When I was compiling the list of this year’s titles for inclusion in the 13 Screams, I put a call out on Facebook for any suggestions or requests. I like to make the whole Shocktober event as much of a mix of old, new, classic, gothic, slasher, monster, comedic and downright disturbing as I can. I had some really good titles thrown in the mix by the good folk who responded.
My thanks go to Kerry Darke for suggesting The Devil’s Rain. Not only because it fits the bill perfectly, but for reminding me that the film existed. The Devil’s Rain was released in 1975, during the time I was still in school, fascinated more by horror and science fiction and horror than the educational curriculum, much to the disappointment and dismay of my family. (I was always the family weirdo, and proud of it.) For some reason, vampires and monsters were grudgingly accepted by my parents – but films depicting devil worship or possession were taboo and off the menu. I remember my mother haughtily switching off Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out minutes after the title sequence, having already seen enough.
It was the time that the big possession movie craze was in full swing, following the release of The Exorcist in 1973, which wasn’t even on my radar at that age. I was 14 or 15, home video wasn’t yet a “thing” nor would it be for another eight years or so. My chances of getting into the Palladium to see anything like The Exorcist were total absolute zero. I managed to talk my way into some Hammer and Amicus films, and that was pushing it. So, mainly I had to content myself with catching up with my genres of choice at home, watching the classic Universal, Hammer and Amicus films whenever they were shown on TV.
Any knowledge I had of horror movies back then came from a collection of books and magazines I had started to collect. In those pre-Starburst days, Photoplay Film Monthly was the go-to. Every so often, they’d publish a one-off special issue, and I had the “Devil Movies” special. This is where I first read of The Devil’s Rain. It seemed a film I’d like to see, starring William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine. I remember wondering if the title was a misspelling or a play on words, that it should’ve been The Devil’s Reign and seeing Borgnine sporting horns, with his peculiarly square, blocky head looking more like a ram than the lord of misrule.
As far as I recall, the film never played around here – or if it did, I was completely unaware. I’ve never seen it listed as showing on TV, and I’ve never come across it available for home viewing. So, I guess I forgot about it, as it faded away in the mists of time. Until Kerry mentioned it on Facebook, the memories came rushing back and I found I could import on DVD from America (the joys of a multi-region player.)
Finally, the Devil’s Rain and I were in the same place, at the same time. Although it took of forty years. So, how does the movie play?
I have to admit that I had assumed it would quickly dissipate into a William Shatner vs The Coven action movie, but that didn’t really happen and ultimately, despite a few moments here and there, Shatner’s performance here is as low key as I’ve ever seen him. It’s pretty much a by the numbers story about the terrifying curse placed by a coven, not nearly as effective as say, Race with the Devil, but it has its moments.
The cast is particularly strong, joining Shatner and Borgnine are screen legend Ida Lupino, a pre-Alien Tom Skerritt and a very young John Travolta making his motion picture debut. (This is a very minor role for him, with the coven robes and hood he is literally recognisable only by his distinctive chin.)
The titles are amazing, shown over details of the disturbing depictions of hell by Hieronymus Bosch and curiously, they credit Anton Szandor Lavey, High Priest of the Church of Satan as a technical advisor. He also plays a High Priest in the film.
The making of the film was apparently plagued by inexplicable events, which resulted in Ernest Borgnine swearing never to appear in a film with this kind of subject matter ever again – whether that’s actually true, of the work of the studio’s publicist, I don’t know. (Bear in mind that The Exorcist had ringers in the audience in its first days of release, who’d be “possessed” during the showing, necessitating priests be in attendance – all on the studio payroll, and all swallowed up by a gullible public and media. What is closer to the truth though is that the film was financed with Mafia money and Borgnine was never paid for his work. His role as Corbis was originally intended for Vincent Price who had previously worked with director Robert Fuest on the two tongue in cheek Dr Phibes films. I’ll just say this – Borgnine is no Vincent Price.
As the film opens, it’s a torrentially rainy night on the Preston family secluded farm. The father is out in the rain, the mother and son (Lupino and Shatner) are concerned. As they’re about to go looking for him, the father appears, soaked through, minus his eyes and with his flesh melting. He manages to utter a few words about handing over a book before turning into a puddle of gelatinous gloop. I don’t know what’s more disturbing, the fact that he turns into this waxy substance, or that nobody seems overly surprised. They don’t even try to mop him up, they just let the rain wash him away. I’d hope for a better send off, personally.
So, the mother goes to retrieve a book, hidden in a secret compartment under the floor in the living room and son Mark resolves to take the book to the man behind this sticky situation, Corbis.
Corbis (Borgnine) is the satanic cult leader and he has relentlessly pursued the Preston family for generations for a betrayal by one of their ancestors that happened a couple of centuries earlier which resulted in the coven being exposed and burned. Also, they have this book of power that Corbis needs.
So, Mark drives to a genuinely eerie ghost town in the middle of the desert and is quickly and easily captured by Corbis and his followers, having his memory erased ready for a ceremony to take place that night. Meanwhile, Mark’s older brother Tom (Tom Skerritt) is looking for him along with his wife Julie and a psychic investigator Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert). He interrupts the ceremony to convert Mark into a soulless minion of the devil and is chased around the town buildings by the coven – none of whom seem to have eyes, just black holes where their eyes used to be. This makes for a powerful visual image, especially when first seen with its shock effect, but soon becomes mundane, especially when you can see it’s a black mesh appliance over the actors’ eyes and you can make out their actual eyes underneath, blinking. Besides that, it makes no real sense, if they’re blind, that they manage to find their victims. However, the thought of the cult requiring their followers to give up their sight is a shuddersome one.
During the ceremony, Corbis grows horns and some additional facial hair, as mentioned earlier and ends up looking like a tetchy ram. Ernest Borgnine can easily do threatening, thuggish and jovial. He cannot do snarling, hissing evil though. This is where Price would’ve shone in the role.
The coven’s power comes from a mysterious large jar containing The Devil’s Rain, which is made of all the souls the coven has taken. To be honest, I thought The Devil’s Rain actually referred to the heavy rainstorm at the beginning of the film, where Pa Preston melted, but nope.
Richards appeals to Mark’s last remaining vestiges of humanity to destroy this bottle, which unsurprisingly, he does after a couple of soul searching, grimacing seconds. (Well, Shatner HAD to save the day, didn’t he?) This releases the souls and inexplicably causes all the coven members to melt. It rains as well. So maybe I wasn’t far wrong.
Tom and his wife beat a hasty retreat to safety, or to avoid getting any satanic gloop on their shoes, at least and they embrace in triumph.
Except……… he’s not embracing his wife. He’s embracing Corbis, who has escaped. Poor Julie is trapped, screaming and alone forever in a new jar.
It’s a clever ending to a fun film.
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