Fritz the Cat (1972)

Oh boy, I’ve chasing this film for five years, and now that I finally managed to find it, I could now experience it in all its freaky glory…and it was amazing. I’ve said a few times on this site (and many elsewhere in life) that I’m a big fan of Ralph Bakshi, and the reason why is that unlike the other animators of his time, he was taking animation to stranger, more mature territory. Of course, he is most famous for Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated animated film, at least in America. Controversial on release, the film broke all the rules of cartoon films, and it proved that animation could explore adult themes and turn a profit, and thus a cartoon classic was born.

The story involves Fritz the Cat, a character created in the 1960’s by the cartoonist Robert Crumb, who also wrote the other characters in the film (as a side note, Fritz was one of Crumb’s most popular characters, and became a countercultural icon during the run of Crumb’s comics). Fritz is a hedonistic university student in the late 1960’s who constantly tries to get in bed with as many women as possible. After a night of sex, drugs and avoiding “the fuzz”, he drops out of New York University and embarks on a journey through New York City in order to find himself.

The film’s story was quite a wild ride. You have Fritz going through the entire city to get his funk on, and he gets chased by cops, gets caught in the middle of a riot (which he started), and ends up in the middle of the desert and hanging out with a group of dangerous revolutionaries. It’s a surreal tale of ecstasy and emptiness, with the kind of political commentary that characterises Bakshi’s classic works of the early to mid 1970’s. Fritz also offers a window into the radical time in which it was made in its own way, poking fun at both the radical left and the radical right, while painting a deliciously satirical, and poignantly accurate picture of the hippies of its time.

Fritz is interesting character, a freewheeling college student who doesn’t like the pretentiousness of the hippies (despite aping them with the whole “quest for truth” schtick). He starts out as a completely selfish character, and to be fair he sort of remains that way throughout the film. He may be crass and horny, but he’s smart in his own way. His philosophy seems to be that the only way to learn about life is to see it and grab it for yourself. In effect, he is an embodiment of the counterculture of his time, and his interaction with the world around him often leads to hilarious results.

I’ve always loved Bakshi’s animation style, mainly because of the penchant for artistic innovative he displays. In Bakshi’s directorial debut, you see a traditional sort of style, though with a looser style than one might see in Walt Disney’s films. In addition to that, the film makes use of backgrounds made with watercolour painting, and city skylines based on tracings from photographs. There’s a nice mixture of styles blended together in a way that brings out the seediness of Fritz’s world. The film also has an excellent psychedelic music score so infectiously ecstatic it that takes you into another state of mind.

The film may have garnered a reputation as a cartoon porno (which is funny considering the sex wasn’t really that graphic) simply because it was full of brazen nudity, but it’s really far more than that. It’s a satirical exploration of the depravity, confusion, hedonism and self-delusion that permeated the late stage of the 60’s-70’s counterculture. It was an innovative work of art that pioneered the concept of adult-oriented animation, and damned if I wasn’t entertained by it.

  • Score: 89%
  • Grade: A
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Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

The martial arts genre sounds like a fun action genre. Instead of surly Commando-type action heroes shooting with pistols or machine guns (which isn’t that bad if I’ll be totally honest), you’re treated to masterfully choreographed scenes of hand-to-hand combat. Kung-fu films tend to either awesome or ridiculous, or a hilarious combination of both. Five Deadly Venoms, meanwhile, falls into the the awesome category. Produced by the celebrated Shaw Brothers, the film is a classic hero versus villain scenario livened up with skilful choreography, with the ingredients of a finely made cult classic.

The film revolves around a young man named Yang Tieh, the last pupil of the dying master of the Poison Clan. The master dispatches him on a mission to find five other students who are masters of powerful martial arts styles, worrying that they are being used for evil ends, and to track down the master’s retired colleague Yun and warn him that his fortune may be stolen by his former pupils. Eventually, Yun is killed by the master’s former pupils, and Yang is left to fight the pupils who have used their skills for evil, and fighting alongside the only one who hasn’t.

It’s a nice and simple story with a straightforward narrative, and it works. You don’t really need a heavily drawn-out plot for this sort of film. This is something the Shaw Brothers seem to have known quite well, and that was part of their general business model back in the day. Everything you need to know plot-wise is very well explained at the beginning of the film, which is good because it meets that the action is all that matters. That said, there’s also a bit of backstabbing and suspense to spice up the narrative.

The acting isn’t great, at least in the English dub, but it’s alright despite the general cheesiness. I know action films aren’t generally praised for the acting, so I tend not to care about it in this regard. The characters themselves are pretty good, and in spite of the not so great acting, you generally get a wide range of emotions out of them (confidence, anger, fear, desire for revenge, etc.).

The film presents itself in a not too serious manner, which is ideal for this sort of film, but let’s not lose site of the most important aspect of the film – the fighting. The characters in the film are willing to fight at just the drop of the fight, and when that happens, you get treated to some stylish, high-speed fight choreography with almost superhuman fighting styles. The film isn’t all kung fu fighting though. There are scenes were the film briefly becomes a horror film, when one of the Poison Clan members kills people using gruesome techniques without leaving a mark. Despite how commonly people fight each other, thanks to scenes like these death is not a trivial matter in the film, and it’s actually satisfying to watch the fighters who used their skills for evil get their just deserts.

If I must recommend any kung fu film, it will have to be Five Deadly Venoms, arguably one of the greatest films of the genre. Of course, it doesn’t beat Enter the Dragon, but what does? This film is still a classic of the genre, and a prime example of how martial arts films should be made.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The general consensus is that A Clockwork Orange is a classic, one the landmark films of its time, and they’re right. While it can often be placed in the category of the 70’s-style futuristic sci-fi film, it was certainly more than that. It was a deep, thought-provoking vision of how British society might look if it were only a stone’s throw away from totalitarianism. In that sense, the message and meaning of A Clockwork Orange is quite clear.

The film’s story is told from the perspective of Alex deLarge, a teenage delinquent and gang leader who is principally interested in classical music, rape, and ultra-violence. He also treats his fellow “droogs” like thralls, rebuking them when they express their discontent. His criminal life plays out in the backdrop of a society where law and order seems to have vanished. All this changes after he is betrayed by his fellow thugs and caught by the police. Two years later he is subjected to the Ludovico technique, a controversial, experimental aversion therapy technique that gets him out of jail within two years, but the technique turns out to be too effective.

The story starts out as a slowly paced tour of anarchy, with Alex and his gang taking drugs and raping and beating their way through a now dystopian London, a city teetering towards societal collapse. In the years following Alex’s incarceration, after a new government is elected, the tone of the film changes, becoming colder and more sterile, perhaps befitting the now subdued Alex. In taking the perspective of a criminal, Kubrick frames the dystopian world in the context of his own narcissistic worldview. Some have said that this glamourises the film’s graphic violence (which is rather tame compared to what we have now), but said violence is an important part of the film’s message.

Malcolm McDowell, as one might expect, delivers a fine performance as the main character, with a very convincing Cockney accent. He also excels in portraying the contrasting states of Alex deLarge – both the unhinged criminal and the subdued mannequin are portrayed with precision and skill by Mr. McDowell. The cast in general delivers some very fine performances, including Patrick Magee, who plays the lefty writer who sees Alex as a political tool to use against the government, and Anthony Sharp as the sinister government minister who wants to use him to advance his political agenda.

The film was not just groundbreaking in terms of its narrative and themes, but also in terms of its style. The film opens simply with a block colour title, and the rest of the film is set in a dreary urban environment. The film’s score is composed almost principally with a Moog synthesiser, which along with some classical music compositions gave the film a part of its unique personality. On top of that, the first half of the film is littered with sexual imagery, by way of the bizarre sexual art that people in the future seem to have. Could this be a way of visually communicating the late stages of the society in which the film is set? Who knows.

All in all, it was a great film, providing a great deal of fuel for your intellectual curiosity if you want such a film. It has certainly aged better than many films from its time, a rarity amongst films that are so symbolic of the dazed and confused decade as this.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Among the great animated triumphs of the 1970’s sits René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, a film well known among animation aficionados as a classic of surreal animation. Indeed, it’s not so much a piece of film as much as it is a work of art, and I think it was a work that was ahead of its time. Back in 1973, there were only a handful of animated sci-fi features, let alone of the kind that were mature enough to deal with heavy subjects such as authoritarianism, captivity and revolution, bundled in with the kind of utopian themes that you usually find in sci-fi from that point in time.

In this film, humans from Earth have been captured by blue giants called the Draag (who call the humans “Oms”), and brought to their planet of Ygam as pets which they dress up in garish costumes. The Draags have a technologically and apparently spiritually advanced society, and they live much longer than humans, but reproduce less. Not all humans are domesticated. Some humans live out in the wilderness, and the ones that do are considered savages, which the Draags regularly exterminate as their form of pest control.

The story focuses on a human named Terr, who since his infancy was raised in captivity by a young Draag named Tiwa, the daughter of a Draag leader named Master Sinh. He learns a great deal of Draag knowledge while living with her, but when she starts to grow distant from him, he runs away and steals the headphones that transmit knowledge to her mind. With his knowledge, which he spreads to the undomesticated humans, he leads his fellows to rebel against their Draag oppressors.

I think my main criticism with the story is that the film is rather short, running at only 72 minutes. That’s not necessarily bad, but with 20 more minutes I think the film could have explored more territory, but that’s not to say the writers did a very good job in 72 minutes. After all it’s undoubtedly a strong story. The film basic premise is essentially a variation of the David and Goliath archetype (in a Planet of the Apes sort of fashion), and built around that is a sophisticated, wonderfully bizarre tale of an advanced, yet self-absorbed society in danger of bringing about its own ruin.

The voice acting was pretty good, and the characters were very well-formed, though I think a longer runtime may have been better for character development. The main protagonist, however, is the most well-done character in the movie, which is no surprise considering that you get to see him from infancy to adulthood (it should be noted that humans seem to age faster than their alien captors). In a way, his intelligence and resourcefulness represents the potential of mankind, the potential that certain people in power don’t want people to display, and I think that’s part of the film’s message, that we have the power to bring about a better world for ourselves, but we have to make those in power see that we are be taken seriously.

Of course, Fantastic Planet is absolutely a visual treat, with its highly detailed, hand-drawn art style evoking a distinctly antique feel. The art style is something of a mixture of Terry Gilliam, Max Ernst (arguably), Salvador Dali, and other surrealist artists, and the result is simply magnificent. I find that the film has a kind of illustrative style, and there’s a scene that vindicates my point in which you see a montage of what look like rough, conceptual style sketches. I would say that this is as much a film for art students and budding illustrators as it is for cineasts. The film also had a great, progressive rock style music score, courtesy of Alain Goraguer.

On the whole, Fantastic Planet was a great film that desperately needs more exposure. It presented a vision of animation vastly different from what we’re used to today, one that emphasised the artistic potential of the medium and pushed the boundaries of what animated works were capable of. Where are such ground-breaking animations nowadays? Much has changed in over 40 years, but the classics of animation still endure, setting an example of the direction that animation should take.

  • Score: 88%
  • Grade: A

Angel’s Egg (1985)

I’ve long been a champion of animation, if not here then on Stef’s Cave, where I have a history of expounding the supremacy of animation over live-action filmmaking. This is one of those films that proves that I am right. What live-action film is there that is like this in terms of strange brilliance, sense of adventure, and ambition? Only the Czechoslovakian rendition of Alice in Wonderland is comparable, but this is an even greater mystery. We have in our midst a film whose meaning can, no, must be deteremined by the viewer, as not even the film’s creator, the famed anime film director Mamoru Oshii, seemed to have any idea what the film was about.

Here’s what I can get out of the film. An unnamed girl is travelling a vast, decrepit gothic city searching for food and water, all while carrying a large egg, seemingly with an intent to look after it. She eventually crosses paths with a boy carrying a wooden cross, who accompanies her for the remainder of the film. Neither seem to have any clue of how the world got to the way it is, but while they’re together, they reflect on their amnesia and discuss the bizarre few things they recall seeing.

The film’s most obvious trait is that there is little if any dialogue. In fact, out of the film’s entire 71-minute runtime, there may as well only have been about a few minutes worth of dialogue. The rest of the film is tension building and ominous atmosphere, all seemingly without a linear plot. You would think that I would be repelled by such a prospect, but the director seems to have done a good job of creating a film that sucks you in despite the lack of a clear plot. It makes you wonder about the world the film explores, and you ask yourself how long it might have been around in the context of the film, wondering whether it has been around forever or is the product of someone’s imagination.

The characters, though they don’t talk much, still have you invested in them. You want to know if the girl will ever see the egg hatch, and you want to what the boy’s true intentions are. Some questions are answered, but the most obvious ones are left unanswered, adrift in a sea of religious symbolism. Speaking of which, Oshii left a number of surreal, evocative imagery throughout the film. Why is the soldier boy carrying a cross? Is he the messiah, or perhaps a false prophet? The boy recounted his own, fatalistic interpretation of Noah’s Ark, and later on the entire city is flooded. Is the film’s plot a surrealistic version of Noah’s Ark? It’s worth noting that Mamoru Oshii used to be a Christian, but lost his faith before the film was produced. This has been called Oshii’s most personal film, and by that token, is this perhaps a reflection of his lost faith? An allegory of belief?

Given the lack of a coherent plot and sparse dialogue, the film has been treated as a work of animated art rather than a conventional film, and that fits because the film is a triumph of animated art. The art style is distinct in its brilliance, with characters and illustrations by the one and only Yoshitaka Amano. The dark and dreary colours represent the ominous mood of the film, which is captured by a beautiful, spare music score. The film itself leaves a great deal of answered questions in its wake, and a shock ending, but it’s very much worth it as a piece of bold, avant-garde animation. If you insist on only watching anime films for your whole life, please make this one of them.

  • Score: 86%
  • Grade: A

Alice (1988)

I’ve been seeking out obscure films for a good long while now, and sometimes you find an obscure film that is so unbelievably bizarre that you have to compel yourself to watch it, and it was more spectacular that I was perhaps prepared for. This of course is the bizarre Czechoslovakian retelling of Alice in Wonderland, as written and directed by Jan Švankmajer. His vision of the story rejected the conventional fairytale style of previous adaptations, and instead offers an amoral, surreal adventure that defies logic at every turn, and it’s an artistic triumph.

The plot of this film loosely follows the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, following a bored Alice narrating herself in what appears to be a series of events that she has no idea how to navigate. She chases a taxidermically stuffed rabbit that suddenly comes to life, and finds herself working her way through Wonderland and its perils. Not many of the familiar characters can be found here, but the white rabbit, Mad Hatter, and the King and Queen of Hearts are here, recreated with what appear to be common household items. It’s also worth noting that the little girl who plays the role of Alice is also voice for all other characters in the film.

There’s only one actor in the whole film, but she manages to deliver a good performance as someone genuinely baffled by her surroundings, though surprisingly clever. The entire him is in Czech (sadly, without subtitles), but I didn’t care, because I didn’t watch this film for the acting. The plot is a very bizarre rendition of the familiar story of Alice, noticeably darker than fans of the old Disney adaptation might be used to, but it’s this unvarnished, sometimes nightmarish slant that makes it superior to all other adaptations if I must be frank.

Adding to this surrealistic twist is the film’s captivating use of stop motion animation, which fluidly creates the impression of a world that is removed from ours, one that comes to life and is ready to pounce on you at any moment. I should note that Švankmajer did not use miniature models to portray the special effects, which is rare and impressive considering the dearth of stop-motion feature films during the time the film was made. The film’s overall style of presentation and production design were also brilliant. The whole film reads like somebody took the book upon which every retelling Alice and Wonderland is based, ripped up the pages and turned it into a kind of abstract art.

And art is pretty much the best word to describe it. The Disney version of Alice was basically a familiar, but almost camp fairy tale that was saccharine to the point one could argue that it’s superficial. This version, however, says “to Hell with all that”, freeing Alice from the hypnotic spell of family-friendly sweetness, taking her to new realms without necessarily deviating heavily from the source material. In summation, it’s a classic of experimental fantasy, and I personally recommend it instead of any other version of Alice in Wonderland.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A

Westworld (1973)

westworld_ver2With the arrival of the Westworld TV series, I came across the original film, the quintessentially 70’s sci-fi gem that inspired it. I must lament the proclivity of our times for flashy, big budget reboots. After all, the Westworld TV series has barely even started, and the mainstream press treats it like the best thing since sliced bread, all while barely any credit is given where it’s due, which is such a shame because this film was one of the most innovative films in sci-fi before the genre give way to big budget braggadocio.

The premise is familiar, but nonetheless a curious one. The film is set in an adult-oriented luxury amusement park named Delos, known for its hyper-realistic simulation of themed environments – Roman World, Medieval World, and of course Westworld. Each world is populated by androids that bear an uncanny resemblance to humans, and are programmed to cater to the whims of Delos patrons. However, a computer virus begins to spread throughout the system, and the robots begin acting against their programming, and some even start killing patrons. All the while, two patrons find themselves being stalked by a robotic gunslinger (unofficially the film’s mascot).

At first the story seemed vapid and sluggish in pace, perhaps an apt representation of a Delos patron wallowing in a fantasy that comprises principally of chasing animatronic prostitutes aimlessly. Of course, this is just building suspense up to the point when things start going wrong in the park. Among a number of themes, the story addresses the kind of comfort humans have gotten used to thanks to advances in technology, and how that dependence will eventually come back to haunt them. That’s the most obvious theme, but also the most prevalent in Westworld, whose slowly paced yet multi-faceted plot seem to allow for the blending of elements from Western, sci-fi and thriller films.

The acting and characters aren’t necessarily the best part, but in a way the two patrons serving as the film’s two main protagonists illustrate the vapidity of instant leisure. One of them, played by James Brolin, seems chiefly concerned with satiating his own lusts, to the point where he would rather stay in a hotel than partake in a simulated gunfight, which I would argue would be more fun. The other one, played by Richard Benjamin, doesn’t seem at all fazed by the sex, and is more interested in the more hands-on pleasures that hyper-realistic simulation has to offer. The character stealing the show, of course, is Yul Brynner’s gunslinger, based on Brynner’s character in The Magnificent Seven. You first see him in much the same way as a typical Western gunslinger, but as the virus spreads, the gunslinger’s true nature as a cold, efficient mechanical assassin is revealed, and it becomes the driving force of the rest of the story. As the Terminator of the 1970’s, Brynner’s performance was brilliant, and he barely even talked.

For its time, Westworld looked impressive, and in terms of atmosphere, it had the feel of a classically chilled 70’s sci-fi film Alongside the old-fashioned practical effects, the film also made use of digital image processing, where the gunslinger’s point of view is represented as a pixellated world, and this adds to the cold atmosphere that Westworld conveys. A lot of older sci-fi films from the early 70’s might seem cheesy today, but not Westworld, with its uncanny realism and chilling pace. The TV series may yet take the original concept to places it hadn’t been before, but it will never replace the original classic. No reboot can or ever will.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

Coming to America (1988)

zamundaBefore I start this review I feel obligated to state that, because I’m starting university tomorrow, I’m taking a break from writing film reviews for an as yet undetermined amount of time, so that I can figure out how to balance this with life in uni. For now, I may as well pick a film that I’m very familiar with by now. I know I previously chided the film’s director because of the dreadful Spies Like Us, but his work tends to be hit or miss, with this film definitely being one of the hits.

Most of us know what Coming to America is about – the story of a young African prince who has grown weary of living a life where he has everything handed to him, and despises the thought of marrying a bride who has been chosen for him. Going against his father’s wishes, he decides to look for love in a poor part of America, hoping to meet someone who will love him for more than his money and status.

Essentially its a kind of pop fairy tale, but it’s told very well, and in the kind of light-hearted fashion that works best for it. The main thing that helped was that the story was backed with a riotously laugh-filled script. It also helps that the writers knew how to convey the kind of scenario that they wanted. At the beginning of the film, there’s a lot of emphasis on how grandiose the kingdom is. You get the impression that it’s pretty much paradise, if you’re prepared to have things done for you. Akeem had pretty much everything done for him at his home, in contrast to when he goes to Queens, New York, where he has most of his and his servant’s belongings stolen when they arrive. He does basically everything himself, and develops into an admirably affable character. Of course, towards the end is where the film resembles a more typical romance film, complete with a token happy ending, but it all worked well.

Coming to America’s main strength is its humorous acting, with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall taking the lead, and donning multiple roles in a practice that, after the film’s success, would come to be a staple of Murphy’s films. Murphy and Hall play all of their roles with exuberance and charismatic enthusiasm. It’s not just the main players that do well here. There’s a whole host of colourful characters who I felt had magnetic personalities – particularly from James Earl Jones and John Amos – perhaps due to the film’s style of humour (the film, after all, did have good writers behind it).

As far as presentation goes, it looked and sounded great, and in a way I think the two different settings perfectly reflect the kind of world the film’s main character transitions to and fro, though in a manner that I think is pretty obvious. As I may have mentioned earlier, the vibrant royal palace of Zamunda represents the kind of opulence and wealth that Akeem was brought up in and is tired of, while the snow-drenched borough of Queens represents the exact opposite of that, a cold indifference place where you have to work hard for everything. The music, though perhaps typical for the time, also helps to convey a warmly jovial atmosphere. Of course, the actual comedy is what keeps the film afloat, along with Murphy’s often booming voice.

Sadly, however, the film is the last great film in Eddie Murphy’s career, but you could say it’s his royal flush. Enduringly hilarious, charmingly magnetic, teeming with personality and replete with great scenes, it’s a good example of a warm comedy film done right, very much unlike the dull, unoriginal, and painfully unfunny comedies of today.

  • Score: 92%
  • Grade: A

When the Wind Blows (1986)

When_the_Wind_Blows_1986Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows is one of the more interesting films of the 1980’s, both in terms of its concept and the way in which it had been executed. In a time when the threat of nuclear war loomed over our shoulders, this film, made with the same team that brought you The Snowman, offered a bleak, realistic portrayal of what might have happened if the nuclear bomb were dropped.

The film tells this story through the perspective of a retired English couple. Jim and Hilda Bloggs live in a tidy cottage in rural Sussex, while Jim keeps reading the newspapers and listening to the radio to keep track of the deteriorating international situation. Much to his wife’s dismay, he prepares for the worst as instructed by the famous Protect and Survive pamphlets. Even after the bomb strikes and the fallout takes effect, the Bloggs couple remain adamant that they will survive the war as they did four decades prior.

The story starts off on a fairly calm tone, but as the film progresses, it quickly becomes a picture of stoic British optimism gradually descending into bleak pessimism, for even as Jim and Hilda continue struggling to the bitter end, their efforts merely see them waiting for the inevitable. The ending leaves what happens next to your imagination. For all we know, they may well have survived, but it’s likely that they don’t.

The film certainly takes an uncompromising approach, and it captures not only the visceral horror of what was then the hypothetical worst-case scenario, but also the human drama that is there continued perseverance, with a healthy dose of that quintessentially British “keep calm and carry on” mentality. Interestingly enough, Jim and Hilda Bloggs are the only two characters with speaking roles, and they are fittingly placed in the centre of the story.

I honestly liked these characters a lot, and it’s not because of their idealism. That’s to be expected. What I liked about them was that, no matter how misguided they may have been, they kept going until the bitter end, and they kept their cool along the way. That, to me, demonstrates a lot of character that I feel sorely needs to be promoted more in our culture. I also liked the humour and lively character that the two characters often demonstrated, and I felt that I could empathise with Jim Bloggs in some way (namely the fact that he always keeps abreast of world affairs).

The film also demonstrates a very charming style of hand-drawn animation, but I would say that it’s the darker and more experimental counterpart to The Snowman. I say this because it combines traditional hand-drawn animation with stop-motion animation (the objects in the Bloggs’ home rarely move, but are animated with stop-motion techniques when the do), and sometimes including real life footage, which adds to the bleak, sometimes haunting atmosphere that the film evokes. To add to this, the film opens in a very positive tone, to the tune of David Bowie’s song of the name (“When the Wind Blows” is a Bowie track that remains one of my personal favourites), and slowly progressing towards the bleak futility of the Bloggs’ death throes.

There have been many films that expressed the futility and horror of nuclear war, some of which were apparently shocking enough to have given people nightmares when they were new, but this film conveyed is in a way that it remains emotionally resonant. It’s a powerful and brilliant work of art that I feel is sorely underappreciated.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A

The Devils (1971)

THE DEVILS - American Poster 1When I first heard of the film, I somehow thought it was going to be one of those Satanic horror films, but after reading into it I found myself more interested, and then I actually got the chance to see it. If you came in thinking this was a horror film, you’ve probably come to the wrong film, but it’s an even better film than I thought it would be. Dismissed by some as “distasteful” and “offensive” in its time (to the point that it was actually banned in 17 local authorities in Britain), the film is now regarded as one of Ken Russell’s best films (behind Women in Love, which I have yet to see myself), and I’d say that reputation is well-deserved.

Set in 1634, this is essentially a historical film that tells the story of Urbain Grandier, a Catholic well-regarded priest who is apparently known for ignoring his vow of celibacy. However, he is the object of the obsessions of Sister Jeanne des Agnes, a neurotic abbess who suffers from severe scoliosis. Her jealousy winds up driving her insane, and when inadvertently accuses Grandier of withcraft, she invites the zealous intervention of opportunistic church and government officials, eventually bringing about the demise of the man she was so obsessed with.

At first, the story didn’t seem to go anywhere, but then as it unfolds, the true madness of the film unravels, and it made for a captivating tale of fanaticism, and the sweeping paranoia of the age it was set in. I find that this film is also a very effective demonstration of how paranoia can be exploited by those who want to advance their agendas of power. All the while, it also plays out a tale of frustrated desires, as demonstrated by Sister Jeanne and her convent’s descent into madness, and their apparent cooperation with a clearly perverted “witch hunter”.

The performances are what carry the film with great talent. Oliver Reed gives a somewhat villainous yet incredibly charismatic performance as Urbain Grandier. He has the strange ability to seem both sinister and honourable at the same time, but Reed’s hour of power is saved for the last moments of the film, as he stands up against the people judging him even if he knows there’s no hope for him. Vanessa Redgrave also gave a magnificent performance as the salaciously insane abbess, and the supporting cast all deserve a standing ovation for their performance.

The film also sports a peculiarly opulent visual style. Derek Jarman’s modernistic white-tiled city will undoubtedly seem like an odd choice for a film set in 17th century France, but I like the design choice. There’s also a number of props that stand out, like the wheel with a corpse chained to it, the archaic wheel mechanism used to chip at the wall in Loudun, and the opening dance scene. The film is as much a visual trip as it is a hysteric fiesta, though the music score, for the most part, is quite sombre. The music generally seems to blend into the background of the film itself.

In conclusion, I contend that The Devils is an artistic triumph, stretching the limits of what could be shown on film. Laden with symbolism and lurid expressions of zeal, the film is a brilliant expression of the extremes of belief, and how they feed into frenzied paranoia. I just wish that I could get my hands on the uncut version.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A