which takes place in the 17th century can be considered prescient.
And perhaps the biggest irony of The Devils now comes in its availability to be seen. Soon after a string of US 35mm shows – Chicago in 2016, Yonkers, Boston and Brooklyn in 2017 – horror streaming service Shudder casually announced via Twitter that Russell’s film is now streaming. They billed it as “unrated” and “banned” – both claims of which aren’t wrong – but the news soon spread that the version available to stream, the most accessible it has ever been in the US, was “uncut.” Long a Holy Grail of cinema for many, seeing The Devils truly uncut in 2017 is as hard to believe as it is likely to be possible. And, no, what’s on Shudder is not uncut.
By now, any fan of Russell or The Devils is well aware of its troublesome road to screen and, subsequently, home video both domestic and international. And you’d think that the very notion of the film appearing (without much warning) on a massively available, $5 a month, streaming service would be a red flag – but this news, however unverified it was, started spreading like wildfire especially on horror devoted sits like Dread Central and blogs like Pissed Off Geek, but even major publications bought into the hype – like Joblo, who do manage to state that it isn’t uncut in their article, but that didn’t stop them from using the same misleading headline as many others.
What shows in most articles, social media posts and message board arguments since the news is a misunderstanding of how The Devils came to be, what the various cuts are and how accessible those cuts are in 2017 – 46 years after the film was initially released. And, to be fair, it’s a convoluted mess. And those NTSC to PAL conversion rates don’t really help. The current BFI DVD is the most complete version that has ever been made publicly available and is the version that has been screening on 35mm recently in the US – this version runs 107 minutes in PAL or 111 minutes in NTSC. Shudder list their version as 109 minutes, in NTSC, which would make it roughly the same length as the US theatrical release, and about 104 minutes in PAL – more than two minutes shy of the version on the BFI DVD or the 35mm print currently in circulation.
The history of The Devils is also not difficult to access. The aforementioned BFI DVD contains a great, short documentary piece titled Hell On Earth which explores the release history of the film as well as includes footage from famed, censored sequences. Add to that Richard Crouse’s thorough, rousing book Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils and you’ve got yourself a solid primer which should avoid misunderstandings such as this. Which brings us to the question, how do we avoid this very thing from happening again?
That The Devils has appeared on Shudder is far from the major issue at hand – rather, that should be a cause for celebration. And for many it was and is, rightfully so. The Devils has clearly had a rocky road to becoming accessible, especially in the US, but it is up to license holders and content providers to be transparent about what they are showing as much as it is for those in the public (journalists and bloggers included) to do research on their own about what it is that they are viewing and the subsequent conversations that they’re having about it. That said, there are arguably few other films in history that carry the reputation of The Devils and short of someone claiming that they’ve found the uncut version of Greed, most likely we won’t see something of this magnitude happen again. Yet. We have no idea what the future lies in store for us and this sets a precedent where content can be claimed to exist in a manner that it doesn’t and that is hardly questioned or argued against.
The Devils was released more than forty-five years ago now and still has yet to be given a proper theatrical or home video release through Warner Brothers, though the 2012 BFI DVD release is well worth the (minimal) struggle of importing. There has never been a legitimate statement from the company as to why, though there are plenty of rumors regarding the controversy of its release (including a promptly cancelled DVD). Fans that want to see the film released properly will likely still need to wait, and for a while, at that. Though the amount of recently allowed 35mm screenings is at least a step in the right direction and, yes, as is this Shudder license – regardless of version. But will the demand still remain if many are content with this stream being available, “uncut”? I sure hope so.