This is part 2 of our retrospective; part 1 is here.

Altered States (1980) was such an extravagant affair that its script writer, Paddy Chayefsky, disowned the film after seeing Ken Russell’s finished cut. It is one of two films Russell made for American studios and his last film to (barely) make a profit statewide. It is a Certified Weird entry.

Russell’s second U.S.-made film was 1984’s Crimes of Passion. Starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, Crimes was as divisive as any of Russell’s other work. It was primarily panned by critics and died at the box office, but has garnered enough of a cult following to warrant Arrow’s upcoming deluxe Blu-ray release, which will include Russell’s unrated director’s cut (the theatrical version is “R” rated).

With a new level of serious sleaze, Russell’s Crimes is a “hallelujah” to bad taste. Turner, as China Blue, sears. Perkins is in full twitchy ham mode and is equally fun, consistently chewing the scenery. Maddening, and yet also showing restraint, Crimes feels sincere in its mockery of hypocritical sexual mores.

With a budget of 4.5 million, Gothic (1986) took in less than a million. It is also a List entry.

Ken Russell’s contribution to Aria (1987) is undoubtedly a highlight in this Fantasia for adults. Russell joins directors , , , Nicolas Roeg, Julien Temple, Bruce Beresford, Frances Roddam, Charles Sturridge, and Bill Bryden for this unique anthology. Aria is the kind of film that inspires American classical musical fans ( seeking only traditional interpretations) to bring out the white crosses and matches, slinging charges of Euro trash and sputtering about Regietheater ( which actually does quite well in Europe, as opposed to statewide opera houses which are frequently in the red). The rest of us, less constipated, will find much to savor here.

Aria still from Ken Russell Russell tackles Puccini’s “Turandot,” which admittedly is the first time I’ve been able to stomach that hopelessly conservative composer. It is easy to see why Russell chose to interpret one of the most familiar tenor arias in all of opera, Puccini’s  “Nessun dorma.” Russell uses British pin-up model Linzi Drew for a wincing, bejeweled surgical operation. It’s transfixing Russell blasphemy, which is what we have come to expect and hope for with him.

It was inevitable that the King of cinematic excess would pay homage to that blaspheming saint of excess, Oscar Wilde. 1988’s Salome’s Last Dance is taken from the infamous Wilde play. With tongue firmly in cheek, Russell makes a cameo as a photographer doing a shoot of Wilde’s play. That “outrageous evening” sets the film’s tone.

Profane, passionate, tacky, bawdy, gaudy, naughty, and wearing its theatricality on sleeve, Salome is delicious Russell, ranking with his best work. After all, what could be more campy than the Bible?  Russell is completely in his element here; even stirring.

Still from Salome's Last Dance (1988)Glenda Jackson again stars (as the iron-hearted Herodias) and gives her role a degree of elegance. However,  Imogen Millais-Scott steals the film in the dual roles of Salome and Rose (oddly, this is her only screen performance). Statford Johns (an excellent Piso in “I, Claudius”) plays Herod so effectively that Russell used him again in The Lair of the White WormSalome is primarily set-bound, but never feels like it. It proved too literary and heterodox for American audiences, who avoided Salome altogether.

Lair Of The White Worm (1988) was another box office flop for Russell, taking in less than half its budget. It is also Certified Weird.

Both Russell and Glenda Jackson reunite with D.H. Lawrence for 1989’s The Rainbow, based on the prequel novel to “Women In Love.” Jackson plays the mother of her character in the earlier film and she again proves to be Russell’s ideal. With one exception, Russell has an excellent cast in , Christopher Gable, and Paul McGann. However, critics were divided over the central performance of Sammi Davis as Ursula Brangwen, with some believing she held her own and others labeling her acting as amateurish.

Regardless, The Rainbow is one of Russell’s best-reviewed films (he mostly keeps his flamboyance in check). As expected, he does not shirk from themes of bisexuality. It is emotionally rich and never feels like a costume drama. Being Russell, it is also visually stunning, but not the equal of Women In Love. Good reviews, however, did not lead to box office results. The Rainbow tanked stateside.

In 1990, Russell took a break from directing and acted in Fred Schepisi’s The Russia House. Russell was effective in his role of a gay intelligence officer.

Whore (1991) is the film which ended Russell’s financing possibilities. It was promoted as an alternative POV to the slick, sanitized display of prostitution in 1990’s Pretty Woman. Knowing the title alone would provoke, distributors came up with the tagline “if you can’t say the word, just see it.” It didn’t work. What distributors did not count on was the American preference for the  slick and sanitized.

With a limited budget to begin with, Whore was released with an NC-17 rating. Russell protested loudly, knowing such a rating would doom it at the box office. Critics were divided over the film and the performance of Theresa Russell (no relation to the director).  An adaptation of the play by David Hynes, Whore is actually a subtle entry in Russell’s oeuvre, which is part of its problem. It’s too subdued and visually orthodox. With a succession of box office failures and the highly publicized ratings battle over Whore, Russell was no longer considered bankable. He retreated to television, shorts, and documentaries.

After an 11-year absence, Russell directed his last feature in the home movie The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002). Shot with a camcorder on his estate, using his own money, and utilizing friends for actors, this demented sequel to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” went directly to home video and was primarily ignored by critics. To its credit, it’s almost indescribable, and shows what an imaginative director can do with almost no budget.

Trapped Ashes (2006) was Dennis Bartok’s anthology horror production, with each segment (all written by Bartok) being directed by different a cult filmmaker. ‘s entry is probably the best. Russell, as expected, delivers an over-the-top vignette about vampire udders. The problem with this anthology is not the directors, but the uninspiring writer. Russell camps it up and, despite a lackluster script, seems to be having fun one last time.

Ken Russell should have gone out in a blaze of glory. Instead, he lived long enough to see his brand of filmmaking as highly personal art become an obsolete whisper.


  1. What about his early composers series and later tv works, such as Lady Chatterley adaptation?

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