Tag Archives: witch hunts

“CORBIS!”: William Shatner in The Devil’s Rain

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.

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One Hour Mark: Häxan

During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either.

Horror can be a powerful tool in the hands of the right director. Take Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre Häxan (1922), aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was probably 50-60 years ahead of its time. Using all manner of grotesque iconography, Christensen makes his film simultaneously a collection of vignettes, a documentary, a twisted satire, and one hell of a spectacle. This is an image from 1:00:00 into the film, as the nameless sister of Anna, wife of the late printer, crouches by the table. It’s far removed from the film’s infamous shots of gore, torture, and taboo-splattering debauchery, yet it’s still seeping with creepy potency. It still speaks the film’s dark messages about religion, sexuality, and ignorance. It’s rife with the same real-world horrors that are unveiled in Christensen’s more explicitly demented fantasies.

When I showed Ashley this picture, she was quiet at first; when I mentioned, “There’s a person in the lower right,” she immediately cried, “Eww!” and had to stop looking at it. Taken as a still, there’s definitely something off about it – how Anna’s sister is so far from the center and so low to the floor, almost hidden behind the table and its contents. She’s just witnessed the inquisitors hauling off her sister and mother, who are merely the latest casualties in an ongoing cycle of small-town treachery. (They had earlier named their accuser, Maria the weaver, as a witch.) She herself has been shoved to the floor, and will momentarily rise, only to faint. So this scene is of a 15th century Danish household in crisis, with all of its matriarchs about to be interrogated and killed; this imminent catastrophe is embodied in the maiden’s anomalous position within the frame.

There’s subtle irony in this particular framing as well. Christensen uses shots identical to this one several times earlier in the film to present the activity in Anna’s house through long, static takes. It’s through this perspective that we’re introduced to her family, and this is how we see Maria the weaver dragged away by the inquisitors. Using the same angle to view the abduction of Anna and her mother, and her sister’s subsequent anguish, links the series of events both causally and morally, but also connects the family’s downfall to its earlier complacency. After all, this isn’t just a room – it’s also the space that connects the bedroom with the outside world (background), and the site of eating (foreground). It’s a spacial representation of domestic existence.

Granted, repeatedly viewing areas from the same angle was pretty standard in early silent films, going back to the fixed camera of the Lumières. But Christensen’s mise-en-scène here directly adds to his broader arguments about hypocrisy and resentment as the roots of witch hunts. For him, the persecution of witches starts in the home, aided by religious fervor, and eventually returns to destroy it. Despite all of the film’s graphic depictions of occult behavior, it ultimately takes a very Enlightenment stance, debunking its own gruesome images and replacing them with a model of “witchcraft” far more sinister: as a self-destructive way for the town’s women to express their petty grievances. This is a totally natural form of horror, the fruits of malicious human selfishness.

This is the conclusion of Christensen’s documentary and his satire, which operate side by side throughout the film. Witch hunts are located with a larger institution of violence and oppression whose processes are curiously gendered. The women are the accusers and, in turn, the accused – the witches whose sexuality is equated with a satanic pact. The men are the monks, totally puritanical and militantly resistant to the possibility of sexual desire. They are distinct from the home; their realm is the church. The story sees the two spheres as attached in a self-sustaining loop of accusation, arrest, and confession. And it’s in the torture/confession that both genders express their hatred and lust. The visualizations of satanic rites are just projections of the hidden urges that motivate the witch hunt in the first place.

That was a slight digression, partially inspired by Carol Clover’s reading of The Exorcists Father Karras, which I’ve been reading recently, but my point is that this single frame contains a number of threatened values (womanhood, motherhood, family, home), and implies the existence of their opposites. Häxan is an audacious and intelligent film that functions at once as delirious horror cinema and as sober historical inquiry. This image is a rich example of Christensen’s multi-tiered imagination feverishly at work.

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