Warner Bros, Please Stop Being Jerks, and Let's Get Definitive About Ken Russell's The Devils

Critic Mark Kermode found the the missing footage from Ken Russell's 1971 epic The Devils in a warehouse in 2002, and in 2004, the British Film Institute was able to reassemble the complete director's cut, which had long been thought to be lost forever. Kermode toured the UK with Russell himself, screening this version in theaters to rave reviews. But Warner Bros, the studio that funded the film in the first place, specifically forbade the BFI from releasing this restored cut and continue to actively repress the uncut version of this film internationally. Who ever heard of a studio censoring their own film? You should definitely watch this short video Kermode made about this stupidity, addressing the BBC, and how filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro are taking WB to task for this.
In 2012, the BFI gave us the best they could on home video: a 2 DVD set of the British theatrical cut, which is missing the recovered footage, including the infamous "rape of Christ" scene. And it really isn't as offensive as that nickname implies. There's certainly ample nudity and religious imagery, and I certainly wouldn't play it in a Sunday school classroom, but the full scene was able to air uncensored on the BBC and is currently on Youtube. This is an old movie, and I don't even think it would occur to modern audiences to be shocked by it compared to what gets just a generic R rating today.  It's certainly less offensive than what you see in The Exorcist, for example (after all, those scenes involve a child), which Warner Bros happily releases and re-releases. But for whatever, unstated reasons, they just won't allow The Devils to be released uncut. And so the closest we've got is still the grey market bootleg from Angel Digital in 2005, which features a composite print and (even a substantial supplement package) assembled by Wayne Maginn, which he describes creating:
"Within a short period of time, it was revealed that a can was found containing much of the cut footage and this would be formed into a documentary for TV broadcast. Unfortunately, I lacked a DVD recorder at that particular time and so had to record the Hell on Earth documentary on its original broadcast on VCR. Having purchased a DVD recorder only months later (the desire to back up the documentary on DVD-R being one of the main factors in scraping together the money to finally afford one), I set about cutting together the British X-rated theatrical edit of the film.

Noting that Mike Bradsell had intercut the restored Rape of Christ scene with footage from the scene with Grandier outdoors, I ensured I removed the shots from the base print I was using so they did not repeat. As closely as I could, I attempted to insert the footage as smoothly as possible with my VCR-to-DVD recorder setup, unfortunately having to trim a few seconds off the opening of the scene where on-screen text appeared in the documentary so as to provide as seamless a transition as possible within my means.

I felt the film deserved special treatment as far as could be provided and if Warner were not going to then I would do my best to give it some bells and whistles. I just wish I had recorded the documentary on a better format at the time and also had done a better job of the composite. Alas, I lacked the equipment and software that some had at the time!"
-- excerpt from Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils by Richard Crouse (ECW Press, Oct 1, 2012)
The Devils stars Oliver Reed as Father Grandier, an obstinate priest who runs a large, fortified city that unfortunately stands between Cardinal Richelieu and plans to take control over the entire pre-renneaisance country of France. The people support Grandier so resolutely, it seems impossible to move him... at least until Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) and her entire convent of nuns seem to fall victim to demonic possession. Now all they need to do is convince the world that Grandier is to blame.

The Devils is Ken Russell's ultimate masterpiece, a perfect blend of his far-out visuals and serious, historical drama. It comes from the period in his career when he had his strongest cast of British actors available to him, and control of quite an impressively large production. It's a powerful film, and the closer we get to a proper, uncut restored version of the film, the clearer that becomes. Just imagine if we could finally see a truly complete version.
So, The Devils has spent most of its days being completely unavailable. The Angel Digital bootleg came out in 2005, but the first official release wasn't until 2010, and that was only in Spain. Surprisingly, it was a direct Warner Bros release. I used to own it, and can tell you, it was the edited cut (shorter even than the British theatrical cut) that was released on VHS in the USA. And quality-wise, it was a decent, 2.35:1 transfer - certainly better than anything we'd seen before. But it doesn't stand up to the BFI's subsequent disc. In fact, it was non-anamorphic. Unfortunately, the only screenshot I took was of the opening logo for a forum post back when in 2010.
Angel Digital 2005 DVD on top; Warner Bros 2010 DVD bottom.
You can see why, even non-anamorphic, it was exciting at the time compared to the bootleg we'd had before it. You also get an early sneak peek of how poor the bootleg looks (though at least it was anamorphic). But put yourself in 2005 and we were happy just to see it in widescreen or disc at all. Even on laserdisc, all their had been was a cruddy fullscreen Japanese disc, nothing in the US. So each of these upgrades were at least a little exciting at the time. But again, it was a much shorter cut, so not many people jumped on it. It was also, by the way, completely barebones, only offering basic English and Spanish audio, optional Spanish subtitles, not even the trailer. So then the British disc came along and at least trumped the Spanish disc. There is still no Region 1 disc at all.
Angel Digital 2005 DVD on top; BFI 2012 DVD bottom.
Not hard to pick a winner here, is it? Let's count the differences. 1) The AD disc is in the wrong aspect ratio. It's 1.85:1, as opposed to the BFI's 2.35:1 disc, which gives us a ton more info on the sides. 2) The AD is very faded and washed out, compared to BFI's deep colors. 3) Oh boy, is that some nasty interlacing in the first shot of the AD disc! BFI, of course, doesn't have this problem. 4 and on) I suppose I could get into the fine details of the bootleg not having true blacks, etc; but its lesser quality is so obvious, there's no reason to nitpick. Maginn did what he could with his home equipment and low quality source elements. There's a reason I hang onto the bootleg, and it's not related to the picture quality.
The infamous "rape of Christ"
And if you're astute, you may've noticed that the bootleg was 1.85 in the lower comparison shots, but much wider in the logo shot. That's because most of the boot is 1.85, but it switches over to a 2.28:1 or so whenever the uncut footage is inserted. But the fact that it is inserted is why this disc is still valuable; no other release has this footage. Although, it has to also be said, that there is still footage missing even from this version, including a rather dark scene with Vanessa Redgrave and a bone that comes too near the film's conclusion for me to spoil, but you'll know if you've seen it.
And I mentioned the Angel Digital disc actually had extras, right? Pretty impressive for a bootleg, but it shows you it was assembled by somebody who actually cared (as opposed, say, to the official Warner Bros release). The main feature is Hell On Earth, the 50-minute BBC documentary Kermode made when he first discovered the lost footage back in 2002. This tackles the censorship and found footage, but also the film as a whole, and interviews many of the key players, including the stars, producer Roy Baird and Russell himself.There's a five-minute featurette called Year of Censorship, which interviews several critics and Russell himself about the film's controversy. This and the next featurette, UK Censors, which interviews the group that protested The Devils back in the 70s, seem to be an excerpt from a longer television program. Finally, there's an interview with British television director James Ferman about the censorship, and the film's trailer.
That was pretty great, but the BFI has put together a spectacular 2-disc set with even more features. And first of all, yes, they have the Hell On Earth documentary, too. But at Warner Bros insistence (thanks again, jerks), it's an edited version, missing the footage Maginn used to make the composite cut in the first place. But BFI has come up with so much more! Two of the coolest features is a vintage, 21-minute behind-the-scenes 'making of' documentary, and an audio commentary by Ken Russell himself! Unfortunately, he recorded the commentary to the full director's cut of the film, so this commentary had to be cut, too (did I say "thanks again, jerks" yet?). Still, if you've ever heard a Russell commentary track, you know his are some of the best, and this time he's joined by Kermode, editor Michael Bradsell and Paul Joyce (director of the Hell On Earth doc).

In addition, Kermode provides an intro to the film, Bradsell narrates some home-made behind-the-scenes footage he shot during the original filming, and there's a 13-minute Q&A panel with Ken Russell. There's a previously unreleased early short film of Russell's called Amelia and the Angels, which wasn't that great, but is nice to have as a piece of history. There are also British and American trailers, and a rather thick, 40-page booklet full of notes, photos and essays by Kermode, Bradsell and Craig Lapper.
So that's a pretty sweet package, but obviously we still desperately need the director's cut, which has been sitting on a shelf, completely restored, for about twelve years now. Oh, and it would be nice to get this film in HD as well. Apart from everything else, Warner Bros wouldn't let the BFI issue a blu version of this release, just DVD. Why? Just as a final middle finger us fans of their film? Seriously, shame on you, Warner Bros. It's one thing not to release a film yourselves, what with the costs involved etc. But to specifically and consistently stand in the way of The British Film Institute from releasing it? What is going on over there? Then again, The WB got a new CEO in 2013, so maybe it's time for Kermode and Co. to knock on their door again.

3 comments:

  1. Hello, thank you for your great work. I have a question, and I hope you can help me.
    There's a german data base called OFDB.de which claims the Angel Digital bootleg runs 118 minutes (backcover information '111 minutes' is wrong). I wonder if this is true. Some people claim it would be the same version as Euro Cult bootleg (US), which runs a little under 109 minutes (I own this one). Here's the link to the OFDb Angel Digital entry:
    www.ofdb.de/view.php?page=fassung&fid=8424&vid=174229
    Is this the same version you have?
    Thank you very much in advance. Greetings

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    Replies
    1. Good question! I just went back to my disc and can confirm that the OFDB is a little off. The back-cover does indeed state 111 minutes, but it actually runs for 108.23. Perhaps the 118 minutes comes from a mis-reading/calculation of 1:48?

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  2. Thank you very much for your efforts and verification. The Euro Cult bootleg runs 108:23 as well, so it must be the same version, your screenshots look exactly the same too. Now I am able to correct this error in OFDb, which misinformed the public over ten years.
    Have a great day.

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