First things first: the title The Devil’s Rain (1975) refers not to the torrential downpours that begin and end this film, but to an all-important chalice of lost souls. This may not be logical, but who wants logic when you can have Ernest Borgnine as a satanic goat god? This is a movie with more than enough overacting guest stars and gooey zombie flesh to make up for its lack of sense. And with Satanist high priest Anton LaVey credited as “technical advisor,” why settle for anything less?
I’ve taken on the challenge of reviewing The Devil’s Rain for She Blogged By Night‘s Shatnerthon, which is currently in full swing. William Shatner does indeed appear in this movie, but alas, like Ida Lupino and John Travolta, he spends most of his time moaning satanic chants and not having any eyes. Thankfully, though, the first half-hour is devoted to Shatner’s face-off with the bug-eyed, devil-worshipping Borgnine. You may know Borgnine from his Oscar-winning title role in Marty, or as the storyteller grandpa in Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders. These associations make his scenery-chomping performance as Jonathan Corbis all the more delightful.
As Satan’s envoy on earth, Corbis has apparently been capturing souls and sometimes turning into a goat-man for about three hundred years. When our story starts, he decides he wants a magic book back from Shatner’s family, the Prestons. And when his parents gets turned into eyeless satanic zombies, Shatner gets pissed, so after a few cries of “CORBIS!” in the grand Shatner tradition, he heads out to the ghost town of Red Stone, home of the local satanic church. There, he and Corbis pit their faiths against each other… and Shatner quickly loses. He’s mobbed by zombies and prepared as a sacrificial vessel.
The rest of the film is about Shatner’s brother, played by Tom Skerritt of Alien fame, as he and his psychic wife attempt to rescue the family from Corbis’s clutches. Eddie Albert tags along as Dr. Richards, apparently an expert on satanic rituals, and one by one they get kidnapped by Corbis’s minions until it’s up to Shatner’s possessed, nonverbal body to thwart the devil’s plans. As you can probably tell, the word for this movie is “ridiculous.” Its director, Ronald Fuest, was also behind the Dr. Phibes movies, which had some astonishing horror set-pieces and the divinely campy presence of Vincent Price.
The Devil’s Rain, meanwhile, barely has any sets at all. Most of the movie takes place inside either in an empty saloon, an empty church, or the empty streets of Red Stone (which, so you know, is actually “Enotsder” spelled backward). From the looks of it, most of the film’s budget was spent on dry ice and melting flesh, since the climax has so much viscous gore that Sam Raimi would balk at the excess. Zombie faces drip off of zombie heads as if someone left a cake out in the rain. However, at least this redeems the countless scenes of monotonous chanting accompanied by dissonant organic music. If LaVey’s participation meant that the film accurately represented satanic rites, then those rites must be boring.
In addition to these droning, drawn-out rites, the film has several scenes that attempt to provide context for the Corbis/Preston revenge saga. All they really do, however, is further confuse matters. Through the psychic wife’s sepia-tone visions, we witness Borgnine and Shatner in the 1680s, dressed as pilgrims and calling each other “thee.” In this era, Shatner is “Martin Fife,” whose wife betrays their coven, resulting in a mass witch-burning. (Of course, in 17th century New England, that was the consequence of most actions.)
OK, so this explains Corbis’s grudge against the Prestons (they’re descendants of Fife, who passed down Corbis’s book-o’-souls), but then why does Corbis want to reincarnate Fife in Shatner’s body? And why does he constantly switch back and forth between goat and human forms? WHY?? Like I said, logic is scarce, and the film ends with a would-be ironic twist that makes every plot hole before it seem reasonable. But nobody watches The Devil’s Rain for a coherent storyline. It’s to see Borgnine and Shatner hamming it up as if their lives depended on it, praying and counter-praying. You can see Shatner screaming like hell when an amulet around his neck turns into a snake, or when he’s bound and offered up as a sacrifice.
He also does some yelling as great as anything from Star Trek: “CORBIS! GODDAMN YOU!” He may only be a supporting player here, but he steals the whole first act of the film, and Skerritt’s such a poor substitute that the latter two-thirds lag as a result. (Interestingly, Shatner and Skerritt had co-starred the previous year in Big Bad Mama, playing Angie Dickinson’s partners in crime/sex. There, the positions are reversed: Skerritt’s the emotive one, while Shatner’s just a pedigreed, horny parasite.) But for that opening showdown, as well as the literally face-melting finale, in the name of Satan I beseech thee to check out The Devil’s Rain.