October Horrorshow: The Devil’s Rain

The Devil’s Rain, the mafia-financed(!) horror flick from 1975, is blessed with a dubious honor — it made Roger Ebert’s list of most hated films. Roger Ebert was a brilliant film critic, but something of a stick in the mud. Sure, this film is silly, the plot meanders and is sometimes contradictory, and the ending is far too drawn out, but I can think of many, many more films to hate before even considering The Devil’s Rain. In fact, I don’t have to think about it at all, since I have a list handy, and The Devil’s Rain is better than any movie in the bottom fifty in said list. So there, Roger.

The Devil’s Rain was the brainchild of executive producer Sandy Howard. He had some money (of dubious origin); a screenplay (credited to Gabe Essoe, James Ashton, and Gerald Hopman); a location (an old west ghost town film set outside of Durango, Mexico); a director (Robert Fuest, who had made a name for himself with the Dr. Phibes movies); a bunch of stars (at least one of whom claims he never got paid); and six weeks to shoot. The final product is not shitty gold, but it was damned entertaining.

The film tells the tale of one family’s struggle against a devil-worshiping cult and its leader, Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine). The family is led by matriarch Emma Preston (Ida Lupino), but her significance to the plot doesn’t last past the opening scene. The would-be hero of the family is her son, Mark, played by William Shatner. After Corbis launches a supernatural assault on the family’s ranch, only Mark is left to set things right. So, he marches off to the local ghost town, where he knows those wiley devil-worshippers to be, and gets captured immediately. So, Mark isn’t the hero of the story, either.

That falls to his brother, Tom (Tom Skerritt), and his wife, Julie (Joan Prather). They learn from the local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) that Tom’s entire family has gone missing, and soon discover that Corbis and company are behind it all.

So, what’s Corbis’s deal? He’s been at the satanist gig for a long time — hundreds of years, in fact. Way back in colonial days, Preston family forebearers stole and hid away Corbis’s sacred book of deviltry, and it has taken all that time for Corbis to get some payback. Corbis is something of a collector. His flock is made up of people The Devil's Rain movie posterwhose bodies he has emptied of their souls and trapped within a vessel called the Devil’s Rain. How appropriate. There doesn’t seem to be an aim for collecting these souls other than increasing his own power. To what end, who knows? This isn’t the kind of film that provides those answers.

This is the kind of film that meanders around a lot, despite there being only a handful of locations. Viewers get a lot of hair-pulling from Tom and Julie as they try to unravel the mystery, and a whole bunch of black masses, whose authenticity was overseen by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, himself. Maybe authenticity is a strong word, like how the Conjuring films portray Ed and Lorraine Warren. One gets the idea.

There aren’t many specifics in the plot worth mentioning, which is surprising for a film that I found watchable. There’s not a huge amount of activity in its 85-minute running time. This is a recipe for padding on the part of the filmmakers, but the only instance of such is at the end, when it seems the filmmakers fell in love with their slimy special effects, and decided to force the audience to sit through melty gooeyness for far longer than was advisable. It’s worth noting that Fuest was a hired gun, and had no input into editing.

Fuest’s contribution to this film cannot be ignored, however. It was his skill behind the camera that made the movie look better than its material, and he got good performances out of a cast that was probably expecting just another b-movie paycheck. Unfortunately, the critics agreed that his contribution could not be ignored, and placed just about all the blame for this film’s foibles and its poor box office at his feet. So much so that this movie all but ended his career as a director of features. How unfair. He had no input on his cast, no input on the script, and no input on editing, and this film still bears his mark in all the other places that count.

This being not just a review for the Horrorshow, but for Shitty Movie Sundays, special notice has to be given to William Shatner. He is one of our favorites here at SMS. Like with everything he has ever done, Shatner brings swagger to his role. In this film, he’s at his most hammy when he’s shirtless and being tortured. These scenes alone are worth the price of admission. If there was any one person in the 1970s who could elevate thin material into a showcase of overacting, it was Shatner, and we love him for that.

Eagle-eyed horror fans might notice a familiar object in the final act of this movie. The special effects required that a mask be made of Shatner’s face. That mask, along with a bunch of other props, was sold after production wrapped. The mask was picked up secondhand, painted white, and repurposed as the mask Michael Myers dons in Halloween. There is some dispute on the internet about whether or not this is the actual mask, and not one made earlier in that decade, but it looks the same to me. Also, keep a watch for John Travolta, making his movie premiere in a minor role.

The Devil’s Rain might be too slow of a film for anyone raised by the internet, but this is my list, and I say that its pace was just right. It lands in the Watchability Index at #203, displacing Cards of Death.

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