***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, Tom Skerritt, William Shatner
screenplay by James Ashton, Gabe Essoe, Gerald Hopman
directed by Robert Fuest
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The Devil's Rain is like a bad song you can't get out of your head. It isn't a successful film, or even a particularly good one, but it's made with sincerity, verve, and an understanding of the horror genre's potential for kinetic filmmaking and potent allegory. Moreover, it isn't a cheat--this isn't just another cheap cash-in on the "Satan" craze of the 1970s. The last thing director Robert Fuest and screenwriters James Ashton, Gabe Essoe, and Gerald Hopman are looking to do is take your money and run. And though this is largely a trend of the mid-to-late-'80s onward, they aren't looking to vindicate their reputations by condescending to the material, either. I actually feel a little protective of The Devil's Rain; its failure is one more of incompetence than of cynicism, and that's really rather reinvigorating in an age where self-consciousness reigns supreme in horror films both good (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) and bad (See No Evil).
For generations, the Preston family have been the caretakers of a book listing the names of those who sold their souls to the devil. They are keeping it out of the hands of Corbis (Ernest Borgnine), a Satanic priest who, thanks to his years of service to the Dark Lord, has become immortal. After Corbis kills the Preston patriarch and replaces him with a Satanic zombie, eldest son Mark (William Shatner) challenges Corbis to a "faith off"--his god against Corbis's. Unfortunately, Mark loses, and Corbis begins a process of zombification that involves banishing Mark's soul to "the Devil's Rain," a fate worse than Hell. His body, meanwhile, remains mindlessly under Corbis's control. Upon hearing of his family's disappearance, Mark's younger brother, Tom (a curiously Sonny Bono-like Tom Skerritt), interrupts his work on extrasensory perception with his psychic wife Julie (Joan Prather) and goes to investigate. It's now up to him to defeat Corbis, save his brother, and break the curse once and for all.
I know it's pointless to offer constructive criticism to a film made over thirty years ago, but like I said, I feel a bit protective of The Devil's Rain. The screenplay isn't very good--there are a number of good things in it, of course, but it fails to coalesce as a whole; Fuest seems to have shot the first draft. Julie's ESP is used as an expository shortcut--she has flashbacks to the 1600s when the Preston clan betrayed Corbis and were cursed--and proves of little use in terms of fleshing out the character or the storyline. By defeating Shatner's character early on, it appears they were hoping to subvert audience expectations and possibly cultivate a pervasive atmosphere of despair. We have reason to suspect, after all, that because he is a brand name Shatner will play the hero. Alas, he is nevertheless too valuable a property to retire so hastily, thus instead of being killed off, Mark is tortured throughout the rest of the film. Shatner is also enlisted to play Mark's Puritan ancestor, a goofball move that forces him to earn his salary but significantly compromises any potential The Devil's Rain has for legitimacy as a horror flick. By de-emphasizing the shock of taking Mark out of the equation, we never quite attach ourselves to Tom, leaving the film without a protagonist.
The Devil's Rain is hampered by its PG rating when it comes to exploring the sexual aspects of the material. Corbis "tempts" Mark by having a beautiful woman bow down to kiss him. Then he reveals that this was an illusion and the woman is actually Mark's zombified mother! This is the first and last suggestion of incest or even sexual temptation. While a flashback to Corbis drawing a pentagram in blood on the soft belly of young boy could've developed a real paedophilic charge, it's over before it has accrued the necessary weight. When Corbis kidnaps Julie and prepares to sacrifice her, the film somehow doesn't muster the anticipated BDSM kink. It's not that I require movies to be subversive along those lines, I just wonder why they brought it up in the first place if they weren't going to go balls-out in the follow-through.
If The Devil's Rain is half-assed on the conceptual level, though, it is redeemed in the execution. There are a number of surface pleasures. Shatner and Borgnine act the shit out of this movie to an extent unseen since Bette Davis and Joan Crawford went at it in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, though Borgnine is by far the superior thespian and can better focus his blunt theatrical style. (I defy you to not giggle at the sight of porcine Shatner writhing in agony as his character is burned alive.) At less than 90 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome--Fuest keeps the thing moving and there are energetic action sequences involving Mark and Julie's capture by Corbis's minions. As an amateur filmmaker myself, I admired the resourcefulness and simplicity of Fuest's use of Hieronymous Bosch paintings over the title sequence as well as his depiction of the titular "devil's rain," a torture chamber in which the victim is rained upon amid continuous pounding on the other side of a Plexiglass partition. The make-up effects are simultaneously elaborate and cheap-looking: When Corbis transforms into a goat monster, it's a little like seeing the apes in Planet of the Apes--he's neither goat nor Ernest Borgnine, but a creature that exists only in the context of The Devil's Rain. The film is "bad" in that it is sloppily made and doesn't exactly work in the way it's supposed to, yet because it's utterly sincere about its badness, the sloppiness and unintentional hilarity approximate a sort of nightmare quality. It inhabits that Uncanny Valley between high camp and surreal dreaminess where it's difficult to ascertain the level of reality on which you're operating. I think I would have loved to see this film as a little kid on "Saturday Nightmares" or "Commander USA", back before I developed a sense of irony and stuff like this directly penetrated the subconscious.
According the DVD cover, The Devil's Rain sports "absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture," and although I don't exactly agree, I have to admit that it totally owns that of Brian DePalma's The Fury. The heroes release the Devil's Rain, causing the zombie Satanists and their leader melt into globs of flesh-coloured goo; and Fuest chases this apocalyptic finale with a hauntingly melancholy closer, nihilistically finishing the film on a whimper. I see this form as adhering to the script of sex/death/birth particularly closely: carnage and bedlam followed by a moment of tranquility and clarity. In the last shot, we see Julie banished to the Devil's Rain and banging to get out as the closing titles scroll up the screen. The audience is implicitly indicted in her damnation. Presumably, we can turn our back on her and leave the theatre or we can sit through the credits and passively watch her cry for help. I can't in good conscience claim that The Devil's Rain is particularly scary, but the meta-textual implications of this denouement make the picture a worthy contribution to the genre.
Ultimately, what has pushed me into giving The Devil's Rain a light recommendation is that it has evidently put some serious thought into exploring the nature of evil. Although Anton LaVey was a consultant on the film (to ensure the accuracy of the Satanic rituals) and has a cameo, The Devil's Rain moves beyond the gussied-up Objectivism of the official Church of Satan. The key scene finds Mark trying to extract a drink from a water pump that yields nothing but dust. Corbis spots him, walks over, and with one push gets the water flowing. Mark then takes a drink but immediately spits it out. "It's bitter," he tells Corbis, who agrees, adding: "But it sure is a sweet way to end a thirst." Mark will later lose the faith-off by pulling a gun on Corbis's minions and firing: His faith was already strong enough. The film is basically saying that life is suffering--we look to God for solace and gain none. Satan fills up this void and soothes our pain, expediently at that. The catch of course is that the relief he provides is short-lived compared to the love of God, which can only be attained through blind faith. This model solves a key issue I've had with the popular concept of Satan: if people were indeed able to "sell their souls to the Devil," wouldn't the knowledge of eternal damnation prevent them from doing so? They need some kind of motivation in ruining their lives--and, well, there it is.
An upgrade to VCI's release by virtue of its anamorphic enhancement, Dark Sky's 2.35:1 DVD presentation of The Devil's Rain is, despite a bit of print deterioration during the car-chase sequence, decidedly brilliant. The red Satanist robes are vibrant without bleeding, flesh tones look natural, and blacks are solid. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio isn't particularly impressive, but its aesthetics aside, the soundtrack shows few signs of age. Occupying another track, a feature-length commentary with Fuest and film critic/historian Marcus Hearn is one of those noble efforts that never quite comes together. There is an irresolvable incongruence between the scholarly Hearn and the cockney Fuest that reminded me a little of Peter Bogdanovich's hilarious attempts to interview his idol in Directed by John Ford. Fuest came to directing the old-fashioned way--by starting at the bottom--and never learned how to discuss his process.
Unfortunately, Fuest lacks the light-hearted yet confident contempt for his interviewer that Ford did and the track is filled with endless bouts of stammering.You get the feeling that it's probably a mistake on the part of the producers to consider Fuest the author of the film. He mentions that he didn't understand the script but filmed it anyway because the screenwriters assured him that it all made sense; and he doesn't take any credit for casting Borgnine in the role of Corbis, as they needed a name actor in a hurry who would be able to get the job done. This is one of those times where I wonder if directors who don't also either write or produce should be disqualified from the auteur theory. Three radio spots, a theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and a brief newsreel featuring Anton LaVey conducting a non-denominational wedding ceremony round out the platter. Originally published: February 13, 2007.