Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Devil's Rain (1975)

The Devil's Rain was colossal fuck-up. Despite having a spectacular cast, a solid premise, and an honest-to-god Satanist on board as a technical adviser, the movie failed so spectacularly that it destroyed or irreparably damaged the careers of almost everyone involved. The press hated it, audiences hated it, and Jesus almost certainly hated it, considering the subject matter. The director, having already established himself with the Dr. Phibes movies, went on to die a slow career death making after school specials. The writers' IMDB pages are far spookier ghost towns than the spooky ghost town found within the movie. The only person involved to have a career upswing afterwards was John Travolta, and that's because he was merely an eyeless background shemp. Even Anton LaVey, the film's technical advisor from the Church of Satan, probably leaves the film off his resume.Things start off promising enough. After a nice opening credits montage of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, the film dives right into the crazy with a media in res scene of William Shatner arguing with his mother Ida Lupino over her recurring nightmares. Dad has apparently gone missing in the rainstorm, and senile ol' gramps just keeps making more coffee to keep everyone on edge.The father finally shows up, only he is missing his eyeballs and melting rapidly. (Acid rain?) Before dissolving completely, he demands they return 'the book' to some dude named Corbis out in the desert. It looks like cowboy hatted Captain Kirk has himself an adventure to embark upon. Ida gives him the worlds largest, creepiest crucifix and sends him on his way.So Shatner leaves for little more than two seconds, just long enough to walk slowly to his truck, find a creepy voodoo doll of his mom, and run back inside, and suddenly the whole house is completely trashed. Grandpa is strung upside down and beaten around the face, and Ida is nowhere to be found. This is where the real meat and potatoes of the movie begins: people walking slowly through rooms. Nothing creates more tension than William Shatner walking suspensfully through a room that he was already in not more than five minutes ago. It is starting to look like the movie will not have the crackerjack editing its breathless opening scene would have us believe.

With the movie's pacing completely upended, the editor obviously felt like he could relax things by a few thousand notches. Shatner hops into his awesome station wagon and proceeds on his mystical quest, which turns out to mostly involve driving through the desert, followed by more driving through the desert, until finally coming to a gradual stop at the local Wild West Tourist attraction.He briefly explores the backlot ghost town before running into the real reason to be watching The Devil's Rain, Ernest Borgnine operating at maximum creepy. First appearing as a cowboy creeper, he feigns hospitality by giving Shatner some bitter well water. Kirk's having nothing of it, and over the course of a tense conversation their relationship is established. Borgnine is the evil Corbis previously mentioned, and he has apparently converted Wild West Town into a Satanic cult. He desperately wants a book in the possession of Shatner's family, but he's got to deal with his surly attitude, faith in Jesus, and .45 pistol first. (In that order.)
You know what I don't hate? I don't hate vests.

We're still in the first act and it's already showdown time. Shatner proposes a challenge of faith to Borgnine, the book and his life vs. his kidnapped family members. Satanists, taking after their master, apparently get their rocks off with bargains and challenges, so Ernest giddily accepts. They head to the nearby boarded up church for an old fashioned faith-off, which seems like kind of a boneheaded move on William's part, but still pales in comparison to the unceasing, epic numbskullery the audience will be subjected to by the end of the film. Not since The Rats, have I seen a film with heroes concocting such terrible stratagems.
Thy... kingdomcome, Thy... willbedone, On... Earthasitis in... heaven.

Inside the church, Shatner nervously adapts the Lord's prayer in his signature style, while Borgnine, blessed with the instant costume change powers of darkness, performs a black mass for his be-cloaked cultists. His intestinal fortitude failing, Shatner turns away from the service to discover his mother, now missing her ocular organs, amongst the congregation. This proves too much for our hero's nerves, and he switches out the protective mega-cross for the more concrete protection of a handgun. Since the cultists appear to be filled with some sort of sherbet or frozen yogurt like substance (possibly the Stuff?), the weapon is surprisingly effective.
In a rare moment of decent cinematography, Kirk exits the tainted temple and makes his escape halfback style through the swarming cultists. While the children of Lucifer lack the running or tackling skills to stop him, they already planted a guy in the driver's seat of his station wagon.

Now that the film's pace has picked back up, it is obviously time to grind to a screeching halt in order to introduce an entire new cast of characters. Yay! Silly Shatner fans, this is really a Tom Skerrit movie. He's a scientist and William's brother, so when his psychic wife/specimen receives a distress signal from his rapidly shrinking family, it's time to go solve some mysteries with Science. He packs up the misses and fellow scientician, Eddie Albert, for a quick road trip to the barren, middle-of-nowhere desert where his family resides. (Why the hell do they live in the same region as the dark forces hunting them?)There is quite a bit of promise in this turn of events; while Shatner's faith based solution faltered against the righteousness of evil Ernest, Skerrit's character has two things his brother lacked: science and a 'stache. (See the 1973 film Pioneer Woman for an honest to goodness Shanter mustache--handlebar no less.) Scientists versus Satan? It worked like a charm for Prince of Darkness and Quatermass & The Pit. (Yeah yeah, Satan turned out to be space grasshoppers. Big deal.) The problem is that whenever it finds a spot to inject actual ideas, The Devil's Rain is content to inject mindless filler instead. There is no science v. magic smackdown, just Skeritt walking suspensfully through Satanic churches and western sets.Finding no help from local law enforcement, the gang heads to the ghost town to investigate. Their car randomly explodes, but a crazy cultist is tooling around in Shatner's beat up wagon. They chase him into the old hotel set, and nothing of interest happens for a while. Eventually Tom gets the drop on the eyeless goon so his telepathic wife can suck exposition out of its head.Thanks to an endless, orange-hued flashback, it turns out that Ernest Borgnine is a three century old Satanic priest who was burned at the stake after his congregation is ratted out by the wife of a wig sporting old-timey William Shatner. He was a direct ancestor of the film's leads, and Borgy damned their whole family with a prophetic curse. Why he bothered to do this while they were being burned at the stake alongside him is a mystery, but they must have somehow managed to pump out and raise some children before becoming crispy critters, because their lineage has obviously been established.

Having fought a goon and solved part of the mystery, they decide to leave town. Only Skeritt changes his mind or something, because he stops at the edge of town, gets out, and sends his wife on her way while he continues the investigation. This is Shitty Plan #1, because not only does he no longer have a method of quick escape when things inevitably go off the rails, but his Satanically controlled mom is hiding in the back seat of the car. When she pops up for a scare, his wife's reaction is to completely let go of the wheel in order to cover her head. Car meets tree; wife meets Ernest Borgnine.Back in town, Tom is still walking suspensfully. He tracks the Satanists to a nearby rocky outcropping and observes them performing an elaborate ritual on a restrained Shatner. They burn a waxen effigy of him, carve crap onto his chest, and purify him with the "water of forgetfulness." During the process, Borgnine calls forth Satan himself, who obliges by entering his body, revealing the awesome power of Satan-goat-man-thing-guy.The ritual, which Skeritt makes no attempt to disrupt, is a resounding success. The result: Shatner loses his eyeballs and becomes possessed by the spirit of his long dead forefather. Impressive, but how come it takes them so long to convert William that his brother manages to travel from wherever he was doing sciencey stuff, investigate the town, and show up in time for the main attraction, when they managed to do the same to their mom in less time than it took for Shatner to merely drive across the desert? Also, how did Ida get from the station wagon to the ceremony in time to expose her remaining non-evil son, and why didn't she take the wife along with her? And how do they not already know about Tom Skeritt, if they had planted a trap in the station wagon? Wasn't it day time just a minute ago? What the hell is happening?

Obviously this whole desert exists in some kind of Satanic spacetime warp, because after Tom takes out a couple cultists with a shotgun and makes his escape, he miraculously appears back at the ranch the next day. He also loses the gun in the process, and even though he would just have to walk down some stairs that he probably has to go down anyway, he doesn't bother to retrieve it. It's almost like the good guys want to lose.Back at home base with Eddie Albert, the two men have the worlds most casual conversation about Satanic forces and missing wives. Tom gets a little riled up at one point, but no more so than if they were arguing the merits of string theory. Ed has located the magic macguffin book and uses it to quickly fill in the remaining exposition gaps. It turns out that Hell is a vicious bureaucracy (why am I not surprised?) that requires extensive paperwork on the souls delivered to it. Inside, Borgnine had written down all the names of his parishioners in blood. Without the names, their souls can't be properly delivered to Satan and must remain in some sort of limbo related to the ill defined eponymous precipitation.

So it's established that the villain desperately needs this tome to complete his evil scheme to deliver a bunch of colonial era souls to the devil. (Step 3 is profit.) Instead of burning the book, flying it to Istanbul, or otherwise preventing him from obtaining it, they use their powerful science-brains to formulate an even worse plan than Shatner's previous 'walk right into the evil church and sit down' idea. At least Captain Kirk had the good sense not to take Borgnine's coveted macguffin along with him; the scientists not only take it with them after deciding to go right back to evilburg, they accidentally leave it sitting on the church floor for a random cultist to pick up while passing by. For a while I thought they were setting up a trap with the book as bait, but no dice; after the sheriff randomly shows up as an eyeless axe wielding muppet (When the fuck did they have time to get him?) it gets dropped on the floor and completely forgotten about.
Jesus Christ! Waldorf is trying to fucking kill me!

The expedition is not a total wash. They do manage to locate and steal the Devil's Rain in between losing both the book and yet another shotgun. (Maybe you should have brought a second gun instead of the goddamn source of the villain's power, chowderheads.) It turns out to be the giant lovechild of a Fabergé egg and a Chumby. Inside it's viewing screen, which is actually a pretty nifty effect, are the wailing souls of Borgnine's follower-victims.Before they can beat another hasty retreat, the Satanists show up en masse to unite the book with its magic console TV. Instead of immediately smashing the fragile looking thing, Eddie casually walks to the center of the room and offers to exchange it for Borgnine's recently aquired 20th century souls. He makes a big deal out of not over or under-estimating the Satanists' power, but it rings a little hollow since he is just standing in the middle of a huge swarm of them with no weaponry or plan. Sure enough, evil Shatner has only to reach out and easily snatch the macguffin from him. So every single thing the heroes have done in this movie has only made the antagonist's job easier. If they would have stayed in bed he'd have been fucked.Fortunately for the mouth breathing forces of good, the Shatner ancestor currently occupying Shatner prime's body finds one last sliver of free will, and before you can say "deus ex machina" he performs the movie's first sensible act by tossing the egg/tv/soul-jar/chumby thing to the ground. Ker-Pow! The church's roof blows off so that the Devil's Rain can finally rain down... as rain.
Does this thing get the Playboy channel?

Depending on who you ask, this is where the film either finally gets good or goes completely off the deep end. The rain, if you remember from the first scene, makes the eyeless cultists melt into waxy goo. The next ten or so minutes of the movie is all melting, all the time. They melt. Goat-Borgnine melts. Everyone melts some more. Skeritt and Goatnine wrassle a little. More melting. The church explodes a bit. Melting.To mix things up, the cultists appear to not be melting for a couple shots, but they are actually still melting. Then the church explodes again. Everyone looks sad at each other then melts some more. (It's hard not to look sad when you are melting, though.) Is this a special Devil's Rain that is making them melt, or does any water do it, like for the Wicked Witch? That would certainly explain the desert setting.
Patch Adams with a headful of cold medicine notwithstanding, I don't usually fall asleep during movies, but I'm pretty sure I nodded off a bit during the melt-tastic climax. When I awoke moments later, everyone was... still melting.

Meanwhile, the heroes have rescued the damsel in distress and make their way to a safe distance. Eddie Albert slinks away so they can have a tender moment in front of the raging inferno and gooey remains of their tormenters. But wait, there's more: in a completely original and totally not pulled out of anyone's ass twist ending, it turns out that Tom Skeritt is actually embracing Ernest Borgnine! The film then fades out with a legitimately creepy shot of the psychic wife starring out from what is apparently a backup Devil's Rain. (One soul? Satan's gonna be pissed.) Spooky, until you think about it for two seconds. When did it happen? How did it happen? How come no one used shapeshifting powers earlier? Where is Eddie Albert in all this?The Devil's Rain is not a movie, it is a second string Twilight Zone episode stretched with more tasteless filler than North Korean meatloaf. There is at least a solid hour of footage that could be cut from the film without disrupting the 'plot', and it might actually benefit from some disruption. It's pretty clear that the filmmakers came up with the various elements before trying to wrangle them into a cohesive plot. There is an occasional bout of excuse making, such as the sheriff's recalcitrance towards helping the investigation, but mostly things just happen without rhyme or reason. Someone had an idea for a cool scare scene in the car, so Skeritt just abandons his wife. The plot required Borgnine to somehow get ahold of his prized macguffin, so the heroes just bring it along and practically hand it to him. There was a cheap western backlot available, so they set the whole thing in a desert. Basically, everything that happens can be more easily traced to an artifact of the arduous process of making a movie than to any reasonable logic of character or story. It's just plain awful, and that is coming from someone who considers Man's Best Friend one of his favorite films.Also, a special place in hell needs to be set aside for those responsible for authoring the terrible DVD Netflix sent me. The best thing I can say about it is that it was not pan-and-scan. It was not an anamorphic transfer, looks only marginally better than VHS, and is so poorly mastered that you can actually see individual keyframes. They are noticable because they are the only times when the film's considerable grain is visible; otherwise the grain is compressed into blurry, geometric artifacts. This creates a strange rhythm to the film, as every third or so frame is grainy, while the rest are not. It was actually a little more fun to watch than the film itself.

For more "Meltocaust" action, check out this month's Final Girl Film Club. There are legions more folk giving this film the lighthearted ribbing it so terribly deserves, so check 'em out (if only to compare the metaphors used to describe the crazy TV jar... thing).


  1. I fell asleep during the meltocaust too. The movie is tough to make through. I jumped the gun on the film club too. Couldn't resist.

  2. I did it because of laziness: in possibly the only known case of slacking off resulting in work getting done a month early, I forgot to double check the date and was trying to get it done for August 7th, not September. D'oh!

  3. Seriously, there must be some sort of satanic backmasking going on in that film… I most definitely fell asleep to the melting scene when I watched this film in 2003. We all fell asleep to a film with the Shat and Ernie Borgnine and face-melting? Can't be a coincidence.

  4. This movie rules for all the wrong reasons. This was actually one of my first reviews for my site, oh how naive I was.

    There's a drinking game in the film, I just don't know where yet.

  5. How about "Drink heavily while watching The Devil's Rain" Not clever, but definitely apt.

  6. I'm quite certain that was the game they played while filming. It would be incredibly meta.

  7. Love the line about North Korean meatloaf. It's more than apt.

    I also found the Devil's Rain quite reminiscent of a Faberge Egg! Plus, why would you remove BOTH hands from the steering wheel just because someone is in the backseat?

    Netflix definitely mails out the older 2000 release of the DVD. Apparently, there was a 'special edition' in 2006 complete with commentary. Perhaps that would have explained EVERYTHING.

  8. I imagine the commentary mainly consists of the director groaning and wincing uncomfortably, followed by long silences and the occasional mention of "Bill Shatner was a really nice guy."