Saturday, June 19, 2010

Downloading The Devils

Even by the anything-goes standards of the irrepressible Ken Russell, there's nothing quite like The Devils (1971), which shocked audiences in 1971, and shocks us today, both for its "not for the squeamish" content (to quote Leonard Maltin) and when we consider what the studios were up to in 1971. Today, we get so-called "torture porn"; back then, we got a film that doesn't flinch from hysterical depravity, then comes to a sharply moral point, much harder than the so-called "lessons" absorbed ad knee-jerk from Saw I-VI. With name actors, too, in Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, both fearsomely committed to this fire-and-brimstone Aldous Huxley adaptation.

I saw the movie in college, at a raucous midnight screening that ultimately silenced a bunch of jaded kids. Seeing it again has been a challenge, as Warner Bros., which at one point edited the film to play on a double bill with The Exorcist, turned its back on it. I recall a panned-and-scanned tape that was, at best, a feeble representation of its strikingly produced self. There was a UK telecast of a more complete version, never released, that was available through grey-market sources--and it had its own issues, though it was a welcome bastard, complete with a fine documentary. A few years back Russell said that he had prepared a commentary for a hotly requested and long-overdue release. The rest has been silence.

But, to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, "Sometimes there's The Devils so quickly." In late May a gorgeous, anamorphic widescreen print of the film, as seen in its initial US and UK release, turned up--not as a Warner DVD, or as part of the Warner Archive, but on iTunes, where it can be rented or purchased by anyone out there, no region codes or all that nonsense. I've rented films for online viewing before, but this was The Devils, so I paid my $9.95 (several dollars less than a DVD or Archive release) and downloaded the movie.

I was taken aback when iTunes said that that the 1.2GB file would take six hours to download. The job was finished, though, in less than an hour. I'd have paid a lot more if iTunes could add two free hours for me to watch it, but what I scanned through was in fantastic shape. Call me old school: I'd rather have a physical product in my hot little hands, an Archive release as no frills as this one or, preferably, a pressed DVD with the UK doc and Russell's commentary. (This may be the teaser for that.) For now, though, The Devils has possessed my MacBook Pro. What other hidden gems are up on iTunes, I wonder?

UPDATE: iTunes giveth, iTunes taketh away: The Devils has been exorcised from the site. Bound for DVD perhaps?

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