By the mid-seventies, cinema had shown us that getting mixed up with Satan had some serious consequences. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist had swept away any idea that horror films were just simple morality tales where good must ultimately win through. Arriving when it did, The Devil’s Rain looks like was made a decade too late.
These days, the film is mainly remembered for its ludicrous finale, in which the majority of the cast melt away in the rather adverse weather described in the title. It’s a scene that still impresses – up to a point.
Emissary of Satan Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine) is searching for a book that lists the names of damned souls, a tome which has come into the possession of the Preston family. The ancestors of the latter had caused Corbis to be burnt at the stake several hundred years earlier. Now the reincarnated Corbis and his eyeless followers will stop at nothing to retrieve the book that will secure his power.
One stormy night, Corbis makes his move. Failing to get the book back, he kills the father and kidnaps the wife (Ida Lupino). Eldest son Mark (William Shatner) heads out after Corbis to bargain for the life and soul of his mother. Shatner versus the Devil – it’s a pretty tough call. Unfortunately, a crisis of faith results in Corbis chalking up another soul, leaving newly arrived younger brother Tom (Tom Skerritt), his wife Julie (Joan Prather) and expert on all things occult Doctor Richards (Eddie Albert) to save the day.
As with all of Robert Fuest’s films, The Devil’s Rain is stronger on visual style than plot and pace. With his previous work, particularly The Abominable Doctor Phibes and its sequel, he largely got away with it. But not here, unfortunately. Fuest seems incapable of bringing any sense of urgency to the proceedings. Instead he prefers to focus on making the desert backdrop look good – which to be fair does look very good, but that’s not why we’re here.
A surprisingly starry cast do their best with the material provided, with some faring better than others. Veterans Keenan Wynn, Ida Lupino and Eddie Albert bring some much-needed class to the proceedings and William Shatner is, well, Shatner. It’s difficult to offer anything more critical than that. You’re either for or against him, and if against it’s probably best to keep well away because he’s firing on all cylinders here. Tom Skerritt makes for a stoical if rather bland hero – his shirt collar has more screen presence than he does.
Ernest Borgnine probably has the most fun here. You’ll wonder why Fuest bothered to spend so much time on the scenery as Borgnine chews through it at every opportunity. Where Shatner plays it straight, delivering every line like it was Shakespeare, Borgnine plays to the cheap seats. Bizarrely he looks less terrifying in full demonic goat makeup than he does without it.
Also, keep your eyes peeled for an early but brief appearance by John Travolta amongst Corbis’ followers.
As if this wasn’t enough, we also have the head of the Church of Satan himself on board as technical advisor – no, not the guy with the horns – Anton LaVey (he also has a brief cameo). Though quite what advice he gave the makers, I can’t imagine. I’m sure real Satanists don’t actually melt at the onset of precipitation. But then LaVey did base his church in sunny California, so maybe they do.
Even when viewed today the effects utilised for the ending hold up quite well. Or would, if Fuest had knownwhen to cut away. The whole scene is dragged out to an interminable length as we watch what appears to be molten wax pouring out of the collapsing faces of Corbis’ congregation over and over again.
If you once caught The Devil’s Rain on TV many years ago and you still hold fond memories of it, you might want to think twice before revisiting.
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