Cult Corner: The Devil's Rain (1975) - Reviewed

British director Robert Fuest’s career was in an upswing after his work on the hit television series The Avengers before embarking on the Vincent Price starring cult favorites The Abominable Dr. Phibes followed by Dr. Phibes Rises Again.  Critically and commercially successful in his homeland, the time soon came for the up and coming director to flex his international filmmaking muscles with his first American picture, the slice of Satanic occult horror as batshit insanity The Devil’s Rain.  

Featuring a star-studded cast including but not limited to William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Claudio Brook, a then-unknown John Travolta and self-proclaimed Satanist as well as technical consultant Anton LaVey, this frequently bizarre, goofball and inexplicably PG-rated occult horror flick/camp classic announces itself on the poster as having ‘absolutely the most horrifying ending of any motion picture ever’.  Whether or not the film itself lives up to the tagline is in the eye of the beholder but what is for certain is that The Devil’s Rain proved to be a most peculiar chapter in the careers of all involved with some less than fortunate or keen on recalling their involvement in it.

Unfolding in a disjointed series of flashbacks intercut with the present tense, the film zeroes in on the Preston family who for centuries have hidden a Satanic bible from evil priest Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine).  On a stormy night, father Steve Preston (George Sawaya) mysteriously reappears before his son Mark (William Shatner) to warn of Corbis’ ruse before vanishing into mush in the rain, setting in motion Mark’s attempts to track down and defeat the demonic priest before all Hell starts to break loose.  Soon Mark’s older brother Tom (Tom Skerritt) joins in on the crusade against Corbis in the Mexican desert landscape where the Church of Satan resides, leading towards the poster’s much-touted finale of pandemonium, screams and melting flesh.

Regarded among horror fans as that other desert horror movie starring William Shatner (Kingdom of the Spiders), The Devil’s Rain came in between the time of Star Trek’s cancellation and the eventual big budget Motion Picture series return and finds the ordinarily over-the-top actor playing second fiddle to Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine’s scenery-chewing antics.  Replete with a ram’s horn and goat-like facial mask, Borgnine gives arguably the most overplayed performance of his entire filmography, completely hamming it up in a role that comes across far funnier than frightening.  Even Tom Skerritt as the film’s other hero can’t help but inadvertently slip on a banana peel or two evading and vanquishing eyeless Satanists in this truly wacky thing.

Despite the unintentional hilarity and lunacy onscreen, The Devil’s Rain is a handsomely lensed devil horror movie photographed exquisitely in Todd AO widescreen by Alex Phillips, Jr., exploiting the desert landscape and bizarre set pieces beautifully.  The film also boasts a curiously avant-garde score by Al De Lory, touching on Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ iconic atonal soundtrack for Ken Russell’s vastly superior The Devils, placing the listener like the film’s hapless protagonists in uncharted territory. 

As the film unspools during the opening credits with macabre paintings of Hell by Hieronymus Bosch, one gets the sense they’re in for a devilish horror moviegoing experience.  That the skillful technical merits and use of Bosch’s timelessly disturbing artwork ultimately amounts to such campy, silly fare is somewhat disappointing but fans of this kind of gonzo horror filmmaking will have plenty to chew on here. 

Sadly this would be the last theatrical feature film for Robert Fuest for many years.  So savagely was the film rejected by critics and audiences, Fuest retreated to working in television and nearly all of the cast members couldn’t help but laugh the film off in retrospect.  Ernest Borgnine himself contended the production was plagued by so many mysterious incidents, coupled with being financed by Mafia money, that he vowed to never work in a film remotely like it again.  Even John Travolta remains baffled at how such a “bad movie” could attract so many big movie stars.  Strangest of all is that the plaster cast of William Shatner’s face used in the film was later reused to make a Halloween mask that eventually got slightly modified for use in John Carpenter’s now legendary horror film Halloween!

Seen now, being a longtime fan of these kinds of devil-horror movies, The Devil’s Rain is an eccentric little number that tends to overstay its welcome trying to live up to the poster’s tagline but has enough wild and weird inventiveness to keep bloodthirsty horror fans more than amply satisfied.  Sure it’s goofy, not particularly frightening and even nonsensical but it will hold your attention for its near hour-and-a-half running time and leave you having seen a side of Shatner and Borgnine you’re unlikely to forget anytime soon.

Andrew Kotwicki