The Devils

Ring a Ding Ding

The Devils (1971)

When the Hollywood decency code lifted and opened way for the rating system we have today, the 70s became flooded with naked flesh. During that time, nudity used in an unsexy or unartful way often was the reason a movie was considered a horror film. The Devils is such a case.

The true story is a drama about the extent the Catholic church under Cardinal Richelieu went to remove a priest who also had control over the one town blocking the cardinal from taking over all of France in the 1630s. The only reason I can see the flick being relegated to the horror genre is because of scenes featuring a large number of nude nuns. The movie was considered, and perhaps still is, highly controversial because it also features the top sister at the church sexually fantasizing about Jesus/the priest.

The Devils is actually a very well made movie with fantastic sets and a wonderful performance by Oliver Reed as the priest, Father Grandier. At the picture’s start one cannot help but loathe his character. Although the head of the church in Loudon, Grandier is depicted as very lustful, with one of the town’s young women pregnant after an affair with him. Grandier dismisses her concerns and tells her to bear her sin with religious fortitude(Georgina Hale).

The man nevertheless finds a plain, pure woman that he marries in lieu of an affair. The girl, Madeline (Gemma Jones), is considering entering the nunhood, but he persuades her otherwise, hoping to find salvation in the love of a good woman. The marriage, however, enrages the head nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). This hunchbacked woman is highly sexually repressed and cannot stifle her love and obsession with Grandier.

Her rage leads her to tell authorities that Father Grandier has had a sexual relationship with her in her dreams, which leads to questions of possession of the nun by Satan. With all the women of the church now suspect of possession by the devil, they relish in the opportunity to run about naked, acting crazy and enduring exorcisms. The king calls Grandier to the capitol and is set on destroying him. Grandier became Loudon’s ruler when the governor died and has refused Richelieu’s demands to tear down its walls and forfeit its independence. Having been accused of outrageous crimes, Grandier can nevertheless not prove his innocence and he is put to death for his alleged crimes.

The story is a very frustrating one as Grandier becomes a largely sympathetic protagonist under a system of guilty until proven innocent. It is remarkable, however, that the plot is written to shift our character preferences around. Although at first Sister Jeanne seems like a sad character worth our affection, she soon becomes increasingly sinister while Grandier’s offensive lifestyle is shadowed by the wrongs committed against him.

The Devils is a great movie, but not a terrifying experience like those you might be seeking this time of year. It has its unsettling moments, but it is more a quality drama with a degree of controversial nudity.

Burnt Offerings

Gasser

Burnt Offerings (1976)

    I was not terribly surprised when Ryan accepted my offer to watch with me a movie Bette Davis made in the ’70s, which guaranteed “freaky, old Bette” fun. Both of us were expecting a campy, comically bad horror flick, not unlike those that became Joan Crawford’s specialty late in her career (see Trog, Strait-Jacket, and Berserk). We were both pleasantly surprised to find Burnt Offerings as a legitimate horror/thriller and Davis’ performance quite agreeable.

     Davis is actually a minor character in the flick that offers screen time to scarcely more than six individuals. She plays Aunt Elizabeth who joins her nephew Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black) and their son Davey (Lee Montgomery)  in renting an old mansion for a summer. The home is run-down looking from the outside, but fine on the inside. It is in a secluded wooded area nearby a nothing of a town. The entire flick takes place on this property, giving the story a trapped feeling all around.

     The notion of dangerous houses is a regular theme in horror flicks, but Burnt Offerings takes the evil nature of an estate to literal lengths. When Ben and Marian interview the house owners Roz (Eileen Heckart) and “brother” (Burgess Meredith), they speak about the home as being immortal and said having the young boy around would be good for it. They were also overly pleased to hear an old woman would be staying with the family. They notify the renters that their mother lives in a third-floor room and that they will have to take her meals three times a day. She won’t be a bother or leave her room, they say.

     When the family arrives to move into the house for the summer, the brother and sister are absent, leaving a note that they had to exit early. Marian climbs to the top floor to check on the mother and finds an empty tray and dishes in the adjacent sitting room. The woman does not answer when she knocks on the door, so Marian presumes she is asleep. 

     Marian fills her days with cleaning and sprucing up the mansion while Ben and Davey explore the grounds and clean out the swimming pool. During their first dip in the water, however, Ben is overcome with some evil force and tries to drown the boy while Aunt Elizabeth screams at him to stop. Marian easily forgives this rough-housing got out of hand. The next strange occurence is the sudden awakening of all the clocks in the house that have been out-of-order. They all jump forward to midnight and chime while everyone is asleep. This prompts Ben to leave his bed, which is when he discovers the gas furnace is leaking in Davey’s room and his door locked. Aunt Elizabeth admits to being in the room earlier but denies any wrongdoing.

     Aunt Elizabeth, a woman described as energetic for her age, has become increasingly older in her appearance and too tired to leave her bed. One night she is literally green with illness. Ben and Marian try for a doctor, but he arrives after the woman has passed. Ben is now thoroughly convinced the house is evil, but Marian is too enthralled in the estate to leave it and too committed to the mother to leave her alone. When Davey is yet again put in peril, Marian is finally persuaded to part, but must return inside to tell the mother of their departure. When Ben goes after her, we find out what is behind the mysterious bedroom door.

     I don’t know that I can totally unravel the mythology at play in Burnt Offerings, but suffice it to say this house is not so much haunted as alive itself. It seems to prey on the young and old alike, taking their lives as a way of rejuvenating itself, such as through the flowers in the greenhouse that resurrect themselves after Aunt Elizabeth’s death, and the shingles and siding that shed to reveal younger versions. It’s a thrilling and creepy concept that is well executed.

     The hints of Marian’s madness or corruption are subtle with the gradual greying of her hair –which is restored when the family decides to leave– and her glances at the third-floor window when her personality changes. The practical effects, however few were necessary, add to the unsettling feeling the audience gets as we continually try to rationalize what has occurred. Burnt Offerings is a fantastically understated horror flick that only further establishes my growing fear of Victorian-era houses.

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