Those who do not feel that they have supped quite full enough of sensationalism might find themselves more replete after savouring Ken Russell's latest dish. The policy of shocking people into awareness is applied very strongly in The Devils; a demonstration of the horrors that can be caused by excessive denial of the flesh….
Russell could no doubt have gone to even more startling extremes, which would have been viable dramatically. As things stand, the visuals are pretty hair-raising. At the beginning, we have a balletic prelude given by Louis XIII for the delectation of Richelieu, who looks understandably impatient at the quality of the dance, and then we plunge into the potent stuff: on the outskirts of Loudon, skeletal shapes are rotting upon great wheels; inside the Convent, the nuns have clambered to windows to ogle Grandier as he passes by. The climate of frenzy is established fast….
Relatively commonplace is the orgiastic sequence where nuns cast off their garments and disport themselves amid a rowdy throng: except for their nudity, which is alarmingly extended to their shaven heads, this is redolent of trad-epic cinema. The more fulsome devices of exorcism make a savage impact, however, and the final agonies of Grandier are potent.
Presumably to discourage us from dismissing it all as just a spot of ugly spice from the distant past, Russell throws in an occasional deliberate anachronism…. As an aid to continued relevance through the decades, this idea has worked quite well in other historical pieces…. But here the benefits are fitful: when occasion is found for Louis XIII to say 'Bye bye, blackbird' the mind begins to boggle a bit.
Gordon Gow, "'The Devils'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1971; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 17, No. 12, September, 1971, p. 55.