The Devil’s Rain (1975) -***
Sometimes a movie’s tagline can tell you everything you need to know. Take The Devil’s Rain, for instance. Emblazoned across the top margin of the movie posters in shamelessly gigantic letters was this astonishing slogan: “Heaven help us all when… The Devil’s Rain!” Ummm… What? I mean, that sentence looks like English, and I’m perfectly clear on the meaning of each individual word, but string them all together in that order, and you get absolute gibberish. My first instinct is to think maybe they were shooting for “Heaven help us all when… the devils reign.” On its face, that would seem to be the most natural interpretation, except that it simply can’t be right. Leaving aside the point that the main title display on the film itself doesn’t spell it that way either, the movie’s climax hinges upon a magical meteorological phenomenon referred to explicitly as the Devil’s Rain. Not only that, at no point is there ever any danger of devils reigning over anything they don’t already control, since the main conflict is between the head of a Satanic cult and the family of some of his disciples who seek to release the cultists from demonic bondage. So maybe there’s a verb missing from the end of the sentence instead: “Heaven help us all when… The Devil’s Rain [begins].” Or maybe “falls.” Or “pours down.” Or some damn thing— some verb that evokes the behavior of water falling from the sky in drops. Frankly, if that’s what went wrong, it might almost be a more embarrassing fuck-up than homonym confusion. Either way, it defies belief that nobody at any stage of the production line saw anything wrong with the slogan as it stood. It seems to me that a person who arrived at their opinion of The Devil’s Rain based solely on the bare fact that somebody thought it was a good idea to try to sell it with that tagline— a tagline that is both syntactically incomprehensible and open to no interpretation that has any apparent connection to the story— is likely to form approximately the same opinion as they would from actually watching the film. The whole movie is like that tagline to one extent or another, except that it’s 86 minutes long instead of about three seconds.
The Devil’s Rain is also one of those movies that does its level best to keep the audience in utter bafflement for the whole of the first act. Modern-day cowboy-type guy Mark Preston (William Shatner) comes home during the opening phase of a really beastly thunderstorm to find his father (George Sawaya, of Repo Man and Private Duty Nurses) missing and his mother (Ida Lupino, from Food of the Gods) and grandfather (Woody Chambliss, of Gargoyles) worried sick and ranting semi-coherently about “the book.” Mark assures his elders that somebody named Corbis will under no circumstances be getting his hands on said tome (which is hidden beneath one of the floorboards in the living room), and does what he can to calm their near-hysterics. Then Dad shows up on the doorstep with no eyes and a slowly but steadily melting face, and the tenor of the evening takes a sharp nosedive. Whoever this Corbis character is, he has evidently attained some kind of hold over Steve Preston, but not quite enough of a hold to make the man willingly betray his family. With his final breath before dissolving into a great slick of some loathsome wax-like material, Steve warns his son that Corbis is even now on his way. Mark grabs the Colt M1911 out of the endtable beside the living room sofa and gears up to do battle, but his foes are too clever for him by half. While he charges out to reenact the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Corbis and his agents let themselves into the house through the back door and abduct Mom after stringing Grandpa John up by his ankles.
The next morning, Mark drives out into the desert in search of an abandoned mining town called Redstone, where he has reason to believe Corbis is based. The first person he meets there is Corbis himself (Ernest Borgnine, from Willard and The Black Hole), with whom he has an extremely cryptic and extremely hostile conversation about faith and power and (of course) the book. Eventually, Mark points to a boarded-up church and tells Corbis, “I’ll face whatever you’ve got behind those doors, and come out just the same as I went in!” Corbis takes that pronouncement as the challenge it sounds like, and offers Mark the following deal: Corbis will match his faith against Mark’s, with the winner getting to keep both the book and the Preston family. As you might gather from the terms of the contest, what Corbis has “behind those doors” is a fully outfitted Satanic chapel, where his followers— all of whom have the same empty eye sockets and waxy skin that Steve Preston displayed the night before— conduct their blasphemous religious observances. While Mark prays ostentatiously, Corbis (now clad in a red and black robe which comes across as an infernal counterpart to a bishop’s vestments) conducts a black mass, pausing every once in a while to insist that his enemy’s name is really Martin Fife. Fear not— there is a reason. We just won’t be hearing about it until the movie is half over. Things go on in that vein for a bit, and then Corbis decides to get really nasty. He calls on Mark’s mother, who stands up from amid the congregation to reveal that she has joined up with the Satanists— she’s got the empty orbits and everything. Seeing that gets to Mark in a way nothing else has, and he pulls his pistol and starts blasting away at Corbis’s congregation; allow me to state at this point that if this is supposed to be a showdown between Corbis’s faith and Mark’s, then Mark’s faith really sucks. The Satanists surround Mark and overwhelm him, and before he knows it, he’s being tied down to the full-sized inverted cross behind the altar for Moloch alone knows what unspeakable purpose.
Meanwhile, somewhere far away, Mark’s brother, Tom (Tom Skerritt, from Alien and Poltergeist III), is helping parapsychologist Dr. Sam Richards (Dreamscape’s Eddie Albert) demonstrate the psychic abilities of Tom’s wife, Julie (Joan Prather, of Single Girls and Big Bad Mama). Basically, it seems that Julie has the power to see confusing montages of clips from later on in the film— not a terribly useful paranormal talent, when you get right down to it, since she’s almost totally unable to apprehend the meanings of most of her visions. Anyway, no sooner has the demonstration concluded than Tom receives word that damn near his whole family has gone missing, seeming to corroborate the general gist of what his wife just saw on her internal psychic hotline. He rushes out to the old homestead, where Grandpa John lets him in on as much of the story as he knows, and on the basis of John’s report, Tom goes to see Sheriff Owen (Keenan Wynn, from Parts: The Clonus Horror and Piranha) in the hope that the local law will be able to get to the bottom of whatever strange, ugly business is going down in Redstone. Owen, of course, blows Preston off— what do you want to bet we’ll be seeing him at a black mass later on? Left to his own devices, Tom drives out to the ghost town with Julie, where they find the demonic church and are attacked by one of the Satanists. (You’ll barely be able to recognize him with that no-eyes prosthesis covering the top half of his face, but this particular cultist is none other than John Travolta!) Tom gets the best of his attacker in the ensuing struggle, and when Julie looks into the Satanist’s non-eyes, she has a vision which finally explains just what in the hell is going on here.
For the record: Jonathan Corbis was the leader of a Massachusetts-based devil-cult in the 1680’s. Among his flock were lots of people played by the same actors as characters from the modern-day portions of the film, foremost among them one Martin Fife (Shatner again, naturally). Fife was married to a woman named Aronessa (Erika Carlsson, from Demonoid and Tintorera), who ratted the cult out to the neighborhood preacher (Claudio Brook, of Neutron vs. the Death Robots and Innocents from Hell). The book about which everybody is now so obsessively concerned was the ledger in which the Devil’s parishioners signed their names, marking themselves for admittance into Satan’s Eternal Kingdom at some future date. One assumes that this “Eternal Kingdom” will not be quite as advertised once Corbis’s adherents get there. Anyway, without the book, Corbis is powerless to hand over the souls of his followers, which become trapped in some kind of limbo, where they are condemned to endure something highly unpleasant called “the Devil’s Rain” until such time as the book is returned to its rightful owner. When the preacher came to bust Corbis and his coven and burn them all at the stake (unsurprisingly, this scene has a distinct Black Sunday flavor to it), Aronessa seized the book, which she then passed down to her descendants with the aim of keeping the Satanists’ souls forever out of the Devil’s reach. Corbis, for his part, called down the usual perpetual curse on the Fife family in retaliation. At some point over the centuries, the Fife family became the Preston family, but the curse remained in full effect, and Corbis has continued to reincarnate himself in order to hound each succeeding generation. Evidently, however, he’s never once thought to look under the floorboards of his enemies’ home in some 290 years.
Tom’s first face-off with the cult doesn’t go very well, accomplishing little but to establish that Mark has been absorbed into it, and that Corbis is able to transform at will into the lousiest goat-man Satan since The Devil Rides Out. (Of course, Paul Naschy would soon be coming along to set more exacting standards still for lousy goat-man Satans, but that’s neither here nor there…) The cultists then strike back, kidnapping Julie for use in— gee, go figure— a sacrament of sacrifice. With the sheriff obviously of no use to him, Tom calls in Sam Richards for backup, and the two men conclude that victory over Corbis will require figuring out how to harness this Devil’s Rain business for their own purposes. Luckily for them, the cultists are in the habit of leaving their converted church unattended for most of the day with all their valuables inside it, and it doesn’t take Tom and Sam long to stumble upon this big lantern-looking thing, in which they can see lots of extras in Puritan garb being rained on and moaning melodramatically. They’re not quite as quick to put two and two together and realize that smashing the lantern will release both the captive souls and the dreaded Devil’s Rain, but Sam figures it out in time for the climax. Those who were paying close enough attention during the first scene to notice that perfectly ordinary rain was having the unusual effect of melting Steve Preston will already have surmised what this magical version is going to do to Corbis and his followers. Then again, we’re looking at a movie made in 1975, on which International Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey is credited as a “technical advisor,” so obviously Evil is going to win in the end, even if the screenwriter has to cheat like crazy to make it happen.
Man, Robert Fuest sure did learn how to blow some sack during the four years since The Abominable Dr. Phibes. In the last paragraph, I mentioned The Devil Rides Out, and embarrassing depictions of the Prince of Darkness are not all the two films have in common. Like The Devil Rides Out, The Devil’s Rain, for all its emphasis on visual distinctiveness, and for all its grim determination to drag the audience along with it in contravention of their better judgement, is in most respects a woefully ridiculous film. Fuest is trying, may the gods bless him, and he keeps coming this close to making The Devil’s Rain work in spite of itself, but the material always manages to bounce back and defeat him. Amazingly, this is so even despite relatively tasteful and surprisingly effective performances from both William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine, both of them actors who generally seem not to be aware that they have stops to pull out or push in in the first place. It’s true that much of the blame for The Devil’s Rain most properly belongs to screenwriters Gabe Essoe, James Ashton, and Gerald Hopman (that’s right— it took three writers to come up with this mess), but many of Fuest’s directorial experiments are so enthusiastically wrong-headed (like devoting nearly fifteen minutes to the melting cultists at the end) that they would have hamstrung even a much more cogent movie. What makes The Devil’s Rain as entertaining as it is, and what probably accounts for its long lifespan as a much-discussed cult curiosity, is that it is just so fucking weird. Though most elements of this film are things which a longtime horror fan will have seen many times before, they have been combined here in such a cockeyed, counterintuitive manner that The Devil’s Rain comes across as being far more original than it actually is. It’s a case of the familiar made very, very strange.