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THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975)

"Martin Fyffe! A curse on thee and thine for evermore! I will follow thee and thy descendants for all eternity, until the book is mine again!"

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Director: Robert Fuest

Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, William Shatner, Eddie Albert, Joan Prather, Ida Lupino, Woodrow Chambliss, Keenan Wynn, John Travolta, George Sawaya

Screenplay: Gabe Essoe, James Ashton and Gerald Hopman

Synopsis: During a violent thunderstorm, Mrs Preston (Ida Lupino) paces anxiously as she waits for news of her husband. Mark Preston (William Shatner) returns, telling his mother that although he could not find his father, he is sure that he is somewhere sheltering from the storm. Mrs Preston refuses to be comforted, reminding Mark of a recurrent dream that warned of danger. There is a noise outside, and Mark, his mother and their hired help, John (Woodrow Chambliss), go out to find Steve Preston (George Sawaya), his eyes a blank black and his face hideously distorted. Preston tells his family to "give Corbis the book", then collapses, dissolving into a puddle of some foul liquid. Insisting that the apparition was not her husband, Mrs Preston takes a large black book from beneath the floorboards. She is willing to give it to Corbis, but Mark returns it to its hiding-place, insisting that it is not theirs to give away. Hearing a noise outside, Mark goes out and is relieved to see his father’s truck. But the truck has no driver; instead, a witch’s charm is attached to the steering-wheel. Screams and the sound of a violent confrontation come from inside the house. Rushing inside, Mark finds his mother missing and the injured John hanging upside down from the ceiling. The room has been ransacked, but the book has not been found. Taking his gun, Mark drives to the ghost town of Redstone where he encounters Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine). Mark challenges Corbis to a test of faith: if he can face the worst Corbis has to offer and leave unscathed, he will take his parents with him; if not, Corbis gets the book – and Mark’s soul. Corbis takes Mark inside a desecrated church, filled with satanic objects. Mark takes his place amongst the black-robed congregation, fighting to maintain his composure until it is revealed that his mother – now deformed and black-eyed – is one of the group. Panicking, Mark is swiftly overpowered. Meanwhile, Tom Preston (Tom Skerritt), his wife Julie (Joan Prather), and their colleague Dr Samuel Richards (Eddie Albert) are conducting an experiment on ESP and mind control of the body when Tom receives a message about his family. Tom and Julie return to the Prestons’ home and after a conversation with John drive to Redstone to search for Mark. While investigating the town, the Prestons are attacked by one of Corbis’s acolytes. Tom succeeds in knocking him unconscious, and the psychic Julie sees a vision in his eyes, that of Corbis hundreds of years earlier, his satanic congregation, and the big black book in which his converts’ names were inscribed in blood….

Comments: I had my suspicions about The Devil’s Rain as soon as I examined the video case. On the back we have a "proclamation" from one Anton Szandor Lavey, a "High Priest of the Church of Satan" who acted as the film’s "technical advisor": "When the skies open, torrents of molten fire will rain down and boil away the bodies of all who defy Satan!" Uh-huh? The back of the case further informs us that, "Never before has the frightening cult of Devil worship been exposed so realistically!" while the front insists that the film has "Absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture!" Now, as any video store-wise person would be able to tell you, any film with that much excitement on the outside of the box is a good bet to suck big time on the inside. So, does The Devil’s Rain suck? Oh, yes - but in a fun sort of way. For one thing, how could you possibly pass up a cast like that? Where else, other than in an Irwin Allen film, have so many names got ever together and embarrassed themselves so thoroughly?

The opening section of the film involves a concerted battle between Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner to see who can chew the most scenery. With his gesturing, posturing, and dramatic declarations – whether or not the drama is called for – Shatner gives the not exactly restrained Borgnine an object lesson in how to lay it on with a shovel. This is made even funnier by Shatner’s apparent conviction that because he’s out west, he must be in a western, leading to lines like, "I’ve a ways to go yet." Then there’s his wardrobe, the standard boots, jeans and checkered shirt tastefully accessorised with chunky gold jewelry and topped off with what is possibly meant to be a cowboy hat, but which is made of straw, and kind of, ah, ribbed. Hard as it is to believe, Shatner’s appearance gets even stranger later on: first, we get the flashback sequence with both Shatner and Borgnine in puritan costume, complete with incredibly unflattering haircuts and hats; later we get an extended sequence in which Shatner is shirtless (eewwww!!).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After his mother disappears, Mark Preston heads for the Satanists’ hideout of Redstone ("It’s a Godforsaken place!" says John solemnly. Well, duh!) to confront Corbis. This sequence climaxes in the battle of the faiths, where Preston swears to face whatever Corbis has inside his church and "come out exactly as I went in." (He does, too: he goes in a ham, and he comes out a ham.) Unfortunately for Mark, he’s got the kind of faith that needs to be backed up with a handgun, and before long he’s upside down on a cross at Corbis’s mercy. The film then drops into a fairly tedious stretch involving Tom and Julie Preston, who are too dull to be funny. Still, there is an ooky moment when Julie discovers what’s left of Steve Preston and sticks her fingers in it - she even gets some under her fingernails! (Of course, this would have been much ookier if the screenplay hadn’t kept insisting it was only wax.)

Things pick up when Dr Richards arrives on the scene and takes up the role of resident savant. Obtaining Corbis’ book from John, he shows Tom the signatures in blood inside it and informs him that without the book, Corbis cannot deliver his collection of souls to Satan. The two then go in search of Julie, who has fallen into the hands of the Satanists. Inside the church they find a kind of manhole in the floor that turns out to cover a portal to Hell (convenient!) The two pry it open, and discover something that almost beggars description. Picture if you can a gigantic blue Faberge egg with a television set embedded in it and a golden ram’s head glued to the top of it. (Frankly, I was unable to keep my eyes off it over the following scenes, until finally it occurred to me that I was seeing The Devil’s Rain’s version of the Nut-O’-Fun!! - a strange Bad Movie phenomenon explained at Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension; start at The Exorcist II, then proceed to Johnny Mnemonic).

This fascinating object turns out to be where Corbis keeps the souls he has been unable to deliver: we see them on the TV with what is presumably "the devil’s rain" falling on them. (They’ve been in there for over three hundred years but they still seem pretty uncomfortable, so I guess that answers the old question about wouldn’t you eventually get used to it...?) Apparently The Egg is as enthralling for Tom and Dr Richards as it was for me, because as soon as they lay eyes on it they forget about the book; you know, that book that’s the source of all Corbis’s power that they just got through telling us about? But our heroes are so intent on absconding with The Egg (and really, who can blame them?) that they simply drop the book by the open portal. Soon after, it is discovered there by a young acolyte of Corbis’s, played in his film debut by none other than John Travolta. (Having watched the whole movie, I can safely say that the scariest thing about it is just how instantly recognisable Travolta is, despite his deformed-face-and-black-eyes makeup; this guy must have the most distinctive mouth and chin in the history of film.)

So soon Corbis has both the book and Julie Preston. But our heroes have The Egg!! Dr Richards swings into action here, threatening to smash The Egg unless Corbis releases Tom and Julie; a cunning plan, you’ll agree, but equally cunningly thwarted when Mark Preston (now possessed by the spirit of his ancestor, Martin Fyffe) walks up to Richards and simply takes The Egg away from him. But all is not yet lost. Richards calls on Martin Fyffe to remember his wife, who gave up Corbis’s original congregation to the witch-hunters in an effort to save Fyffe’s soul and her own. "Aaronessa!" murmurs Martin, and frankly, I was impressed. I’ve known guys who couldn’t remember a woman’s name the next day, let alone after three hundred years. The memory prevails, and Martin smashes The Egg (Oh, God!! - the anguish of that moment!). Then there is a tremendous explosion, and Corbis and his congregation become part of "Absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture!" as the "devil’s rain" falls upon them and they melt away. This scene goes for about ten minutes and it is pretty disgusting. However, whether it literally consitutes the most incredible ending etc, etc, is debatable. For one thing, it bears more than a superficial resemblance to the opening scene of The Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) (and/or House Of Wax (1953)); for another, the Wicked Witch of the West did it first. But perhaps "ending" is the operative term. The film doesn’t finish with the melting, sadly, but (surprise!) with the revelation that the evil hasn’t really been defeated after all. Up until that point, I must say, I had my doubts about the actual contribution of Anton Szandor Lavey to the story, because The Devil’s Rain didn’t seem like much of an adverstisement for Satanism to me; but now I’m convinced that Satan is so powerful he can defeat Tom Skerritt and Eddie Albert put together!!

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