3/14/10

You Don't Know Shat!: The Devil's Rain (1975)

If I told you there was a movie that starred William Shatner, Tom Skeritt, Anton Levey, Eddie Albert, and Earnest Borgnine as the least threatening devil this side of Hot Stuff, you might just think that it’s something that I made up during a fever dream. Well, let me assure you, I don’t care how feverish I get Tom Skeritt is unlikely to pop into my head. The film I’m talking about, 1975’s The Devil’s Rain, is for real. This forgotten piece of Satanist cinema came to my attention because of an article about Anton Levey’s contributions to cinema, but what really caught my eye was the attachment of director Robert Fuest. Vincent Price fans will instantly recognize Fuest as the man behind the Dr. Phibes films, but they might be hard pressed to name another of his films. There’s good reason for that. After a thriller called The Final Programme and then The Devil’s Rain, Fuest fell into the abyss of TV directing.  It’s been said that The Devil’s Rain ruined him as a director, but I’m not sure that the blame should rest solely with Fuest. Who might be at fault? Well, could it be…Satan!

Satanist John Corbis (Ernest Borgnine) has one never-ending desire, a book of unending power, but it has been kept secret for centuries by the Preston family. When Mark Preston’s (William Shatner) father goes missing, the family is worried, but when he returns home, hollow eyed, to deliver a demand from Corbis before melting away, they become terrified. Mark takes matters, and the book, into his own hands and confronts Corbis at his Satanic church deep in the desert challenging the Satanic priest to a duel of faith. Mark loses the battle, and he becomes a prisoner of the cult. Mark’s brother Tom (Tom Skeritt), along with his wife Julie (Joan Prather) and psychic detective Sam Richards (Eddie Albert), try their best to save Mark, but their only chance is discovering the secret of the Devil’s Rain.


In 1975, when Roger Ebert reviewed this film, he didn’t have much nice to say. Perhaps the nicest thing he had to say was that film was “painfully dull”. This notion, and the idea that the plot was incoherent, was the common consensus among movie reviewers at the time. I can assure you that neither criticism will be appearing in this review. I might call the film “painfully silly” at moments and agree that some of Shatner’s acting style was incoherent, but overall, The Devil’s Rain was an interesting little film. Fuest clearly had a vision when he directed this film, and that vision surely seems like one imported from Italy. From the long, wide, barren shots of desert that bring to mind Sergio Leone to the rich color palette right out of Mario Bava’s toolbox, Fuest’s film seems awash in Italian influence.

Not only do the rich colors and incredible panoramas bring to mind Italian genre film, the plot (remember the incoherent mess) feels much more slanted toward an atmospheric tale than just a straightforward narrative. The mood of the film is oppressive, and it feels like pallor of doom hangs over the proceedings. Considering the film details a centuries old curse placed on a family by Satan’s ambassador to Earth, that stands to reason. Now, I don’t want to lead you folks to believe that this is a script that could rely solely on atmosphere to keep the film afloat; it’s not. For every interesting camera movement, well-lit, richly colored location, or atmospheric undertone, there are scenes full of trite dialog delivered with a range of skill from the actors.

Shatner himself is in full super-Shat mode, and he plays the role of the doomed son scarified to Satan to the hilt. If you ever needed to see how far over the top Shatner can go, merely check out the scene where his character Mark is crucified on an inverted cross during a Satanic ritual, and you’ll have all the information that you’ll need. As a Shatner fan, I still enjoyed William doing the broad thing, but this script would have benefited from a more reserved performance. On the other end of the spectrum is Tom Skeritt. The mustachioed actor looking like a cross between Sonny Bono and a walking butterfly collar, but his acting was on the mark. Skeritt holds the second half of the film together after Shatner’s character goes M.I.A for the conclusion of the picture. Eddie Albert also impresses and only when he first showed up did Green Acres enter my brain. I actually wished that his psychic investigator had been a slightly larger role.

The main event in The Devil’s Rain is really Satan incarnate, Ernest Borgnine. I’ve always kind of thought of Borgnine as a great tough guy actor or a solid supporting player, but it has never crossed my mind that he would be good at playing evil. Apart from the “menacing laugh”, that he punctuates too many sentences with, his portrayal of John Corbis is impressive. He definitely pulls off a menacing stature, and I almost have no reservations about his performance. I have to say almost because when he’s John Corbis, he’s great, but a puff of smoke later he might turn into a horned devil. That sounds like it would be awesome, but the Borg-devil looks a lot more like a reject from Labyrinth than the force of evil on Earth. Plain old Earnest isn’t cute at all, but apparently, the manifestation of Satan is adorable. Needless to say, these moments pulled me right out of whatever atmosphere the film had managed to build, and seeing as it happens every fifteen minutes for a while, it was nearly impossible to get myself immersed back in The Devil’s Rain.

It’s too bad that The Devil’s Rain put the brakes on Robert Fuest’s career. While the film has a plethora of problems, overall it’s nowhere near the mess it has a reputation for. With a little recasting, and perhaps an Italian director at the helm, this could have been a rather interesting film wrapped in the mythos of Satanism. From the article I read, Satanic High Priest Anton Levey, who cameos in the film as Borgnine’s right hand man and served as technical consultant, thought the Borg-devil was one of the best representations of Satan on screen. I have to say that as far as advertisements for the power of Satan go, this is not going to get many people to come around to the side of Old Scratch. So if you like supernatural film, William Shatner, or Bob Fuest, then you should definitely check this one out, and if anyone gives you a hard time about watching it, you can always say that the devil made you do it.

Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. This movie is so fantastically cheesy. But the ending was a bit of a head scratcher and abrupt.

    Agreed, in the hands of the right person, this could have faired a little better. But Borgnine really carries the film. Definitely a worthy addition to any horror fan's collection, despite its flaws, IMHO.

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  2. Im actually planning on hitting this one myself this week, I expected nothing different than what you had reviewed so it should prove to be a ton of fun!

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  3. I'm a little harder on the film than you, dear Bugg. I loved the absolute ridiculousness of Ernest Borgnine, particularly in the Pilgrim scene ("Remember: they don't suspect a thing" he says, only to then open the door to an angry mob with torches) but overall, the film is a total mess. The protagonist switch makes it hard to feel for anyone and the melting extravaganza goes on. And on. And on.

    Still, without this film, John Travolta would never have found Scientology, and then we'd never have Battlefield Earth. So hey, not a waste by any means!

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  4. Borgnine looks like a reject from some Disney kids' fantasy in his "horned one" makeup here. This one has been getting a lot of coverage and, aside from the melting FX, I really don't understand the resurgence in interest in this one. I find it fairly predictable and dull. Oh, well.

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