There are some films that seem to exist beyond criticism. You can do all you want to point out their problems or their inadequacies, but it just doesn't matter: they simply are, like a fact of nature. The Devil's Rain is such a movie. It has so much going for it -- the cast, the crew, the premise -- that even if it had been a total failure, it would still have earned itself a niche in horror history. The fact that it's really not a bad little flick helps ensure its survival for future generations, but again -- its quality is almost beside the point. I'm just going to invite you to join me in marvelling at this... this thing called The Devil's Rain.
First, let's consider the cast. In our leading roles are Tom Skerritt! William Shatner! Joan Prather! And Ernest Borgnine as the heavy! And as if that weren't enough to catch your attention, we have support from Ida Lupino, Keenan Wynn, Eddie Albert and a barely-visible John Travolta in his screen debut. As every horror buff knows, an all-star cast doesn't guarantee a successful film. Quite the opposite: sometimes stars' egos will conflict and turn the movie into a duel or personalities, and sometimes the producers rely so heavily on the box-office appeal of the stars that they fail to provide a decent script. Here, though, the actors are given adequate material -- barely -- and all (including Shatner) give solid performances. The initial confrontation between Shatner and Borgnine gives the impression of vast power held in restraint: the two colossal hams face each other, each apparently confident that he could out-do the other in sheer histrionics, but each keeping his performance well in control.
There are lesser luminaries in the cast, as well: the High Priest of Satan is portrayed by... er... the High Priest of Satan: Anton Szandor LaVey, who is also credited as "technical advisor" to the film. LaVey, the enigmatic founder of the Church of Satan, probably had better advice to give on showmanship than on demonic theology, for there's little arcane knowledge on display anywhere. In fact, the whole thing makes the Devil and his minions look like a bunch of dopes, all things considered. But LaVey probably drew a nice paycheck from his dual gig, and both he and the movie must have relished the publicity they gave each other. Sharing cameos with LaVey is "Hee Haw" honey Lisa Todd; how's that for innovative casting? The movie also features Claudio Brook, a familiar actor who showed up regularly in films by directors as diverse as Luis Buñuel and Juan Lopez Moctezuma, as well as movies including Santo in the Wax Museum and Crónos.
Now let's consider the crew: director Robert Fuest has at least one fine piece of work to his credit, namely The Abominable Dr. Phibes... though he was also responsible for dogs like Dr. Phibes Rises Again! and Revenge of the Stepford Wives. In Devil's Rain, Fuest shows a good eye for eerie detail. The opening scene, as the Preston family confonts a series of ghastly shocks during a torrential rainstorm, sets the tone of the film very well, and skilfully foreshadows the film's climax. Fuest's establishing shots of the ghost town in which much of the action takes place give a good sense of desolation. And the moment of dead silence which precedes the climax works very well, pausing the action like a deep breath, preparing the audience for one final plunge into horror.
Buried in the technical credits are some other fascinating names: Fuest's second unit director is none other than Rafael Portillo, most famous outside Mexico for his Aztec Mummy series. And let's not forget Terry Morse, Jr., son of Terry "Godzilla" Morse and himself a producer extraordinaire.
Finally, let's consider the film itself. On the whole, the movie looks pretty good (though I suppose almost anything looks good at 2.35:1). The opening credits play out over nightmare images from the paintings of Bosch, and the film's (somewhat overblown) Grand Finale recaptures some of the disturbing power of those images, even down to the color scheme. The movie's frequent plunges into darkness and grotesquerie are balanced by equally-unsettling images of the bright, open, inhospitable Western desert.
Borgnine plays Jonathan Corbis, an ancient warlock evidently patterned on Joseph Curwen from H.P. Lovecraft's Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Corbis was betrayed by one of his worshippers in the late 17th century. As all these witches and wizards seem to do, he vowed vengeance on the traitor's family in generations to come, even as the flames of the stake consumed him. We never find out exactly how he is reincarnated, though we're given hints in a flashback; as is often the case with movies like this, we must rely on our knowledge of other movies and books to fill in the blanks. In any case, it has something to do with rites and wax dolls.
Borgnine needs a book containing the signatures of those he lead into Satanism. Without the book, the souls of his followers can never be given to the Devil. Instead, they languish in a limbo like that described by Dante for those who are rejected alike by Heaven and Hell:
Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries(Why do I get the feeling you're not buying all this?)
All right, yes, it's never entirely clear why Corbis just can't take the book from its not-terribly-clever hiding place; and yes again, it's never made entirely clear why the Prestons insist on doing stupidly heroic solo missions to find out what Corbis is doing. Anyway, the Prestons come up against Corbis' congregation of damned souls, black-hooded zombies with eyes gone solid black. These zombies dissolve in water, leaving behind only a puddle of wax -- somehow when their bodies are deprived of their souls, they exchange material with the wax dolls that are used in the ceremonies. The connection between the dolls and the damned is never made clear, like most things in the film, but it does make for a spectacularly messy conclusion.
The DVD cover offers a few statements worth considering. The first is the tag line: "Heaven Help Us All When THE DEVIL'S RAIN". At first sight I was inclined to blame this meaningless statement on VCI (a company I have said some rather uncharitable things about in past reviews, though they came very close to redeeming themselves with their excellent Mario Bava releases); but unfortunately this was the actual tag for the film when it was released in 1975. What the hell is this supposed to mean? Should it have been "... when the Devils Reign"? That makes more sense, but The Devil's Reign is not the title of the film. Perhaps they made the common mistake of thinking the apostrophe is used in the plural, so that the line should read "... when the devils rain" down from the skies or something. But that doesn't make any sense either, because nowhere in the film does it "rain devils".
VCI does bear responsibility for the insane statement on the cover that states The Devil's Rain has "absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture ever!" I know what they're talking about, and it's not only the famous melting scene which takes up most of the last fifteen minutes of the film. It's that justly famous sequence and the wicked twist which concludes the film. It's a chilling and effective way to end the picture -- an appropriate, oddly satisfying way to end the picture -- but it is clearly not "the most incredible" etc., etc. It's a long way from the harrowing final scene of Bergman's Shame, for example, or the redemptive walk across the empty fountain in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. Even as twist endings go, it has nothing on Citizen Kane, Night of the Living Dead or even Sixth Sense...
And yet, thinking of sixth senses, I still get the feeling you're not entirely convinced. Am I just looking for a contrary point of view, to prove my mettle as a critic? Am I overcompensating to justify my fondness for a crap film from my childhood? Maybe I am doing both, a little. But there's more to my liking for The Devil's Rain than the resurgence of the eleven-year-old in me, the part that still thinks Gamera movies are cool. Beyond the melty faces and Quentin McHale in a goat mask, there's a thoroughly sincere, deliberately paced horror film. Its story is admittedly trivial, and there are bits that will have you scratching your head if you think about them too long. But it's still an amazing, entertaining oddity. It makes no more claim to profundity than a ghost story told around a campfire, and like a campfire story, it will sit in your head long after the telling and give you the occasional chill... if you're not too jealous of your sophistication to allow it.
A final note. One of the most amazing things about it, which I haven't mentioned yet, is this: it's hard to imagine The Devil's Rain being any different had the ultra-exploitative Exorcist not been made two years earlier. For a mid-70's movie about devil-worship, that's incredible. And as a last-ditch effort to win you to my cause, I can promise you a sight that millions of people have craved since Battlefield Earth: John Travolta melting into a puddle of flesh-colored goo. All this, and Ernest Borgnine. Now do you believe me?