Rock & Roll Monster Bash presents THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975); Dir. Robert Fuest; Starring William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, Eddie Albert, Tom Skerritt, Keenan Wynn and Joan Prather; Sunday, June 2; Starlight Six Drive-In; Buy tickets here. Trailer here.
By Aleck Bennett
It’s Rock & Roll Monster Bashin’ time, kiddiwinkies! And if you’ve spent all day celebrating at the Starlight Six Drive-In, there’s no better way to cap off the night than with a double-bill of diabolical delights. And it doesn’t get more diabolical or delightful than THE DEVIL’S RAIN.
Okay, I’m biased. Let’s get that straight from the start. Around my house, if there’s a movie made in the ‘60s or ‘70s about a bunch of folks worshipping Our Downstairs Neighbor, I’m giving that sucker the benefit of the doubt. And likewise, if your name is Robert Fuest, and you’ve directed a movie about anything, I’m giving that sucker the benefit of the doubt.
This is why it’s constantly puzzled me that folks give THE DEVIL’S RAIN such short shrift. Even in the limited genre that is Satanic Cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, it gets relatively little love. And I’m not talking about pitting its reputation against that of established classics like ROSEMARY’S BABY. I’m talking stuff like THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, THE WITCHMAKER, BEYOND THE DOOR, ALUCARDA, and on and on and on. I mean, sure, huge chunks of the movie don’t make a lick of sense. But that’s never stood in the way of a film building up a cult following.
Partially, I think it’s got to have something to do with the prevailing notion that anything touched by the Hand of Shatner outside of the STAR TREK franchise is somehow shameful at worst, and best appreciated as camp at best. And maybe it’s got something to do with so much of the cast being composed of actors either well past their prime and heading for the Irwin Allen Disaster Movie Retirement Home (Ida Lupino, Keenan Wynn, Eddie Albert) or so early on in their careers that they don’t make much impact (Tom Skerritt, John Travolta). Maybe it’s because Ernest Borgnine spends most of the movie going so over-the-top that you can’t see bottom anymore. Maybe it’s because the movie’s promotional tagline is so grammatically incorrect that I’ve been trying to decipher it for decades (“Heaven help us all when…The Devil’s Rain!” Huh? When the Devil’s Rain does what? Are you trying to say “when the Devils rain?” or “when the Devils reign?” Are you confusing your plurals and possessives?)
Or maybe it’s because some people don’t like to have fun, for crying out loud. Because this is one fun movie.
Re-hashing the plot won’t help anybody, so I’ll just say this: Ernest Borgnine is the reincarnation of a devil-worshipping warlock burned at the stake long ago, and he’s back (and holed up in a church in the desert) to obtain a book kept hidden over these many years by William Shatner’s family. There’s a Snowglobe of the Damned called “The Devil’s Rain” that contains the souls of those Borgnine has ensnared. There’s some pseudo-scientific gobbeldy-gook about ESP that brings Shatner’s extended family of Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert and Joan Prather into the mix. There are flashbacks to the burnings. There are lots of folks in black robes with no eyes (including John Travolta) running around doing Borgnine’s bidding. And maybe they’re made of wax or something because they all tend to melt.
Like I said: big chunks that don’t make a lick of sense.
But what works in this movie, works like crazy. Fuest’s direction is—as always—stylish and visually fascinating. Don’t forget, this is the guy who directed THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, the Michael Moorcock adaptation THE FINAL PROGRAMME (aka THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH) and numerous episodes of THE AVENGERS. The guy’s got flash if he’s got anything. There’s a prevailing sense of dread cast over the entire film from its opening frames, with the stage being set by the opening titles presented over the hellishly hallucinatory artwork of Hieronymus Bosch. There’s the unique in media res opening that delivers the sense that we’ve been dropped into the movie after its first reel, leaving the audience disoriented as they try to piece together what’s happening. There’s Ernest Borgnine invoking the spirit of Satan and turning into a Baphomet-headed beast. There’s the presence of the High Priest of the Church of Satan, Anton Szandor LaVey (ANTON FREAKIN’ LAVEY, people!) as both the film’s technical advisor and Borgnine’s High Priest, playing the pipe organ and sporting a diabolically groovy helmet for some reason. There’s fantastic makeup work from Ellis Burman, Jr. There’s an insanely great score by Al De Lory. And it ends exactly like it ought to end.
Let me say this: if this movie had been made in Italy, the horror community at large would be salivating over THE DEVIL’S RAIN like it was Edwige Fenech in STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER (Italian exploitation fans represent!). But because of its familiarity—being ever-present on late-night TV, the drive-in circuit and relatively easy to get on home video through the years—it’s easily overlooked. Don’t make this mistake, dear readers! This movie deserves a re-evaluation and a re-appreciation. Much like Shatner’s career has developed a post-TREK rehabilitation, we should go back and give the Devil his due.
Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com