I remember going to see “The Devil’s Rain” at a local drive-in sometime in autumn of 1975. A warm breeze (and lots of cheese) was in the air that night. My then-8 year old self took in an unhealthy number of demographically unsuitable movies in those days, but I didn’t care. I loved monsters, and what better monster is there than Ernest Borgnine as Satan looking like a cross between Bea Arthur and a billy goat? At the time, I thought the film was pretty spooky. 45 years later, it’s a cheesy, mildly entertaining throwback to a different era… the era of drive-in occult movies.
This earnest but often silly flick was clearly made to cash in on the post-“Rosemary’s Baby/The Exorcist” obsession with demonic subject matter. There were tons of such cheapie occult flicks cranked out in the 1970s (“Race With the Devil,” “Beyond the Door” etc), but “The Devil’s Rain” is arguably the pick of a litter filled with many runts.
****DIABOLICAL SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
“The Devil’s Rain.”
The credits play over a series of Hell inspired paintings by classic Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (whose work always creeps me out). There are some ghostly moans heard over to the credits as well, but the effect is diminished by a repeated loop of the same ADR voices shouting, “Let me out of here,” with some pretty obvious fake crying added in as well. The eerie moans would’ve been enough, but the articulated voices sound like actors working for beer money. Like much of the following movie, a decent idea is bludgeoned by endless repetition.
The movie opens seemingly mid-story, with a southwestern rancher named Mark Preston (William Shatner) coming in out of a dangerous downpour to check on his worried mother (Ida Lupino) and her half-senile manservant John (Woody Chambliss), who eagerly await the return of Mark’s father Steve (George Sawaya). There is talk of an evil man named “Corbis” who wants “the book”, which is hidden somewhere in the house. With the phone dead and the main bridge out of town washed away, the paranoid Prestons hear a sound in front of the house. It’s Steve, but his eyeless face is melting like wax, as he warns his family to “give Corbis the book.” As Steve melts away into a pile of soapy wax, a honk is heard off in the distance. Mark, not believing the melted doppelgänger he just saw was his father, gleefully announces, “It’s the truck!” As he goes outside to investigate, his mother is kidnapped, the house is ransacked and John is somehow beaten and tied upside down– all in the span of about one minute. Those are some mighty fast devil worshippers–much faster than the slow-moving zombies we see later on. Holding the bloodied, mumbling, traumatized John in his arms, Shatner looks towards the ceiling and shouts in his best Charlton Heston impression, “Coorrrbisss!! God damn you!” It’s an overacting Hall Of Fame moment.
Note: I wonder if there was a missing prologue written but not filmed that might’ve made this opening sequence a bit more coherent.
The next morning, the ground is surprisingly dry (following the deluge hours earlier) as Mark sets out in the family station wagon to confront Corbis in a nearby ghost town where the evil Satan worshipper is rumored to be holed up with his followers. Arriving in the town under a stormy sky, he meets an old cowboy (Ernest Borgnine) who asks, “Did you bring the book?” The old man is Jonathan Corbis himself, leader of a remote but powerful Satanic cult which has had a family feud with the Prestons for three centuries (back when the Prestons were the Fyffes). Mark defies the Satanic leader– telling him that he will face whatever challenges Corbis throws his way and emerge victorious, because he’s a good Christian fellow. Corbis takes this unwise challenge, and tells Mark that both he and the book will be forfeited if he loses.
Note: Okay, say what you will about this hokey little flick, but the stormy skylines and arid Mexican desert landscapes showcase some solid cinematography by Alex Phillip Jr. I also wonder if the idea of Corbis and his followers living in a deserted western ghost town was analogous to Charles Manson’s family of killer hippies living at Spahn’s movie ranch in southern California in the late 1960s?
The first stage of the challenge sees Mark agreeing to attend a Black Mass in a boarded-up church, conducted by a red-robed Corbis to a group of black robed, eyeless followers…with Mark’s own mother now in their ranks. As Corbis conducts the mass, Mark mumbles a haphazard version of the Lord’s prayer as he exits with a pistol drawn, shooting into a group of followers as they try to block his hasty departure. As a wounded follower oozes waxy demonic ‘blood’, Corbis looks accusingly at Preston, still holding his smoking pistol, and asks, “Is that your faith?”
Note: Gotta say… point Corbis on that one.
As the Satanic followers charge after the fleeing Mark, he runs out of bullets and grabs his own crucifix medallion. Corbis summons a bit of that ol’ black magic and turns the medallion into a snake, which Mark impulsively flings off–only to see it turn back into his abandoned crucifix. No one ever said the Devil plays fair, right? Mark makes a run for it, charging past devil worshippers like a running back in some bizarre, Halloween-Bowl football game. As his own eyeless, robed mother watches, a defeated Mark is made the property of Old Scratch…
Meanwhile, Mark’s brother Tom (Tom Skerritt) and his considerably younger wife Julie (Joan Prather) are conducting research into her alleged psychic powers under the guise of their mentor, Dr. Sam Richards (Eddie Albert). With a group of medical students watching, Sam makes a case for all kinds of extrasensory nonsense as Julie enters a trancelike state, voluntarily slowing her vitals. Without warning, a mentally vacating Julie suddenly screams as she has a terrifying vision of…something. Class is dismissed, as Tom gets word that something is up with his family.
Note: A lot of movies in the 1970s tried to ‘legitimize’ paranormal research by showing subjects hooked up to monitoring devices… as if measuring vital signs somehow ‘prove’ psychic phenomena. It’s also interesting that you don’t hear as much about paranormal phenomena like possession or telekinesis now that everybody and their kid sister has video cameras on their smartphones to record it.
Failing to get any help or satisfaction from Sheriff Owens (veteran character actor Keenan Wynn), Julie and Tom decide to go into the old ghost town on their own. Once there, they find the boarded up Satanic church, as Julie discovers melted wax near the pulpit…the same color of wax she saw at the Preston house porch earlier. As the two go into Sherlock-mode, they hear a loud boom outside, and rush out just in time to see their green Pontiac go up in flames! Eagle-eyed Tom spots a young man running from the scene, into the ghost town’s abandoned saloon, and they chase him. After some fisticuffs on a staircase, Julie finds some too-convenient rope and they up the eyeless young man, called “Danny” in the credits (John Travolta).
Julie looks into Danny’s eyeless sockets and sees a vision of New England, circa 1680 (a good decade or so before the infamous real-life Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts). Filmed in fiery orange and sepia tones, we finally see the missing pieces of the puzzle as the ancestors of the Preston (nee: Fyffes) and Corbis families were betrayed by Martin Fyffe’s wife Aaronessa (Erika Carlsson), who turned state’s evidence against her husband and the Satanic church of Corbis. They were immediately sentenced to burn at the stake (sans trial) by the town’s ‘godly’ preacher (Claudio Brook). Just before the flames envelop him, Corbis (Borgnine) swears to Martin Fyffe (Shatner) that he will curse his descendants for all time. Surviving members of the Fyffe (now Preston) family then took possession of Corbis’ “book” (the blood record of all those who swore their souls to Satan) and managed to hide it from his descendants for the next three centuries. Julie then screams, snaps out of her mind-meld/exposition session with Danny, and is back in her present…
Note: A couple of things. First, witches in the American colonies of the 17th century weren’t typically burned at the stake like the witches in Europe. Most were drowned or crushed with heavy stones. And secondly, the movie makes no judgment on the preacher who roasted human beings alive just for falling in line with a different faith. How does that not make him the bad guy of this piece? From where I’m sitting, the 17th century Corbis did little more practice a different religion than his townsfolk and was brutally murdered for his nonconformity by the ‘good’ Christians of New England–yet he’s the bad guy?
Leaving Danny tied up, Tom and Julie find his brother Mark’s abandoned station wagon, which Danny was using as his would-be getaway car when he blew up the Pontiac. As they drive back to town, Tom stops and puts his head to the wheel… he can’t leave the ghost town until he learns what happened to his mother and Mark. Exiting the driver’s seat, he tells Julie to go on into town without him (which she does with zero pushback, I might add). As she drives out of Tom’s view, her eyeless mother-in-law pops up from the back seat, causing a terrified Julie to lose control of the car and crash into a tree.
Meanwhile, Tom has got ahold of a black robe and infiltrated a group of Corbis’ followers into the open desert for a nighttime ceremony to formally induct Mark Preston into their ranks. Corbis then summons Lucifer himself, and is instantly possessed/transformed into a hideous man-beast with a crazy Bea Arthur hairdo. Corbis/Satan’s new Devil facial makeup is a pretty nifty design by A-list movie makeup maestro John Chambers (“Planet of the Apes” ), who also helped create Mr. Spock’s ears. Satan himself temps and teases Mark with a ‘goddess of delight’ Lilith (Lisa Todd), who seductively smooches Mark…before turning into his mother (yuck!).
After some shirtless screaming and other histrionics by actor Shatner, Mark’s soul is eventually placed into a waxen image, and his eyes hollow out into black sockets. Mark’s will is broken and his soul is gone, as his brother Tom watches from the crowd. Corbis’ follower Danny, now freed from his ropes, sniffs the crowd like a bloodhound before spotting his assailant Tom, and screaming “Blasphemer!” As Tom is outed, he sees his eyeless mother in the crowd before grabbing a shotgun and blasting a few of Corbis’ goons, as colored waxy goo spills out from the shotgun blasts to their robes. Tom barely escapes the zombielike robed followers and heads back to town.
Note: Travolta’s only spoken line in the entire movie is “Blasphemer!” which is obviously over-dubbed, as Travolta’s lips clearly mouth the word, “Blasphem-y!”
Back at his mother’s house, Tom seeks the help of his mentor, Dr. Sam Richards, who is the only person he knows who truly believes this crappola. With John’s help, they find ‘the book’ tucked away under a hollowed out stone in the flooring of the house. The book is full of crinkly yellowed paper and names written in dried blood. A new entry has appeared on the last page…the name of Mark Preston, which was magically added to its pages just now (if Corbis can do this remotely, why does he need the actual book?). Sam agrees to help Tom go back into the ghost town to free Mark, his mother, and now Julie, who’s gone missing following her close encounter with dear old mom.
As Corbis takes Julie out to the desert for a repeat performance of what he did to Mark the previous night, Sam and Tom check out the abandoned Satanic church. Inside, Sam sees an eerie blue glow coming from a small silo-like chamber beneath the altar. It’s “the devil’s rain”; a large vase-like container bearing the ‘souls’ sworn to Corbis. Sheriff Owens makes an appearance at the church, but he is now a soulless follower of Satan as well. Tom dispatches him just before Corbis and his flock then return from the desert. Tom and Sam then quickly hide in the church with the devil’s rain vessel. As the Satan worshippers carry Julie to the altar, her blue eyes still intact, Corbis senses the presence of Sam and Tom, and outs them to his flock. Tom is captured by several robed goons just as Sam reappears, holding the devil’s rain vessel over his head, which he threatens to destroy unless Corbis frees Tom and Julie…
Note: The “devil’s rain” vessel is a most impressive on-set special effect, especially for a low-budget horror flick. A careful combination of shadowy lighting and rear-projection effects make it appear as though dozens of ‘souls’ reside within the container. It would not be at all out of place in a high end Indiana Jones movie, which were, incidentally, also edited by “Devil’s Rain” editor Michael Kahn (more on him later…).
Of course, the elderly Sam is all bluff and no call, as minion Mark Preston easily grabs the hefty vessel from the old doctor. Dutiful devil worshipper Mark then carries the vessel up to the altar but pauses as Sam calls out to him, reminding him that if he destroys the devil’s rain, he will be freed from Corbis’ damnation. Sam then implores the name of Mark/Martin’s 17th century wife, Aaronessa, whom Mark seems to remember. Corbis, now in his full-Devil face, angrily implores Mark to give him the vessel… just as Mark raises it above his head and tosses it to the floor, smashing it to bits. All hell then breaks loose, as the top of the church explodes, and rain pours in through the now open roof…
That rain, of course, is of the wrath of God-variety, and immediately begins melting Corbis’ minions into waxy piles of goop under their wet black robes. Tom frees Julie, who runs off with Sam as Tom faces off with an angry Corbis/Satan over the blue glowing chamber beneath the altar–a portal straight to Hell. As devil and human struggle, the rain begins melting more and more of Corbis’ followers…
One by one, in nauseating detail, we see faces of fleeing minions melt away, as their soapy skin bubbles off, and their bones appear to flatten. Yes, the titular melting effect is impressive for 1975, and clearly director Robert Fuest was trying to squeeze every single frame of it into the final cut, but the sequence goes on far too long (roughly fifteen minutes) in this otherwise brisk, 85 minute movie. Seventeen percent of the film’s running time is spent on melting minions. That’s a lot of godly wrath for your buck. In hindsight, perhaps too much.
The movie nears its end as the Devil himself begins to melt away during his battle with Tom, and is tossed back into the portal to Hell. Tom escapes with Julie as the entire church explodes. As the church burns in their wake, Julie calls out to Tom and gestures for an embrace. As a sobbing, grateful Tom takes his wife in his arms, she is replaced with the robed, laughing image of Corbis!
The final shot is of an imprisoned Julie, her soul in a new devil’s rain somewhere…
Note: Until recently, I’ve always mis-remembered the cut between the hugging Julie and laughing Corbis as a fade-in shot or transitional shot, but seen recently on video, I could very clearly see Joan Prather’s hands leave Tom Skerritt’s back just as Ernest Borgnine places his hands on. It’s all done in-camera.
Watching the film today, what strikes me most is the quality of the cast, with actors such as William Shatner (“Star Trek”), Tom Skerritt (“ALIEN” “Contact”), Ernest Borgnine (“Marty” “Poseidon Adventure”), Keenan Wynn (“Dr. Strangelove” “Twilight Zone”), Eddie Albert (“Green Acres” “Roman Holiday”) and actor/director Ida Lupino (“High Sierra”), who was a prolific, groundbreaking female TV director at a time when they were virtually unheard of. All of these talented actors, under the helm of British director Robert Fuest (“The Abominable Dr. Phibes”), were assembled in the Mexican desert to make a delightfully cheesy B-movie about devil worshippers in the American southwest. Perhaps the Devil made them do it?
Shatner’s involvement in this low-budget satanic spectacle is easily understood (his immediate post-Star Trek career was rough, to say the least), and he delivers that same brand of Shatneresque overacting he brings to so many other roles. However, other high profile actors in this cast throw their backs into it as well–hamming it up with all they’ve got. Their efforts are undeniably entertaining. The scene where a robed Tom Skerritt first glimpses his now eyeless mother is comedic gold–the usually understated Tom Skerritt sing-songs the line “Mother, my god, my gaaaahhhhd!” with all the restraint of a cat forced to take a shower.
This low budget horror flick seemed to attract a great well of future big name talent as well, including a very young John Travolta (playing an eyeless henchman of Corbis) who gets a single line (“Blasphemer!!”). It was on the set of this film where Travolta allegedly first got into the controversial Church of Scientology as well (life imitating art? ). Travolta would break out that same year as ‘Vinnie Barbarino’ in TV’s “Welcome Back Kotter,” and would go onto a huge movie career with starring roles in “Saturday Night Fever,” (1977) “Grease,” (1978) “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Face/Off” (1996) and many others.
Other future talent in the film includes editor Michael Kahn, who (like Travolta) would also experience one hell of a career boost, going on to become a favorite editor for Steven Spielberg. Kahn’s many credits such classics as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List”. At nearly 90 years old he is still working today, editing Steven Spielberg’s coming-soon remake of “The West Side Story.”
Underrated Mexican cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. (“Buck and the Preacher”) also imparts an impressive look to the movie, shooting in a variable aspect ratio format (Super 35) filled with strikingly desolate skylines, forbidding clouds and eerie ghost town imagery.
Halloween H2-Oh No…
Three years before a latex Captain Kirk Halloween mask with widened eyeholes was painted white for John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), Shatner himself seems to trying out the look in “The Devil’s Rain.” Like all of the poor souls lost to the evil Ernest Borgnine, Shatner’s eyes were made to look hollowed out by putting thin layers of black gauze under prosthetics which surrounded his real eyes in order to give the impression they had been plucked out of his face.
Whenever I watch “The Devil’s Rain”, I just can’t shake the feeling that Carpenter was somehow influenced (consciously or not) by Shatner’s creepy-AF ‘eyeless’ appearance in the film (which preceded “Halloween” by three years).
“The Devil’s Rain” is the stuff that both drive-ins and “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” were made for. Just why MST3K never skewered this movie remains a mystery (perhaps the current Netflix revival of the series will someday amend this oversight). Despite an overlong, gooey climax that makes “The Devil’s Rain” feel a lot longer than its otherwise scant 85 minutes, there is still much to recommend here for aficionados of cheesy B-movies.
With an impressive pool of talent in front of and behind the camera (despite an obvious low-budget), there is a certain earnestness to the film that belies its own cynical nature as a 1970s occult-craze cash-in. A game cast, an able director, and some solid cinematography arguably do a lot more for the material than it deserves.
“The Devil’s Rain” can be rented/streamed through Amazon Prime Video, Shout! Factory TV and Tubi. It can also be purchased directly on DVD/Blu Ray via Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around or over 225,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no widely available vaccine or proven effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Have a happy and safe Halloween!