Ken Russell made a career out of directing some of the most bizarre, blasphemous, and kinky movies in cinematic history. Such a provocateur would never survive in our modern political climate, but in the 70’s and 80’s he was the go-to guy for cinephiles who liked their movies weird and wild. One of his most thoroughly strange productions was The Devils, produced in 1971. Adapted from a non-fiction book by Aldous Huxley (The Devils of Loudun), which itself was based on true events, the film is ostensibly about a rogue priest, Urbain Grandier, in seventeenth century France who runs afoul of the machinations of the political elite.
Grandier stands in opposition to the desires of Cardinal Richelieu, who wants Louis VIII to destroy the fortification cities, like Loudun, to prevent the Protestant population from uprising. In his bid for power Richelieu is willing to use any means available to assure his success and if a few heads have to roll, well…so be it. The story itself is an interesting chapter in the Catholic church’s long and troubled history, but in the director’s hands it becomes something else entirely. Like many of Russell’s projects, it’s a difficult film to categorize. Horror and satire rub shoulders with historical accuracy and Grand-Guignol excess. He hits all the main points relayed in Huxley’s book but, Russell being Russell, the visuals get downright crazy as the film progresses.
Urbain Grandier, played by Oliver Reed, is a well-regarded man of the cloth who becomes the leader of the town of Loudun when the governor dies. He also courts controversy in that he refuses to abide by his oath of celibacy and has had several secretive affairs. Early on he is asked by the deformed Mother Superior of the local convent of Ursuline nuns to become their new confessor, but he refuses. Played with abandon by Vanessa Redgrave, the twisted Mother Superior is sexually obsessed with the priest after hearing about his various exploits with other women. She has dreams where she sees him as a Christ-like figure. In these otherworldly sequences she is drawn to him—going as far as licking his wounds in a sexual manner as he stands before her. After learning that he has married in secret she becomes consumed with jealousy. Tortured by her obsession with him, while speaking to their new confessor she accuses Grandier of using witchcraft to possess her and the other nuns with demonic entities, forcing them to act out in bizarre fashion. The outward manifestations of these so-called demonic possessions include: barking, moaning, speaking in tongues, convulsions, vulgar dreams, and frenzied sexual behavior—among other things.
This presents an opportunity for the authorities and a professional witch-hunter, Father Pierre Barre, is dispatched to rout the evil. It is here that the film takes a left turn from brooding historical drama to the type of psychosexual freak out that Russell is so well known for. All kinds of technicolor debauchery appears on screen during some of the film’s more lurid moments. The witch-hunter travels to the convent where he and his cohorts perform their own unique brand of exorcism, including: forced enemas, insane exhortations, and maniacal shouting. The effect on the nuns is profound. In a scene that has to be seen to be believed, the hysterical nuns go bat-shit crazy. Shaving their heads and stripping off their clothes, they run wild throughout the convent, writhing naked on top of a statue of Jesus as well as performing other acts of blasphemous nuttiness (I can only imagine what the Catholic church and its followers must have thought of the film upon its release). As the craziness escalates the utter deviancy of the church leaders performing the exorcisms is graphically exposed. If anyone’s in league with the devil, it’s them, along with the country’s elites who are always jockeying for position behind the scenes.
Eventually Grandier is arrested. After a token show trial he is tortured before being executed by burning at the stake (filmed in loving detail as he’s fried to a crisp, screaming his innocence to the end). When he falls, the city also falls. In the end we realize there were no demonic possessions and that the real evil at the root of the story was the banal political scheming that resulted in the total destruction of an innocent man. Religious hysteria combined with sexual repression led the nuns to act out and the elites wasted no time capitalizing on it in order to remove a stubborn political opponent. There is real horror in that, worse than anything that goes bump in the night.
Upon its release the film naturally became steeped in controversy and received numerous X-ratings from censorship boards all over the world for its explicit scenes of nuns gone loopy with sexual frustration and unflinching depictions of brutal violence. In the end we are left with the feeling that, had they all just gotten laid, things might have worked out different for everyone. So endeth the lesson for today.
Adam Nevill is a writer I’ve been following for some time now. He is the author of a number of excellent horror novels, but my favorite among them is The Ritual. It’s a story about four British friends who decide to go on a hiking trip in the forests of northern Sweden and encounter some seriously evil stuff in the deep, dark woods. Recently Netflix released a movie version starring Rafe Spall, so I sat down to check it out.
All in all it was better than I thought it would be. The acting was good, they stuck to the book fairly closely, the locations were suitably foreboding, and the mythological creature that stalks them throughout was visually interesting as well (at least while they kept it obscured—more on that in a bit). In addition, the sets and visual effects were very well done, with everything being created on location according to the director.
Since they spend most of their time lost in the woods, the film was shot in real woods—with the forests of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania standing in for northern Sweden. This lends the proceedings a chilling air of authenticity. These woods are dark, old, and deeply isolating as the characters struggle to escape them after taking a shortcut when one of their number becomes injured. Soon they are hopelessly lost as they begin to find dead animals hanging up in the tree tops and strange runes carved into the trunks.
The highlight for me was when they take shelter in a creepy old cabin they find during a storm. Inside they find strange effigies and evidence that the people who once lived there were into some pretty freaky occult stuff. They all have terrible nightmares that night and when morning finally comes they get out of there as fast as they can. As their numbers dwindle and desperation sets in for the remaining characters, they eventually find a weird commune of people who offer human sacrifices to the mythological creature that roams the forest in exchange for long life.
Here is where we see the creature clearly for the first time and it’s at this point that the movie loses its way a bit. Though the monster doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, when you see it up close it kind of looks ridiculous. Watch and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a minor stumble in an otherwise good horror movie but it reminds me of the old adage: the unknown is always more frightening than the known.
Overall, if you’re a fan of horror movies and you have Netflix, I would recommend that you check out The Ritual. It’s brooding atmosphere and authentic locations more than make up for the less-than-terrifying monster at the end.
In 1979 I was a little too young to go to the theater with my brother to see Alien when it came out, but that didn’t stop me from obsessing over it. Whenever the trailers came on TV, I dropped whatever I was doing and ran to watch. I peppered my brother with dozens of questions after he’d seen it and even got him to draw me a picture of what the beast looked like. I remember sitting in horrified fascination as he made a crude sketch (which really looked nothing like it—my brother was a terrible artist). I was both attracted and repelled. I wanted to see the movie, but I was also terrified at the prospect.
Two years later it came on TV for the first time. My parents were going out that night, but before they left they gave my brother strict orders that I was not to watch it. While he was watching it on the small color TV in his bedroom, I sneaked into the living room and turned on our other television—right at the scene where Ripley is talking to Dallas about his decision to allow Ash to keep the facehugger specimen. Dallas was telling her that standard procedure is to do whatever the hell the company tells them to do. He also didn’t care about being blind on B and C decks (“Oh, now that’s a bunch of horseshit. We can take off without that.”), he just wanted to get out of there.
My brother caught me a few minutes later when Kane gets a bad case of indigestion at the dinner table. I was petrified by then and didn’t really mind when he shut it off. I didn’t even mind him giving me shit about it. I felt like I’d crossed a line and seen something dark and terrifying that I couldn’t have imagined otherwise. When Mom and Dad came home later on my brother didn’t say anything to them about it (thanks Bro), but I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.
I didn’t see Alien in its entirety until I was fifteen, when it came on late night TV. We had two channels back then and one of them played movies uncut after midnight, with only a few commercial breaks. I watched it with something approaching rapt uneasiness. Right away I loved the concept of working stiffs in space. These men and women weren’t swashbuckling rogues like Han Solo or dehumanized automatons like Dave Bowman. They were like real people, who just wanted to get their boring job done so they could go home and party. I could dig it. The plot evolved slowly at first, taking its time. They wake up and have breakfast. After they get their shit together they find out there’s a distress call that needs to be investigated. If they refuse it’ll cost them their shares, so they follow the beacon down to the surface of the tiny planet in their space tug. When they land, their crappy old ship blows a shield and sucks a bunch of shit into the intakes, fucking up the engines. Now they’re stuck there until they fix it. While the engineers start making repairs the others go out on foot to look for the source of the signal.
They find it just as Ripley figures out it’s not a distress signal at all—it’s a warning to stay away. From there everything just gets crazier. The source of the beacon turns out to be a another ship, but it’s the weirdest ship ever. It looks like a giant knobby horseshoe designed by Hunter S. Thompson during an acid frenzy. Inside they find the pilot, who’s growing out of the chair—as if it and the ship are fused together. To make matters worse, the ship looked like it had been grown, not manufactured. Kane, being the boy scout that he is, goes into the cargo hold and gets french kissed by a thing that’s mostly composed of long, bony fingers and a distinctly vaginal underbelly.
It’s here that the movie escalates past regular craziness and goes straight on to bat shit craziness. A phallic baby alien with jaws and a tail bursts out of Kane’s chest at dinner, shortly after Parker talks about eating something other than the food (we see the smirk from the navigator, Lambert, letting us know she’s in on his crude bit of innuendo). The little creature runs away and grows into an eight foot tall psychosexual penis monster from Sigmund Freud’s most paranoid coke-fueled nightmares. It uses its pneumatic inner teeth to bash a hole through Brett’s skull and then later does the same thing to Parker. Hapless Captain Dallas disappears while looking for it in the air shafts, leaving behind only his flamethrower and a puddle of slime. Afterwards there comes the revelation that Ash is really a corporate stooge who’s been protecting the thing all along (and he’s a goddamn robot as well).
One by one the demonic alien kills them, but it was Lambert’s death late in the proceedings that haunted me the most. Before it kills her, the alien comes on to her like a lover, caressing her with its tail as she trembles in fear. I realized that it’s not just going to kill her; it’s seducing her as a prelude to something else, before it kills her. Some kind of sick mating ritual perhaps? The camera cuts to Ripley as she rushes through the dank corridors. We hear what she hears over the ship’s intercom as the monster does terrible things to the navigator off-camera. We listen to Lambert’s muffled gags, whooping gasps, and final blood-curdling scream, and we can only imagine what horrors the thing is visiting upon her body. Her anguished death throes still reverberate in my nightmares to this day.
I could hardly breathe during the last fifteen minutes of the film as Ripley played a desperate game of cat and mouse with the lethal biomechanoid. With everyone else dead she sets the ship to self-destruct, then finds that the corridor to the escape shuttle is blocked by the resourceful alien. When she steals a brief glance around the corner and the alien leaps to its feet—sensing her presence in an instant—I almost fell out of my chair. The strobe lights, wailing klaxons, and blinding jets of steam assaulting the POV camera as it prowled the corridors made me want to hide my eyes. After trying and failing to turn the cooling units back on, Ripley returns to the shuttle corridor, but this time the alien is nowhere to be seen. She boards the shuttle with Jones the cat in tow, having barely a minute to spare before the ship explodes. As she was told by Parker before his untimely death, if she doesn’t get out of there in a hurry she won’t need a rocket to fly through space. She launches the shuttle and escapes the destruction of the Nostromo, but I knew it wasn’t over yet. That thing was going to make one last appearance.
Her final confrontation with it inside the cramped confines of the shuttle, with the drooling rapist creature pistoning it’s teeth out at her as she slips into her spacesuit (that gratuitous crotch shot will never be forgotten), was both grotesque and sexy at the same time. The sexual metaphors and imagery almost induced a hallucinatory feeling within me, like I was seeing something that shouldn’t exist. Something that I could never unsee. When it was finally over I was speechless.
Everything about it was absolutely amazing: the gritty set design of the Nostromo’s utilitarian interiors, the cold and inhospitable nature of the tiny backwater planet they land on, and the bizarre derelict ship that awaits them with its cargo hold full of leathery objects. Then there was the sheer other-worldliness of Giger’s walking insectoid penis-headed monster and the sexually suggestive forms that constituted its life cycle: the swollen labial openings at the top of the eggs in the derelict alien ship, the vaginal crab-thing with it’s skeletal fingers—affectionately known in fandom as the facehugger, and the blunt dildo-shaped baby alien that births from Kane’s chest in a shocking spray of blood. All of it was like some terrible dream, similar to the one a confused Kane described when he awoke in the infirmary after the facehugger had impregnated him.
It blew me away then and it still does now. Even though special effects have evolved by leaps and bounds since then, I wouldn’t change a single frame of it (not even the laughable low-res displays—arguably the only thing about the film that dates it). Only later in my life did I see the connections to other works that came before it—Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales and A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle being prominent literary examples—as well as the movies Planet of the Vampires (1965) and It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958). What made Alien unique was how it was able to distill the best elements from those influences and turn them into something that was more than the sum of its parts. In addition, the cast and crew decided they were going to make an A-picture on a limited budget and the craftsmanship they achieved in every aspect of the production is still nothing less than exemplary. Ridley Scott rightfully gets a lot of the credit, but there were tonnes of people that contributed to its success. Everyone from the set painters to John Mollo and his samurai-inspired space suits to Dan O’Bannon and his original script. Even the revisions that the producers (David Giler, Gordon Carroll, and Walter Hill) made to the shooting script added value (making Ash a robot always pissed Dan O’Bannon off, but it was a great twist). The fact that I can still enjoy watching Alien all these years later is a testament to it’s quality.
Alien is an art house film and horror movie hybrid, combined with science fiction trappings. It’s slow and it takes its time getting to where it’s going. Once it gets there though, it’s a hell of a ride. It is, in my humble opinion, the greatest movie of its kind that’s ever been made, and almost forty years later it has yet to be topped. To this day, its fever-dream sexual monstrosities, creeping sense of dread, brutal bursts of violence, low-key acting, and stellar art direction sets it apart from everything else. Back in 1979 there was room for smaller, darker pictures. The age of the blockbuster was just dawning and a movie didn’t have to make hundreds of millions of dollars to be considered a success. I miss those sort of films and I hope they make a come back some day. The dismal state of the franchise as it stands right now doesn’t lend much hope, though. In space, no one can hear you scream, but on earth everyone can tell an all-time classic when they see it.