William Shatner and Tom Skerritt battle it out with a goat-faced Ernest Borgnine in the most earnest and revolting entry in Satanic cinema.
Just in time for Halloween, Severin Films conjures The Devil’s Rain out from the pit of standard definition obscurity with their new 2K restoration Blu-ray, fully loaded with director’s commentary, confessionary interviews, archival apologies, and educational assertions from the High Priest and High Priestess of the Church of Satan. As our own Meg Shields detailed in her article on the Satanic Panic, the popularity of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby (and its subsequent Roman Polanski adaptation) launched a series of paranoid entertainments obsessed around the threat of old scratch. The 1970s were scarred with a variety of uncomfortable horrors determined to get ya banned from Sunday school. These blasphemous terrors range from at least one undeniable masterpiece (The Exorcist) to the motocross monstrous (Race with the Devil), and straight-up schlocky trash (The Sentinel). The cinematic playground in which the Prince of Darkness befouled is bloated with dreck you never need bother with your attention, BUT! The Devil’s Rain demands your audience as a true oddity within an ocean of fad-seekers.
Filmed just two years after William Friedkin collected massive box office earnings for Warner Brothers by pursuing a perceived reality of evil in The Exorcist, famed producer Sandy Howard wanted to ride their coattails with his own religiously accurate presentation in an effort to secure his production company as a major player in Hollywood. At the same time, the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey was looking to further cement his brand in the psyche of American pop culture. Brought on board as technical advisor, the hope was that LaVey’s approval of such pronounced lines like “Hail, O Prince of the Abyss, in thy name, let us behold the father, the ram of the sun, the moon, the stars, o Deathless one” would shake the foundations of the good Christian folk in the crowd and send them scurrying back for seconds. LaVey may have been wanting legitimacy or cartoonish bags of cash, but the producers were hoping to stir outrage from controversy. Is Satanism a legit religion? Is it any scarier or wackier than Scientology?
The first attempted indicator that The Devil’s Rain is serious business are the who’s who opening credits that scroll over extreme close-ups of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement. While the film brags about the inclusion of William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, Eddie Albert, Keenan Wynn, Tom Skerritt, and John Travolta, we are subjected to Bosch’s tortures of the damned. As we get up close and personal with nude figures being consumed by bird demons we are also treated to a symphony of moans, groans, and wailing cries. From the jump, The Devil’s Rain promises its audience an exclusive look at the truths of Hell. Be careful of your thoughts, you do not want to end up as another poor naked guy roasting in a Bosch painting.
Tapping Robert Fuest for the director may not have been the best choice for pursuing realism, but The Abominable Dr. Phibes helmer certainly guaranteed a splashy array of color to sizzle your vision. The man does not operate on bland canvases, and when the call for fire, goo, or gore is blared Fuest’s palate erupts in a rainbow of pretty atrocities. Teaming up with cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia) equally sells the cheap ghost town set in which this film can only afford to take place. Phillips Jr. is the reason why the first line of Roger Ebert’s 1 and a half-starred review of the film reads, “I walked into The Devil’s Rain a few minutes late and thought maybe I’d stumbled onto a Sergio Leone Western.” The camera moves with an energy worthy of the script’s pretentions, even finding ways to stun you with One Perfect Shot here and there. The DP is shooting for an epic.
Like most missteps, all of the film’s posturing crumbles around the convoluted script written by a trilogy of men (Gabe Essoe, James Ashton, Gerald Hopman) who never succeeded beyond this insanity. With the film packed like sardines with talent hoping they were part of a production that was more Disaster Film than actual disaster, the screenplay has to adhere to celebrity schedules desperate to score dollars from wherever they can. Of course, William Shatner had to leave the set for several days to attend a Star Trek convention. The end result is a movie told in chunks with several actors playing hero when needed. Even Michael Kahn, who has edited nearly every Steven Spielberg film since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, could not make a lick of sense from this grandiose mess.
What actually is The Devil’s Rain? Well, Ernest Borgnine plays Jonathan Corbis, a Satanist who sometimes becomes the vessel for the beast when members of his flock refuse to get down and dirty on the altar. The next time you watch The Witch imagine Black Phillip with Borgnine’s Goat-Man face whispering atop his shoulders. Better? Do you still want to live deliciously? Even more so, I say! Corbis is on the hunt for “The Book” which is not quite the Necronomicon Ex Mortis but a basic ledger of names loyal to the tribe. As seen in a colonial flashback worthy of a heartfelt middle school play complete with buckle hats and barrister wigs, William Shatner’s ancestors robbed Corbis of The Book in an effort to break away from the wickedness of The Devil. For 300 years Shatner’s family has kept it secret, kept it safe. Corbis turns Shatner’s father into a puddle of melted sherbet, hogties his manservant Jonathan, and kidnaps Mama Lupino as an invitation to that old west ghost town where they’ll have a faith-off. When Shatner’s faith is revealed to rely more on his sidearm than his crucifix, Corbis collects his soul and his eyes, but not The Book.
Why don’t I refer to Shatner by his character name? He plays both Mark Preston and the pilgrim Martin Fife, but he’s always just so awesomely Shatner. Made during that awkward period between the cancellation of the Star Trek television show and the relaunch of The Motion Picture, Shatner commits with total urgency. His entire body screams with the misery of his torment. His patented stop/start style of performance was made for despairing characters like Preston. Each twitch and stutter intensifies the calamity around him, he’s as alarming a presence as the jolting soundtrack of howling souls. When he leaves the story early on to allow his brother Tom (Tom Skerritt) to shotgun his way through the cult, the movie is simply weaker for it. At least Fuest knows to allow Shatner the final say in the film. The Faith-Off may have been answered but Shatner can still screw over Corbis by unleashing The Devil’s Rain from its holy relic.
But again, what actually is The Devil’s Rain? Dude, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter really. The important thing is that when the rain comes down people melt. Their skin pops, bubbles, and slinks off their face. The final ten minutes stretches the terror of The Wicked Witch of the West’s melting into an agonizing grotesque fit for a dozen Fangoria magazine covers. It’s the Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life before your very eyes, and if half the budget went into this special effect then Robert Fuest is going to agonize both you and his runtime with it. This is the reason why you should and will purchase the new Blu-ray. It’s one of those has to be seen to believed moments in cinema. It’s pure audacity.
The Devil’s Rain never had a chance of equaling The Exorcist or earning its oodles of cash. Yes, it’s confident, but it’s also a wannabe through and through. Honestly, it’s a miracle that Severin put the money down for this restoration, but we should all appreciate their recognition of the mesmerizingly weird. While Robert Fuest may have landed in Made-For-TV prison after the film was so savaged by critics, and the actors involved went fleeing to more respectable projects, The Devil’s Rain rightfully achieved cult status. For Shatner, Trekkies will always flock to it. For the goo, gorehounds will come sniffing around. For those looking to thumb their noses at polite society, The Devil’s Rain gets the job done.