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‘The Devils’ and my search for cinema’s hidden masterpieces

| Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Claire Reid | The Observer

A brief primer on region coding before we begin: DVD and Blu-ray discs are coded by manufacturers to only work on players from certain regions, allowing for healthy competition amongst disc manufacturers around the world. However, this acts as a barrier to what film consumers and collectors can obtain. Region coding is the bane of my existence.

Ken Russell’s film “The Devils” stands among the ranks of a collection of films that I consider to be hidden, meaning that they still exist in some way or another but are not easily found. These are not to be confused with films that have been completely lost to the sands of time (such as “London After Midnight”). While lost films are a fascinating and heartbreaking topic in and of themselves, what I find even more tragic are hidden films. Hidden films are the kind of films that you hear about in passing online, but they are almost impossible to find, let alone obtain legally. I’ve got a few films on my list that I hope to track down someday, but for the time being, my focus is Ken Russell’s 1971 film “The Devils.”

It all started with a YouTube video. I was watching a video essay about the history of witches in horror media, and the narrator mentioned a film called “The Devils,” and the images shown were enough to sell me on it. Unfortunately, “The Devils” has never seen a release in the United States, and possibly never will. Warner Bros. butchered the film, cutting out its most shocking and impactful sequences, briefly screening it in the United States before “vaulting” it. This act of self-censorship is infuriating. I have my thoughts on the morality of film and what should (and shouldn’t) be depicted, but that’s an article for another time.

I’ve always had an affinity for the more extreme ends of cinema — the more obscure and inaccessible the better. It seemed that I had met my match with “The Devils,” until I stumbled across a shady-looking DVD copy that claimed to be the uncut version of the film that was not region-coded. I would later learn I had purchased the heavily-edited U.S. theatrical cut, not the X-rated British cut or the uncut version I had been promised. Despite this, I am still glad to have a copy of “The Devils” in my possession.

Each time I watch “The Devils,” I am taken aback by how beautiful the film looks and by how viscerally upsetting the film’s plot is. I consider it to be nothing less than a masterpiece. Why, then, is “The Devils” hidden from viewers?

Warner Bros. holds the rights to “The Devils” and has remained suspiciously tight-lipped about the film, as though they want it to be forgotten. This may be due to the controversy that surrounded the film when it came out, which ultimately resulted in the Catholic Church condemning the film and in approximately 10 minutes of footage being cut from it. In the 50 years since Russell filmed “The Devils,” the world has changed and so has cinema. The events depicted in “The Devils,” while upsetting, are tame compared to those depicted in modern horror films. “The Devils” deserves to be seen, and Warner Bros. would stand to profit if they released the uncut version through a distributor like Arrow or the Criterion Collection. It is not a film for everyone, but it is a film that deserves to be seen.

So, what’s next on my search for the hidden masterpieces of cinema? I’ve set my sights on two Polish films from the ’70s, so wish me luck. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to dig a little deeper into the world of film. There are hidden masterpieces lurking just below the surface if only you are willing to look.

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