Ken Russell  

A unique film-maker that often explores psychological layers of his characters through extravagant and crass surrealism, and exaggerated, wild and manic behaviour. He made dozens of biographies and biopics that typically reduce the celebrity in question to a caricature composed of social perceptions, scandals and highlights, with major events in his life sometimes performed with crude, hallucinative symbolism. Actors frequently become manic, larger-than-life and insane, to match the ingrained impressions of the public eye, with the biggest highlights delivered as surreal and crass anachronisms from our time. His better films allow some insight and a deeper picture to emerge somehow from this approach along with the impressionistic madness, but this doesn't happen often. Russell at his peak can be described as excessive, vulgar, surreal, flamboyant and bizarre although on rare occasions it does work seamlessly as part of the movie such as with the great Altered States and the tiring and insanely extravagant musical Boy Friend. He initially grew as a director making experimental episodic biographies with slight touches of surrealism for the BBC. The rest of his lesser known work is mostly conventional and he did have a few mainstream hits such as the D.H. Lawrence adaptations. This page only features his most bizarre and excessive works. Died in 2011.


Altered States  
A perfectly suitable movie for Russell, where hallucinations and bizarre, overwrought transformations are part of the story. Scientists experiment with extreme sense-deprivation until one of them finds his mind and physical body changing to another evolutionary stage, and then to another existential level, while his girlfriend watches in horror. Powerfully strange and fascinating, with a superb William Hurt.

Of Some Interest

Dante's Inferno  
A stand-out amidst the early works by Ken Russell for the BBC: It is a full-length movie, but more importantly, it features a lot of Russell's later behavioural excesses, experimental camera work, and impressionistic, surreal approach to biographies. The man in question this time is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a poet, illustrator, and painter, Russell typically focusing on his roller-coaster relationship with a sick woman that overdosed on laudanum and drove him insane, and some scandals with models, while his poetry and paintings are liberally applied throughout the movie. The actors behave like manic children, the death of his wife haunts him throughout the movie with surreal & crude images of a casket and desiccated corpse, and other cartoonish or surreal interludes and costumes color the movie in between.

Devils, The  
A disturbing true story gets the excessive treatment by Russell. Reed is a philandering priest who gets in the way of the Cardinal's plans. The nuns in his town have obsessive sexual fantasies about him but when a witch hunter arrives, they denounce him as the devil rather than be tortured some more. Along the way we see Russell's usual over-the-top hysteria, some bizarre scenes as well as gory, graphic torture, and wild, decadent and perverse scenes that have very little respect for the church to say the least. Oliver Reed's performance lends power to the film as always, the madness reaches some kind of inspired crescendo in this spectacle of a movie, but it may be that the praises are merely due to the sexual content and the simplistic, lurid attacks on the church.

Another biography, this time mostly restrained, sometimes beautiful and moodily filmed exploring the life of this tortured Jewish artist, his relationship with his family and Cosima Wagner, all quite interesting and well done, peppered with symbolic visions and hallucinations, some literal gratuitous sleazy dancing over his grave, and a bizarre, vulgar conversion scene with a Nazi dominatrix including some dragon slaying. At least this was better than The Music Lovers's treatment of Tchaikovsky.


Crimes Of Passion  
Turner portrays a character leading a double life of an architect and a kinky, professional whore. One of her clients starts stalking her and discovers her other persona, while a mad perverted priest decides it's his job to save her soul while compulsively engaging in voyeurism and other disturbing deeds. Quite visually restrained for Russell but over-the-top and disturbing in its sleaze.

Dance of the Seven Veils  
An episode in the Omnibus series, and another crass biopic by Russell which got him in trouble. Like Lisztomania, this one explores Richard Strauss in a barrage of hysterical vignettes, his dramatic music set to scenes of debauchery and Nazism. Once again Russell reduces a complex artist's life to a series of sensational highlights warped by a mass public mind. The women that inspired his music are depicted as strippers, his 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' backed by Nazi imagery even though it was written in 1896, he walks over religion in scenes of hysterical self-flagellation and horny nuns (a precursor to 'The Devils'), he dances for Hitler, ignores a Jew being branded while his music plays, and acts as a swashbuckling hero on stage. In short, Strauss is reduced to an arrogant buffoon and the movie focuses primarily on his relationship with Nazism, the introductory disclaimer preparing you for a series of 'comic-strips'. No wonder the Strauss estate and the BBC made a ruckus.

Fall of the Louse of Usher, The  
Russell's insane and silly homage to Poe as a kind of sequel to the story of Usher with random Poe allusions and puns. After the murder of his wife, Roderick Usher the rock star is put in an insane asylum where the chief doctor is Russell himself as a kind of crazy, naughty Benny Hill psychiatrist with a young nurse sidekick. This is just Russell having wild fun with the freedom of a digital camera and a dozen actors in ridiculous costumes that act as campy goths, sluts or lunatics. The result is ugly cinematography, endless campy tastelessness, and over-the-top acting. Included are scenes involving Poe's swinging pendulum torture, a penis and Viagra, a dog emerging from a gory corpse, hypnosis of a dead man, and lots of terrible songs. Russell doing a Seaver movie?

Energetic wild romp about one night with Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and friends who have orgies, run around screaming and have frightening hallucinations with monsters and dead babies while telling each other horror stories. At times effectively creepy, but typically over-the-top, with Russell creating his own vision based on the mythical encounter of these personalities and their backgrounds, or rather, their pop-social-personalities. Quite pointless.

Lair of the White Worm  
A campy, erotic, gory, unintentionally funny horror movie about vampires, this time in the form of snake-humans that worship an old cult religion. Russell injects the story with his typical surreal hallucination and dream scenes, but they seem somewhat supine this time. A highlight is the hilarious scene where a woman is charmed by Eastern music and dance-slithers out of her house while drawn to the sound. Campy silliness.

Liszt is envisioned as the pop-star of his time and this is enough to wrap this idea with non-stop visual and aural madness in the form of vampires, screaming groupies, huge penises, voodoo dolls, Hitler, Frankenstein, Chaplin-esque vignettes, a cowboy pope, a train running over two people tied inside a grand piano, etc, etc. Simply self-indulgent insanity. Taking an idea too far is one thing, but making a movie out of it?

Ken Russell directs an opera, Arrigo Boito's take on the Faust legend, by way of Russell's unhinged visions. This version has Faust make a pact with the devil who made a bet with God. Faust then seduces a girl with his newfound powers, then tries to save her from the prison he got her into, then visits a witches' Sabbath and travels back in time, until the final enlightenment. But Russell adds painfully colorful sets, bizarre props, and insane costumes, turns God into a large grasshopper, has the Sabbath take place in a space-ship with robots, turns Faust young via instant plastic surgery with the help of nurses in mini-skirts, transforms prison into a home with a woman trapped in her housework, makes people appear in snow-white and other Disney costumes, and so on. What this adds to the story is beyond me.

Salome's Last Dance  
Oscar Wilde's banned play is performed in front of him in a brothel while he woos one of the male actors. Of course Russell has to exaggerate or twist everything with vulgarities and a slew of horrible or perverted characters. Nudity, S&M, sex and farts are used for pointlessly campy effect, and there's a mind-boggling scene involving 3 topless whores gyrating on top of 3 Hasidic dwarves. This is typical of Ken Russell, to take only the most controversial and lurid details of a person's life or work, and sensationalize it even further as a way to depict his lowest-common-denominator social image.

Outrageous, annoying rock musical based on the good and classic rock opera by The Who about a boy who witnesses his father's death, grows up deaf, dumb and blind and becomes a pinball-wizard, then a hippie cult leader. The Who may have had a social message in mind in the original, but it is largely lost here amidst Russell's outlandish visuals, and the choice to have the cast (including Jack Nicholson and Reed) sing is not a good one. Elton John does his usual outrageous shtick, Tina Turner appears as a hooker, Ann Margret performs physically in a pool of baked beans, the pinball sequences are insanely colorful and surreal, and so on. Rock operas are already over-the-top to begin with, so the idea of Russell directing one should either scare you or make you run to see it depending on your tastes. I found it tiresome.

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