Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Devil's Rain

The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Dir. Robert Fuest
Written by: James Ashton, Gabe Essoe, Gerald Hopman
Starring oh boy, you got William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Ernest Borgnine, Keenan Wynn, with John Travolta and Anton LaVey in small roles. Can you beat that?!

What the fuck is even happening here? It hurts the eyes just to look at it!

    THE DEVIL’S RAIN opens with some of the best horror imagery ever devised by man, the phantasmagoric hell-scapes of Jheronimus van Aken, better known as Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a nice touch, because there’s nothing in the movie that specifically makes reference to Bosch or his work. They’re just setting an appropriately nightmarish tone, which after a strong start gradually declines but still manages to eke it out to the end of the movie. But man, what a start. After the camera menacingly probes the perverse details of Bosch’s Christian bad acid trip visions over the credits, we cut right to a tense William Shatner pacing around his home while rain pours down outside. He’s waiting for his father, who seems to be out on some unspecified dangerous mission. Finally, his truck pulls up outside --ah, thank god he made it! But the figure that knocks on the door isn’t him at all, it’s a ghoulish doppelganger with gouged-out eyes who suddenly melts into a festering pile of goo. Before you know it Shat’s mom has been kidnapped by Satanists, and he’s off to a cool Mexican ghost town to face the cult’s leader, Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine, all grinning menace). And all that’s in the first 20 minutes! We haven’t even seen Tom Skerritt yet!

    RAIN can be a little cheesy at times, but I think it’s got a very underappreciated screenplay which take some genuinely unusual and successful turns. It’s almost like PSYCHO in that it doesn’t turn out to be about the characters that first appear to be the protagonists, and gradually sort of ends up being more about the villains. It throw you off guard right away by dropping you head first into a obviously high-stakes situation which you don’t entirely understand, and then keeps you from getting too comfortable with a few sudden directional turns (including a fairly long flashback to Puritan times, how often do you get to see that?). It also successfully --and almost casually-- manages to blend Western iconography, period horror, satanism, family drama, and slimy gore effects into a particularly intoxicating concoction which is always strange but somehow never seems disjointed or chimerial.

This is the direction my career will go.

The screenplay does suffer from under developing its protagonists, (which make it hard to care too much what happens to them) but compensates with some pretty neat production design and horror setpieces. The satanists all have creepy burnt-out eyes* (except Borgnine, whose naturally crazy eyes are still a horror highlight) which definitely freaks my shit right out. Their weird waxy melting is an usual and nasty touch, and --more than anything-- Borgnine just seems so brazen and gleefully psycho that he’s legitimately intimidating. You really believe this guy might just be too powerful to stop. But the film’s real stroke of genius is the object of it’s title. Corbis stores souls of the people he’s defeated in a kind of glowing jar --the Devil’s Rain-- where we disturbingly get a glimpse of them scratching pitiably at the glass in front of vast expanse of pouring rain and black nothingness. It’s a pretty unique and bleak take on hell, and I appreciate that in a movie which often thrills on going way overboard (at one point Borgnine gets so full of devilish power that he transforms into a not-especially-convincing man-goat hybrid).

    There are things which are a little too amateurish about this one to call it a lost classic, but it’s definitely a uniquely strange one with some great ideas. Borgnine is classic as the cult leader, but I also like the odd anti-coupling of Tom Skerritt and William Shatner as brothers. Shatner is all old fashion bravado, which is perfect for a film which seeks to evoke medieval high drama from its credit sequence onward. But Skerritt is all 70’s counterculture swagger, at odds with the earnestness of the rest of the characters. It makes sense, though, because we discover that Skerritt was somehow not hip to his family’s involvement with these Satanic goings-on, so he’s a confused outsider trying to figure out exactly what’s going on in a world which seems completely alien not only to his intellect but to his basic temperament. It would work better if Skerritt was trying a little harder or the movie had more interesting things for him to do, but still it’s another lively and unique dynamic in a film which is chock full of them (by the way, try and spot Travolta, who has one line as a eyeball-less extra).

This movie honestly has more melting than THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. And that is literally nothing but melting.

Director Robert Fuest had previously directed the well-regarded AND SOON THE DARKNESS, as well as both the DR. PHIBES films, which are considered to be minor horror classics. Unfortunately, this movie was so poorly-received that it effectively ruined his career. too bad, because he was obviously working hard on this one, even going so far as to hire Church of Satanism founder and Rolling Stones fan Anton LaVey as a “technical adviser” (I guess he also appears in the film, although I didn’t spot him). LaVey was by this time already solidly Hollywood --becoming a scene figure as cults like the Process Church and Scientology began to take off in the area and attract the interest of entertainment icons-- but you gotta appreciate Fuest’s boldness in selling the film with a figure who was genuinely shocking to conservative America. It brings a welcomed bit of sleazy disreputability to the film, although presumably not much gritty reality (unless melting, blind goatmen were a bigger part of LaVey’s religion than I am assumed). 

I wanted to put sexy robed Borgnine in here, but you owe it to yourself to click here for Borgnine Goatman!

By the end the film sort of runs out of steam, failing to build to a suitably impressive climax and stumbling on one too many silly moments. But it’s still sort of worth it for the amusingly egregious final sequence where Corbis’s followers all melt in the rain. For like 15 minutes. It’s the goopy horror equivalent of the famous ally fight fight from THEY LIVE. It just keeps going and going, and just as you think they’re puddles, they couldn’t possibly melt any further, well, they just keep melting. It goes against all sense and good taste, outrageous enough that you can’t help but laugh. And then, out of the blue, it ends with a genuinely disturbing twist. A fitting way to go out for a movie which is stubbornly --sometimes wrongheadedly, but always entertainingly-- it’s own unique mix of sleaze, strangeness and genuine gothic horror

* In fact, this movie is most famous for a single prop -- the William Shatner mask with burnt out eyes went into storage along with the other props, neglected until 1978 when a young unknown Indie filmmaker named John Carpenter came along...
Look Familiar?

BOOBIES: I think I remember some in there, but I wouldn't swear to it. Shatner gets topless, anyway.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Lots and lots of melting, and I believe there's a sacrifice in there.
SEQUEL: Not yet.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: High. Despite it's cast, it's been out of print.
MONSTERS: Goatman!
CURSES: Yeah, Shat and Skerritt's family is cursed by Corbis.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Awake up to the part where Shatner gets to the church. Never saw Tom Skerritt.

1 comment:


    When it's N/A does that mean I was actually awake for part of it? Because that seems to be the trend! I dug hard on this Shatner look... until I fell asleep.