Anyone with a passing interest of British Cinema in the last fifty years will eventually come across Ken Russell. A larger than life figure, his films rarely hit the top spot or enjoyed the sort of credibility that many of his contemporise managed (John Boorman, Charles Crichton had similarly lengthy and varied careers), but most people have seen at least one of them. For me, with an equal mixture of glee and shame it was “The Lair of the White Worm”, a sort of demented comedy-sex horror staring a very game Amanda Donohoe and a very young Hugh Grant that proved that Bram Stoker really was a one-hit-wonder. It had the same sort of demented energy as the rest of his films.
Occasionally Russell skirted with respectability, “Women In Love” and a series of films about composers and filmed operas. However for me he was at his best when he mixed this with a degree of sleaze – “Crimes of Passion” feels like a precursor to the run of sex thrillers that came out on the nineties such as Basic Instinct, “Altered States” to the alternate reality sci-fi films that dominated at the end of the century. Russell never enjoyed widespread success with these, but looking back it’s easy to see the influence that he had on future directors.
Respectability and sleaze collided once to produce his masterpiece, “The Devils” – the sort of extreme horror film that would still give films today a run for the money. Nearly forty years on since its initial (reluctant) release it remains a difficult film to watch with its floggings, castration by plank and hobbling scenes. However, this never feels exploitive, merely an accurate portrayal of the events that happened in Loudon. It also contains probably Oliver Reed’s finest performance, channelling all of that misplaced talent into something both sympathetic and terrifying.
So farewell Ken Russell. British cinema seems a little bit saner and quieter with your passing.