Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they did all those gruesome melt effects in the 1975 horror movie The Devil’s Rain.
When it was first released in 1975, The Devil’s Rain was met with near-gleeful critical disdain. Wouldn’t you believe it: The cultural intelligentsia took issue with a film for such trifling matters as “not making any sense” and “being about as scary as watching an egg fry.” Snobs, the lot of them!
But — in spite of everyone’s best efforts — there’s a reason Robert Fuest‘s film received a 2K restoration from Severin Films in 2017. As modern-day trash appreciator Michael Adams astutely notes, The Devil’s Rain isn’t just a cult movie … it’s the cult movie: “It’s about a cult, has a cult following, was devised with input from a cult leader, and saw a future superstar indoctrinated into a cult he’d help popularize.”
The Devil’s Rain tells of a 17th-century Satanist named Jonathan Corbis (gap-toothed wonder Ernest Borgnine), who is publicly immolated for attempting to convert pilgrims to his dark cause. However, just before Corbis goes up in a blaze of glory, he curses a local family for stealing a book containing the names of all the locals who did sell their souls, vowing to harass the family throughout the ages until he retrieves his damning ledger. A couple of centuries later, Corbis comes calling in search of his terrible tome and new souls to rend … leaving nothing but pliable waxy bodies in their place.
There are plenty of factors that contribute to the enduring appeal of The Devil’s Rain: the bittersweet presence of noir legend Ida Lupino; Borgnine’s demonically delightful 4-role performance; an appearance from William Shatner, slotted awkwardly between his small and big screen Star Trek tenures.
But the real reason The Devil’s Rain endures is the same reason it graces the hallowed annals of Roger Ebert’s “Most Hated” movies list: the film ends with a sarcastically long set piece in which Corbis and all the Satanists dissolve into puddles of goo.
The melting effects in The Devil’s Rain
For reasons that I’m going to (charmingly, I hope) glaze over, the film reaches its oozing conclusion when the indoctrinated Martin Fife (Shatner) rebels against Corbis and destroys the enormous Faberge egg containing the titular “Devil’s Rain.” The resulting explosion promptly blows a hole in the roof, letting in a torrential downpour. While our unconverted heroes galavant around unscathed, the cultists wail in pain as the melting begins.
While Tom (Tom Skerritt) and the now goat-faced Corbis wrestle, pus-colored guck begins to trail down the cult leader’s forehead. Goo, in all varieties of viscosities and shades of purification, splitters from the cultists’ frozen faces. Eyeless sockets expunge waterfalls of ichor. Skin takes on the appearance of a fast-melting candle. Heaving lumps of frothing flesh writhe in vaguely human shapes.
Say what you will about the rest of The Devil’s Rain, but this is the dictionary definition of committing to the bit. Is The Devil’s Rain a melting sequence with a film built around it? Yes. Absolutely. And at the end of the over ten-minute melt sequence, you have to ask yourself: how the heck did they do that?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
By pumping colored methylcellulose, air, and smoke through a series of flattened tubes.
Long story long:
The most thorough and accurate account of how they filmed the melt sequence in The Devil’s Rain comes courtesy of Tom Burman, the man behind the effect. Ellis Burman Jr., Tom’s brother, also worked on the film (he’s the one who sculpted Corbis’ goat-man prosthetic).
In the special feature “The Devil’s Makeup” which features on the aforementioned Severin release, Burman provides a wealth of insight into how the cavalcade of goop was made. As Burman describes, apart from him and his brother, the crew that pulled off the melt sequence was entirely made up of folks with absolutely no makeup experience. While the production was short on money, they apparently were flush with time to get the shots they needed: “we shot days and days of melting people,” Burman recalls.
For the shots with actors, Burman and company would run tubing that had been flat ironed under the prosthetics. One of three things would then be pumped through the tubes: smoke, air, and colored methylcellulose. The air and smoke are pretty easy to wrap your head around (the smoke was achieved with a product called a “smoke cookie” — a pyrotechnic device that looks a bit like a urinal cake that, when ignited, produces a lot of smoke without having to keep a live fire on set).
We’ve discussed methylcellulose a couple of times before on this collum. If you’re watching a film from the 1970s-1980s and you see something goopy, there’s a good chance that’s what you’re looking at. Derived from wood pulp, when added to water for the desired consistency, methylcellulose becomes great screen-ready slime. To make the methylcellulose look wax-like, Burman would pump in a series of colors, each with its own pressure pot, that would create a marbling effect. Using the pressure pots, Burman and company could add more slime, smoke (to make it look as though the body was steaming), or air, to create a bubbling/frothing effect.
Earlier, I said “the shots with actors.” This is because some of the shots were filmed with dolls procured from a sex shop. From Burman’s account, it sounds as though they made use of both partially melted heads and full bodies. The Devil’s Rain was “such a cheap film” that the production couldn’t afford to make their own meltable bodies from scratch. Enter: inflatable sex dolls hooked up to vacuums, which when operated, gave the impression of a body slowly collapsing in on itself.
Let’s take a second to discuss the Corbis goat prosthetic because I will take any opportunity to plug the YouTube account documenting Ernest Borgnine’s RV adventures (no, really). As Borgnine describes (as only Ernest Borgnine can), while the four-hour application process was trying the real struggle was eating: “And this lip [gesturing] along here, it was the greatest lip in the world … all I could eat was beans and rice. You couldn’t really chew on anything and sometimes it would get caught in there and as I was saying lines, you know — dressed up as the Devil — out would come beans and rice.”
Hilariously, director Robert Fuest is less interested in answering the question “how’d we do that?” than asking himself why they did it in the first place. In the director’s commentary on the Severin release, Fuest is way more interested in dunking on his students at the London International Film School than acknowledging the melt effects.
When he does acknowledge the epic melt, it’s to dunk on it: “I see absolutely no point in this at all. We’ve seen it, you know. I mean, it’s like a terribly prologued wake … it goes on and on and on … it’s ridiculous. Who needs it? The film should be over by now.” Say less, Rob.
The precedent for the melting effects in The Devil’s Rain
If you press a horror fan to cite their favorite melt scene (and let’s be honest, it rarely takes that much pressing), you probably aren’t going to hear any film titles released before 1980. Heck, when we assembled our own best melts list, all but two films were released in the 1980s: The Devil’s Rain and 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man.
Conceptually, several big-picture cinematic conditions made The Devil’s Rain’s melt sequence possible. A slew of 1950s B-movies — including the likes of The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Blob (1958), and The Fly (1958) — all paved the way for the 1980s body horror boom to come. The 1960s saw another critical set-dressing for The Devil’s Rain, namely: the first rumblings of the Satanic Panic.
What began innocently enough with cultist fare like The Devil Rides Out (1968) steadily mutated into something more insidious. With the 1970s on the horizon, pulp novel adaptations like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) laid paranoiac eggs in the public’s imagination that would hatch a decade later with unsettling real-world results.
While documented citations of direct influence are seemingly non-existent, there are a handful of worthy contenders as far as pre-The Devil’s Rain melts are concerned. Toho’s 1958 sci-fi horror film The H-Man (whose literally translated title, “Beauty and the Liquid People,” is much better) tells of a drug smuggler who is transformed into a puddle of goo after being exposed to irradiated rain. The creature runs amok and multiplies, liquifying anyone unlucky enough to get in their way. The H-Man’s special effects were designed by Eiji Tsuburaya, who famously co-created Godzilla.
Other pre-The Devil’s Rain melt-based-horror films include First Man Into Space (1959), a classic “oh no, he got microwaved on his way to the moon!” tale that was remade two decades later as the aforementioned The Incredible Melting Man. Giorgio Ferroni’s penultimate directorial effort, Night of the Devils (1972), also features a notable scene of a vampire’s face bleeding from the eyes and caving in. This gruesome sequence was the handiwork of special effects legend Carlo Rambaldi, who would go on to work on Alien and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
All told, in terms of precedents, there are two especially strong candidates for “most early” and “most convincingly influential” — and both involve Vincent Price. While The Devil’s Rain is peerless in its duration and scale, the inciting incident of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Price-starring 1953 remake House of Wax feel unambiguously influential. In both films, a wax sculptor’s business rival sets the studio ablaze, inciting a montage of wax figures having their faces melted off. For those of you wondering, for the 1953 remake, they hedged their bets on getting the shots they needed in a single go and immediately lost control of the fire. The whole ordeal is relayed by American Cinematographer where it’s noted that the “only casualties” were the roof and Price’s eyebrows.
The second Price-focused melt touchstone is the 1962 Roger Corman horror anthology Tales of Terror. In the final sequence, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a man suffering from a terminal illness (Price) finds himself in a suspended state of putrefaction at the hands of an evil hypnotist (Basil Rathbone). While the special effects in the film leave something to be desired thanks to some meddlesome focus puller, it’s the publicity photos that haunt my nightmares. As the biography, Vincent Price Unmasked relays: the melting effect was achieved with a combination of glue, glycerin, corn starch, and paint. Because the concoction had to be warmed to be applied, Price could only stand the stuff for a limited time.
And so, there we have it: the history of horror’s goopy reign of terror starts way before The Devil’s Rain. The plot thickens. Just like a pool of goopy cultist flesh.