The Associated Press reports that Ken Russell, the controversial British director of such cult films as “The Devils,” “Tommy,” and “Altered States,” died on Sunday after a series of strokes. He was 84. The AP sums it up well:
“Ken Russell got Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to wrestle naked, turned Vanessa Redgrave into a demonic nun and cast Ringo Starr as the pope. Critics and mainstream audiences often hated his films. Actors and admirers loved him. The iconoclastic British director, whose death aged 84 was announced Monday, made films that blended music, sex and violence in a potent brew seemingly drawn straight from his subconscious.”
Russell isn’t a household name, but amongst cinephiles, his appearance in a film’s credits signalled reason for excitement. Russell’s movies might not always have been perfect, but during his heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, they were always interesting. Scrolling through his IMDb page you see the work of a director willing to experiment and push cinematic boundaries. In 1969, he made “Women in Love,” famous for its frank approach to sexuality and the aforementioned nude wrestling scene between Reed and Bates. In 1971, he directed “The Devils” about demonic possession in 17th century France, and drew the ire of the Catholic Church, which condemned the movie and its depiction of the religion. In 1980’s “Altered States,” Russell used a sensory deprivation chamber and some hallucinogenic drugs to, in all seriousness, turn William Hurt into a monkey man. His version of the film drew the ire of its revered screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, but “Altered States” eventually became Russell’s best-known and most-watched film in America.
If you’re a curious film lover unfamiliar with Russell, I’d start there, and then move on to “The Devils.” His bombastic version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” is a lot of fun too — the version of “Pinball Wizard” featuring Elton John remains one of most memorably weird musical sequences of the 1970s. Not quite as kooky as those films, but still fun (and available on Netflix Watch Instantly) is “Billion Dollar Brain,” the final installment in the original series of Harry Palmer spy films starring Michael Caine. As the AP notes, Russell was a divisive button-pusher of a director. It’s quite possible you might not like all those movies I’ve recommended. But I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be bored by any of them.