Jess Franco's 1973 film Les Demons (or The Demons as it's called on the packaging for this Blu-ray release) may have drawn obvious inspiration from Ken Russell's film of The Devils but make no mistake, Franco's touch is all over this picture. This is evident from the start in which we see a woman accused of witchcraft stabbed with a pin. The inquisition, led by Lord Justice Jeffries (Cihangir Gaffari credited as John Foster), is using this tactic to tell if she's guilty of sins against God or not. When they do in fact find her guilty, she tells Jeffries and his cohorts, Lady de Winter (Karin Field) and soldier Thomas Renfield (Alberto Dalbés), that after they burn her at the stake her descendants will get revenge.
From here the story moves to a convent where Mother Rosalinda (Doris Thomas) watches over a group of nuns. Two of the young ladies in her charge are orphaned sisters Margaret (Britt Nichols) and the Kathleen (Anne Libert) who are being taken care of here at the insistence of a local nobleman. When Mother Rosalinda gives confession, she talks to the priest about spying on Kathleen as she masturbated and the conflicting emotions she felt while doing so. Not only does this stir feelings that Rosalind has obviously repressed for ages but it also leads her to believe that randy Kathleen might be a witch herself. From here, de Winter and Thomas arrive at the convent. Having taken the executed witch's threat seriously they've decided to find any female orphans on site, which obviously brings them to the two sisters. When it's discovered that Kathleen is not a virgin, she too is accused of witchcraft and taken away for more inquisition style torture. Malcolm de Winter (Howard Vernon), the Lady's husband, is completely unaware that his wife is cheating on him. He feels sorry for Kathleen and helps to get her out of prison while back at the convent Margaret is talking to the spirit of her dead mother, after which she is raped by a man in red who by doing so consummates her marriage to Satan. Once Rosalind dies, the victim of a mysterious suicide, it would seem that maybe the witch's threat in the opening scene was not one to be trifled with…
Les Demons is presented here completely uncut and clocking in at an hour and fifty-eight minutes in length. Though the movie does occasionally lag, Franco turns in a well-made picture and while, yes, he does definitely borrow from Russell's bag of tricks, his spin is unique enough that this works on its own level. Less concerned with historical accuracy and more interested in gratuitous sex scenes, there's a lot of writhing, naked, nubile nuns to ogle throughout the film. Britt Nichols and Anne Libert are both fine casting choices in this regard, they're both natural beauties evidently not shy in the least in front of the camera and while the movie definitely plays up their sex appeal the script ensures that there's enough going on that they do occasionally warrant our sympathy. The characters are a bit more complex here than in many of his other films, and we wind up with a picture in which no one is really innocent.
Of course, the most obvious finger pointing is done towards the inquisition, the characters of Jeffries and Lady de Winter being the most deserving. Given that Renfield has a change of heart towards the middle part of the film we see that he, at least, feels for the girls but the other two? They're content to abuse their respective positions in society as they see fit. As such, they're responsible for a whole lot of torture and sexual degradation essentially for the sole purpose of amusing themselves. Franco takes some barbed but fair shots at the institution of the Roman Catholic church throughout the film, but given the context of the story, that should come as no surprise.
If some of the locations used for the shoot feel a little more modern than maybe they should, production values are otherwise quite good for a film made with a modest budget. The cinematography is solid and the score from Jean-Bernard Raiteux is frequently impressive as are most of the costumes. A slew of Franco regulars populate the cast. Not only did Nichols and Libert work with him on A Virgin Among The Living Dead and Dracula's Daughter among others, but Franco mainstay Howard Vernon shows up here and is used well, playing one of the few good characters in the picture. Franco would use Doris Thomas in Faceless in 1987 but had cast her prior in Sinner: Diary Of A Nymphomaniac and The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein, Alberto Dalbés pops up in that last one too. All in all, this one might be a little too uneven in its pace to draw in those who are new to the director's work but seasoned fans who have already acquired the taste for the director's unconventional work should find much to appreciate here.
The Demons arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 2.35.1 transfer in 1080p high definition mastered from 35mm archival materials. Most Blu-ray enabled Eurocult fans that have seen previous transfers in the Redemption/Kino line will be able to tell you that they don't do any sort of restoration on the elements they have for these titles so with that in mind, you need to expect some print damage throughout. Some clean up would have probably made a difference here but again, we definitely notice significantly more detail present here than on the past DVD releases and a fair bit more depth and texture as well. There is some softness in a few scenes that is obviously inherent in the original photography, so realistically you can't fault the disc for those issues because that's just the way Jess Franco shoots a lot of his movies, but there's good depth and dimensionality here. There are no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there even a hint of noise reduction anywhere to be seen, so expect a reasonable amount of film grain but never to the point of distraction. Colors are fairly well represented here, reds in particular, and skin tones are warm and natural looking.
A French language option is available in LPCM Mono format, with optional subtitles included in English only. There are times where things sound a bit flat but overall the audio isn't bad here even if the dubbing is occasionally obvious. The levels are properly balanced and the score is here with enough punch and resonance to be as effective as you'd hope it would be and the scenes of torture feature some impressively loud screaming that come through with a disturbing amount of clarity. On the flip side of that coin, the moans of pleasure that occur in certain scenes are also impressive! There are a few spots where you might pick up on some hiss or scratches but those problems are infrequent and minor.
The main extra on the disc is a sixteen minute interview with the late Jess Franco himself conducted by David Gregory. Here the director speaks in his typically blunt style about his thoughts on the film, what it was like working with certain performers on the picture and about some of the set pieces and locations used in the feature. Franco's interviews are always interesting and often times unpredictable, this one is no exception.
The disc also contains just over ten minutes worth of deleted/alternate scenes that are presented here without any audio. Outside of that we also get two different trailers for the feature and trailers for a few other Franco Blu-ray's available from Redemption, menus and chapter selection.
Redemption's highly anticipated Blu-ray debut of Jess Franco's The Demons proves to have been worth the wait. The interview and the deleted scenes are worthy supplements and the presentation, while a little rough around the edges given what there was to work with, is quite a nice improvement over previous DVD releases in every regard. On top of that this is the full-strength version of the film. It might not be the best place to start for those new to the director's work but Franco fans should consider this release highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.