Ken Russell RIP

I was going to write a bit more about the passing of this mad cine-genius, a prototypical British eccentric anarchist. He was a seminal figure in 1970’s and 80’s film, and it’s hard to fathom how he would find major studio financing as he once commanded after his hit WOMEN IN LOVE (1969) to finance THE DEVILS (1971), arguably one of the most controversial films in the history of the medium, a brilliant summation of religious tolerance repression and perversion featuring Oliver Reed in his greatest performance along with Vanessa Redgrave, indelible as a hunchbacked nun with deep fantasies. Warner Brothers is scared to release his uncut version to this day (although a BFI Region 1 blu-ray is coming), testament to the power of the film and the ironic fear of persecution. Russell had an odd, excessive style you either liked or didn’t — for example, I’m not a fan of TOMMY (1975), his biggest hit, primarily because I love the original rock-opera so much and the stars warbling don’t work; plus I have an irrational dislike of Roger Daltrey’s frizzy hair in the film. His crazed musicals such as LIZTOMANIA are where Russell entered Fellini-ville, where his style and method was swallowing up narrative coherence. However, I am a passionate devotee of Paddy Chayefsky’s ALTERED STATES (1980), and feel that Russell was the perfect director (replacing Arthur Penn, who chose the dazzling cast). Chayefsky’s literate script of sex, dialogues and transformations was given flight by Russell’s apropos visionary direction. GOTHIC (1989) is a not to be taken seriously baroque horror comedy but has some startling images, such as the eyes on the nipple, a perfect Russell visual if there ever was. Regardless of his audience alienations, I may not have loved all of his films, but I loved that Ken Russell actually made them.


20 Responses to “Ken Russell RIP”

  1. awesome little k russell write-up christian (i guess i might be the only fan of russell’s adaptation of bram stoker’s bizarre ‘lair of the white worm’, a black comedy wrapped in a trippy horror package)

    • christian Says:

      LAIR is of course another bizarro 80’s Russell film. I’ve been on a THE DEVILS kick lately, truly impressed by its utterly timely message and visual power — it’s certainly one of the most atmospheric films ever made in the sense of feeling like the environment is a main character…that it’s still censored today over religious fear says it all.

  2. i originally saw ‘the devils’ in the cinema a loooooong time ago during one of its re-releases or festival screenings or the like – i can’t remember which – and i have it on what i believe is a european dvd but i’m not sure what version it is… one thing is certain: russell was mental, in the best possible way. and a textbook auteur imho

  3. Well pop that bad boy in and find out. I know that in the upcoming DVD release that the infamous “Rape Of Christ” scene will be cut out of the documentary about the making of the film. In the 21st century.

    Here’s Ollie Reed at the height of his powers talking about THE DEVILS:

  4. Charley Brady Says:

    Leah, here is another fan of “Lair”. I don’t think that people knew quite what to make of it but then they never did when it came to Russell. For that matter I also love “Salome’s Last Dance”! I first came across Russell in the seventies when he did “The Devils” and from that moment on I could never be objective about him.

    I’ve lived in Ireland for the last 30 years and he’s still the most banned mainstream director as far as I know with “Devils”, “Liztomania”, “Crimes of Passion” and “Whore”. Still, we did redeem ourselves with a major retrospective some years back and he was as warm, friendly and interesting as you’de expect.

    Charley Brady.

    • good to know, charley brady, and interesting info about russell’s persona non grata status in ireland (and your subsequent redemption. i’ve been to britain but never ireland, tho i always imagine the place and people as somewhat akin to nz)

  5. Charley Brady Says:

    At his stage, Leah, Ireland is a very different place to the one I moved to. If and when these works are re-submitted I doubt there would be a problem. Well, “the Devils” seems to remain problematic for philisitines everywhere so I doubt that would change.

    Thanks also to Christian for his comments (did you write the bio? I can’t find the byline). With its powerful depiction of Church and State and the relationship between the two it certainly is timely here.

    As to your less happy feelings about the brilliant “Tommy” I seem to recall one critic saying that you know a film isn’t normal when the sanest thing in it is Jack Nicholson’s performance.

    Russell’s influence continued long after he was over as a major force. I was struck in particular last year by Johnny Depp’s best film “The Libertine” which was pure Russell in parts. If you haven’t seen this brilliant film then what are you waiting for?

    Also try to see (hard though it is) some of his 60s BBC work. “Elgar” is readily available and is Ken in restrained (by necessity) mode but real gems are his “Debussy Film” and “Dante’s Inferno” with Oliver Reed.

    A couple of really good books on him are “Ken Russell” by Joseph Gomez (1976) which is a pretty scholarly study of the BBC work and the features up to “Liztomania” and the more recent, excellent and very funny “Phallic Frenzy” by Joseph Lanza.

    And on that note, to you both: a very merry christmas.

    Charley Brady

    • Thanks Charley for the insights. Yes, I wrote the post on Russell, as I do all the posts unless otherwise credited. And the best part is reading the comments from folks like you and legendary leahnz among others.

      Yeah, I can’t see THE DEVILS getting released uncut given as its still for all intents and purposes banned in schizophrenic America.

      I’ll check out TOMMY again as I’m going thru a mini-Russell phase. THE MUSIC LOVERS is on netflix streaming now…

      I like anything with Reed and Russell.

      Happy Holidaze!

  6. Charley Brady Says:

    Sorry Christian, got it! Put that down to Christmas Eve stress!


  7. Charley Brady Says:

    Christian, many thanks for your understanding of an utter idiot. It’s Christmas after all.

    If you’re interested in checking out other Reed/Russell there was an interesting radio piece done by Russell where Reed played Aleister Crowley.

    Can’t remember what it was as I’m in a home (not a mental one yet) where children are expecting presents in the morning. They’re not my children, mind you. They’re like something that escaped from “Tommy”.

    I’ve just discovered Tech Dreams and looking through the archives I loved your Ingrid Pitt piece. Unfortunately you’d have to go through me to have a cat fight with that divine lady.


    • No appy polly loggy neccessary.

      I would love to hear that Reed/Rusell radio piece…Reed as Crowley – shoulda been a film fit for Russell.

      Thanks for stopping by and you’re welcome to chill.

      Ingrid is mine however.

  8. i’m not sure if i’ve already said it here at some point but ‘tommy’ – as one of my earliest cineama-going expericnecs when i was just a nipper (maybe 8 or 9…when was tommy) – scarred me for life (thanks mum!). i own it but don’t ever really watch it because it freaks me out. i think i have acid queen trauma flashback.

    • sorry for typos i’m not used to commenting on my phone

      • It is a scary film, and Russell’s films always had that disturbing quality. I don’t know if Daltrey’s frizzy curls are a Russell effect however. Scary nonetheless. And Oliver Reed singing (sic) “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found”…

        Reed should have starred in THE KEITH MOON STORY.

  9. Charley Brady Says:

    Leah, dearest lady, can you imagine how scarred you would have been if you had seen the Acid Queen played by Ken’s first choice–Lou Reed.?

    I was scarred myself when I found out that the nipples opening into eyes in “Gothic” wasn’t a Ken invention but inspired by Shelly’s dread of seeing a woman’s breasts opening up and looking at him.

    Now I’m as perverted as the next guy but I have to admit that particular idiosyncrasy is one not shared by me. As a matter of fact I would put that one on a level with Sinead O’Connor’s latest husband having to look at her new tattoo of Jesus Christ on her chest looking back at him during a crucial moment. *Shudder*

    As to you, Christian. As long as “The Wicker Man” exists in what’s left of my brain, Ingrid will always be mine. (Especially in that all too brief shot of her in the bathtub, sucking her thumb. Ah, Brady, behave yourself!)

    But since you like Reed/Russell collaberations watch out for him in the brilliant “Mahler”. Blink and you’ll miss it.

    Seriously, enjoying my discovery of Technicolour Dreams very much. And note the manner in which ‘colour’ is really spelled when you’re living in civilization, heathen Americans! Honestly, how the hell did you lot grow to be a world power?

    By the way, what was that with the ‘nadsat’ speak from the most over rated film ever, “Clockwork Orange”?

    On that note, it’s nine o’clock here so I’m off to wash my luscious glory before going out for some spiked miloko and a night of ultra violence!


    • Lou Reed as the Acid Queen woulda been truly terrifying. Bowie could have done as well too. Bowie and Russell seemed like a good fit for a film as well.

      As for the nadsat, I’m a huge fan of the Anthony Burgess novel (pure linguistic delight and real horrorshow) and my first early teen viewing of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE on late night HBO was profound but strangely, I’ve come to dislike the film over the years. McDowell is still brilliant but the film is so stacked in his favor in a way the Burgess novel didn’t (but still invoked empathy) that I find it less compelling and somewhat obvious in its irony.

      And maybe I’ll have to create the foreign version of TD…

  10. Charley Brady Says:

    Well, now, that sobered me up quite a bit. I was hoping for an argument but of course you’re quite right. The Burgess book is outstanding. And I would also add, quite seriously, compare that cartoon rape scene in the dreadful (for all of the wrong reasons) film with the novel where– I’m quoting from memory here so don;t take me to task– Alex says of the aftermath of the gang rape: ” They were lying on the floor, torn and bleeding, not there really”.

    Now that is truly horrifying.

    I would also say, since you got me in serious mode at Christmas now, damn you, compare it with the genuine horror in the other two controversial films of ’71, Russells “The Devils” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”. There is just no wriggle room there at all, not like the completely over rated Kubrick.

    And yet… if I was pushed to name my favourite film ever it would be Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”. As you Americans say, ‘go figure’.

    By the way, as to your very decent privacy clause I’m a freelance journalist so my email is on the end of most of my stuff anyway. If yourself and the divine Leah want to argue with the gloves off my email is

    ….Bowie and Russell, eh? Yeah, I could see that.


    • I’m sure there are others here who could challenge any brook on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It’s impeccably made and one of the great film scores, but the forced ironies don’t work for me anymore. I didn’t see BARRY LYNDON until a couple years back and I was suitably impressed. Now it’s one of my favorites.

  11. “Leah, dearest lady, can you imagine how scarred you would have been if you had seen the Acid Queen played by Ken’s first choice–Lou Reed.?”

    omg, that’s hilarious. i’d pay to see that (yes, probably would have been even more for my young psyche to deal with on top of uncle ernie and cousin kevin)

    and this:

    ” I don’t know if Daltrey’s frizzy curls are a Russell effect however. Scary nonetheless. ”

    also hilarious (and so true)

    (everything is funny to me today for some reason, maybe i’m over-tired and goofy)

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