The Smiling Mortician takes that ‘ole devil Ken Russell

To this day I have only ever walked out of one film – although many have tried to force me out of the theater. I tenaciously remained to the bitter end through some truly horrid films. But then Ken Russell got the better of me when I up and left in the middle of his film The Devils. I wasn’t offended by Russell’s notoriously puerile sensibilities. I was just offended by his abject failure to entertain. But that never was Russell’s intent as a filmmaker. His intent was to shock his admirers, and his audiences alike. I was not shocked. Neither was I amused.

You can see Russell’s rise and fall by perusing his IMDB output as a director: listing 71 titles from his start in shorts and documentaries (1956-1961), his graduation to television movies (1962-1966), then his first feature film Billion Dollar Brain (1967), quickly followed by my first Russell film, Women In Love (1969). One more feature film was released prior to the execrable The Devils in 1971. He continued with feature films throughout the eighties. After that, there was mostly a string of more tv movies, more shorts until The Smiling Mortician came a callin’ last Sunday.

Russell was enamored with D.H. Lawrence and composers. Amongst his feature films were the aforementioned Women  in Love. But also The Music Lovers, Mahler, Lisztomania,  and The Rainbow. 

Women in Love was, in its own way bold and fresh, but also in some ways cringe-worthy. The famous nude wrestling scene featuring Alan Bates and Oliver Reed was quite the thing at the time. Reed, a horrible actor will forever be associated in my mind with Russell (he was a chronic cast member in Russell’s films).

The Devils shows Russell at the apogee of his excess. Like most of his films with a literary connection (this is based on Aldous Huxley’s novel “The Devils of Loudon“), it gives us virtually nothing to think about. There is no room for intellectual musing. These films are visceral and manipulative, and (hopefully) forgettable in its details. I have never forgotten the repulsion though. And I need to reiterate, I’m not talking any queasy pit of stomach reaction. I’m just talking mind numbing headache.

The image above gives you an idea of the near camp aspect of Russell films. Check out the tagline line: “Hell holds no surprises for them”. Umm, ok?  RIP, KR. I hope you got it out of your system. If you didn’t, I’m sure you gave it your best shot. And I very much hope you’re not ‘surprised’ by the afterlife.

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