Trent Film Society Presents: The Devils (1971)

Trent Film Society would like to thank you for a successful beginning to another year of film screenings! Our first three events of the year were lots of fun for us and our audiences, including our now-annual tradition of a pajama party and retro night at Traill College (the liberal arts satellite campus located downtown that you’ve probably never been to, but you should!). People laughed, they wore onesies, they ate cereal and tried to forget the horror of the Goblin King’s incredibly tight pants in Labyrinth.

But October is upon us, various flora are turning orange, the temperature is dropping and a racist old white man is running for president. As it says in the Good Book, every so often the devil must be loosed a little season. Which brings us to the subject of this article—our (pleasantly) horrific October lineup we’ve planned in honour of the month of Halloween, black cats and witchcraft. This year we’re starting it off with one of the most controversial films ever made, British director Ken Russell’s notorious and provocative The Devils. If you’ve never heard of it before, read on and discover more about the lurid details of the bizarre and shocking events that inspired it…

The Devils is a historical drama set in the early 17th century and based on a book by Aldous Huxley that was made into a play (you may remember him as the guy who was really into drugs and wrote a bad dystopian novel that you were forced to read in high school). Based on true events, it tells the story of a Catholic priest called Urbain Grandier (played here by Oliver Reed), who was implicated in a series of bizarre happenings at an Ursuline convent in Loudons, France.

Unaware that Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the abbess, was sexually obsessed with him, Grandier was invited to serve as the confessor to the convent—even nuns need a priest’s absolvance sometimes—and refused. Grandier, a well-known womanizer who seems to have not taken his vows of celibacy very seriously, was then accused by the nuns of sexual impropriety and summoning demons to possess them into committing shockingly immoral acts. Grandier was acquitted at his first trial and continued to flout the authority of the Church and the French state until attracting the enmity of the machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to King Louis XIII.


After a second trial was ordered by Richelieu, whom Grandier had angered by publicly criticizing, the priest was tortured and subjected to more accusations of sexual misconduct and witchcraft, a fake written pact with the signatures of various demons was produced, and he was sentenced to death. After refusing to admit guilt for any wrongdoing, he was burned to death and the controversy at Loudons died down. Many more similar cases of demonic possession continued to appear in Europe and elsewhere, however.

Modern views on medieval witchhunts have tended to focus on the societal forces at play (religion, politics, gender, and social control) and various psychological explanations have been proposed for possession and exorcism ranging from epileptic seizures, mass hysteria, psychoactive drugs, sexual repression (the film doesn’t shy away from depicting Sister Jeanne having erotic fantasies and masturbating, and in its most infamous scene, a horde of naked nuns have an orgy with a crucifix) and more, but none of that was probably much help to poor Grandier.

While the events depicted in the film really happened, albeit with some artistic license, what made the film so shocking for its time was Russell’s uncompromising depiction of taboo subjects like sexuality and religion, more explicitly than most other directors had dared to do before. After being rated X upon its initial release, many edited and bowdlerized versions appeared, some of very low quality, and the film was banned in several countries. Remaining largely unavailable except for bootlegs, a full-length version was finally released a few years ago that restored most of the scenes cut from the original version, although rumours persist of a few minutes of missing footage being held by private collectors. Today the film is rated R in Canada, but its power to offend comes from its intensely disturbing nature, not from explicit blood or gore like most horror films.

Trent Film Society will be showing The Devils at Artspace on October 5 at 8 p.m. Needless to say, it is most certainly not suitable for children. Viewers are welcome to bring familiars but are asked to refrain from summoning demons or arcane rituals during the film.