Wednesday 1 August 2012

The Devil’s Rain
(Robert Fuest, 1975)

As I found myself preparing to watch ‘The Devil’s Rain’ last week, I thought it might be fun to do something a bit different with this review - kind of a ‘Live Blog’, recording my observations as they occur to me whilst viewing. So, headphones on and VLC Player and Word document open side by side, that’s exactly what I did. Grammar, phrasing and fact checking have subsequently been revised, but aside from that, what follows is an exact record of the transactions that took place on that fateful night, between this 1975 motion picture and my brain.

00:35 Hieronymus Bosch credits sequence. Inspired or lazy? Your call. Either way, something tells me ‘The Devil’s Rain’ is unlikely to be able to live up to magnified details from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ presented here.

01:00 One of those movies where you feel like the casting director (Lea Stalmaster, take a bow) should be driving around in a golden Cadillac. Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, William Shatner and a pre-fame John Travolta – together at least.

01:20 Anton LaVey as ‘Technical Advisor’? Gimme a break. Total mersh Satanist movie.

01:40 Until his credit popped up, I had no idea this was directed by Robert Fuest (‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’, ‘The Final Programme’). Expectation.. rising.

05:40 “Winds…. knocked the lines down!” – ah, William Shatner. How have I managed all these years, watching films that he’s not in?

07:20 So… Shatner’s father has returned home, cryptically noted that ‘Corbis’ is waiting in the desert, waiting for the book, then promptly melted into a pile of multi-coloured poster-paint goo, right there on the doorstep. Ida Lupino has intoned the words “In nomine Satanis” for presumably the first and last time in her storied career, and Shatner’s reaction shot says it all. So far this is… awesome? Well it depends on your point of view I guess, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are shaping up.

9:00 Grimoire hidden under the carpet. They’ll never find it there! I like how this book is being imbued with such vast metaphysical import. Kinda reminds me of those Lovecraft stories wherein even being in the room as the Necronomicon is enough to drive you to a state of nervous paralysis.

10:00 Shatner’s got a magnum and a cowboy hat. He’s going to fight the devil… on his terms. I can scarcely wait.

11:45 Goddamn. I was going to crack wise about the family’s strange, kindly-old-man servant (I think he’s a servant of some kind? Although he could just as easily be an uncle or something? I don't think it's ever made clear..), but this scene in which Shatner finds him tied to the ceiling by his feet, shrieking like a trapped beast, is actually incredibly upsetting. A very peculiar and unnerving performance from TV actor Woody Chambliss (who also played the kindly old man in Jim McBride’s unusual post-apocalypse movie ‘Glen & Randa’).

14:00 Man, the composer is reeeaaallly pushing that creepy dissonant, scraping glissandro string stuff. It can still be a great effect on soundtracks when done well, but the way he’s hammering it here is just beyond ridiculous, blasting it beyond cliché and out the other side.

16:00 Great, dreamy landscape shots illustrate Shatner’s journey to ‘the desert’. Loving the abandoned chapel set against the sky. For a mainstream(ish) studio picture, ‘The Devil’s Rain’ has a very disconnected, otherworldly atmosphere going on – reminds me slightly of dope-addled hippie era horror movies like ‘Werewolves on Wheels’ and ‘The Velvet Vampire’.

16:30 I love the way that the abandoned settlement where the Satanists dwell is obviously just a backlot Western town; “Be careful stranger, no one’s set foot in that there ghost town since they finished doing second unit work on ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ last month…”

16:59 Tumbleweed!

18:00 Borgnine!

18:20 Borgnine’s water is bitter…but it’s a sweet way to end a thirst. Do I detect a certain fairy tale quality to this story?

20:33 A challenge! Shatner’s faith against Borgnine’s! I don’t know what to think.

21:40 Chanting… altar… pentagram. Job’s a good ‘un.

23:20 “Come forth from the abyss… open wide the gates of hell” – hmm, pretty corny stuff this. Old Anton earning his cheque, no doubt. Awesome stain glass window though, and I appreciate the shots of the dude playing the organ.

27:00 Satanists bleed multi-coloured goo. Protective talisman turns into a snake. Eyeless Lupino (un)stares on, and Shatner’s on the run. This whole sequence is really well shot.

29:00 Whoa, sudden scene change! Ok, so… is everything we’ve seen so far actually taking place in the subconscious of a woman (Mrs Preston? Shatner’s moustachioed brother’s wife?), who is taking part in some kind of ESP experiment in front of a lecture theatre full of students…?

31:30 Well, no, actually. Turns out that was just some kind of inexplicable diversion. Now we’re back down to… well I hesitate to say ‘earth’, but wherever it is the preceding scenes have been taking place…where Moustachioed Bro and his wife have returned home in search of his vanished family. The sheriff says half the county’s been washed away by the floods and he can’t possibly spare any men, but uh, if you guys want to grab some guns and go hunting for yr missing relatives in that old Western backlot town, be my guest – gimme a call in the morning or whatever and let me know how it goes. Now that’s the kind of light touch approach to law enforcement I can get with.

34:00 William Shatner fears not the torments of hell. In case you had any doubts.

37:00 Beautifully symmetrical long-shot of the car pulling up outside the frontier chapel… hokey as all this is, Fuest seems to be doing his best to build a real strong sense of oneiric disorientation…

43:00 Ladies and gentlemen, introducing John Travolta in his debut screen appearance, being kicked down the stairs by a dude with a moustache.

44:45 Red-tinted flashback to the Satanists’ origins as a heretical puritan sect back in colonial days. I’ll admit that my grasp of American history might be a bit shaky in places, but I wasn’t aware that many 17th century puritan sects made it out quite as far as Southern California..?

46:50 Love Ancestor-Borgnine’s faux innocence: oh, tis a mob of flaming torch weilding villagers at the door. What brings you fellows out here so late in the evening?

47:20 “Thou art the one… SLUT!” – another dialogue first for a great actor.

49:00 Ernie pulls some real oomph into his obligatory burned-at-the-stake “I curse you all” speech.

52:00 Ok, so thus far I wouldn’t go as far as to say this movie is ‘good’ exactly, but I certainly respect the filmmakers’ decision to turn in a film for a Hollywood studio that not only goes for a full-on delirious/dreamy fantastique atmosphere, making *no attempt whatsoever* to frame its action in the real world, but also seems to have been scripted by a somnambulant wino who once read a Dennis Wheatley book…

52:30 Holy shit! Maybe it’s just because I’m watching this with headphones on in the dark, but that wholly predictable backseat-of-the-car jump scare really put the wind up me. For all that I dissed the soundtrack above, the sound mix here was fucking murderous.

55:00 I wish I could have been there when they were filming this mass Satanist rally in the desert. Looks like a beautiful evening. All the open flame blowing in the breeze, sackcloth against yr skin… ah, that’s living.

56:15 So, uh… there was just a sudden insert shot of a dynamite explosion and now Ernest Borgnine has turned into a furry-faced, horned goat-man.

58:00 You too may wish to by sprinkled with ‘the waters of forgetfulness’ after watching Goat-Borgnine torture a shirtless William Shatner.

60:00 Goat-Borgnine looks too mischievous and lovable to really be a decent villain. I want him to caper off and lead us to a whimsical fantasy adventure of some kind, not stand here droning on about the doom that awaits our immortal souls.

70:30 This ‘devil’s rain’ vessel full of howling souls thing is a neat special effect. Very much reminds me of the kind of tricks Fuest was pulling off in ‘..Dr. Phibes’.

77:00 Vengeance of Goat-Borgnine forestalled due to melting.

79:30 More inexplicable dynamite blasts, to accompany the melting. You’d think God was some sort of unhinged mining prospector, the amount of bang-sticks he seems to be throwing around the place.

82:00 You know, everything I’ve read about this film over the years has mentioned the ridiculous amount of time dedicated to the melting of the cultists, but now that I come to watch it myself, I’m kinda disappointed. I was expecting a sequence of unparalleled repetitious madness, but actually the time allotted to the melting seems fairly reasonable. I mean, they clearly had a lot of cool melting effects to show off, and nothing much else to offer by way of a finale (give or take a few sticks of dynamite), so four or five minutes of melting doesn’t strike me as particularly excessive. In fact I could easily have gone for some more melting. I wanted a whole endless, senseless psychedelic melting extravaganza, goddamnit!

84:00 Chapel explodes – again, for no reason.

85:00 Well, there we have it folks. ‘The Devil’s Rain’. It is what it is, I suppose. Despite being probably one of the silliest films ever bankrolled by a Hollywood studio, it’s certainly worth a watch for us weirdo horror fans. It has some great ideas and distinctive visuals, and if they’d focused more on the darker aspects of the story and not made the portrayal of black magic so cartoon-ish and OTT, it could have been a pretty effective weirdo horror film. As it is though, the writing is intolerably flimsy (even from a Euro-horror fan’s POV), the acting is jaw-droppingly bad (ditto), the pacing is all over the joint, and the whole thing never quite comes together the way it should. Ah well – I still kinda enjoyed it, and I’m glad they had the guts to make it the way they did, rather than just doing some lifeless Exorcist/Omen knock-off and pleasing the suits. It brought us the sight of Ernest Borgnine turning into a giant goat and melting into a pile of poster paint goo, and for that I am thankful.

And thus ends our survey of '70s Backwoods Satanist Movies That Inexplicably Feature Great, Sam Peckipah-affiliated Actors. If anyone can think of any more that I might have overlooked though, please let me know, and I'll track them down post-haste!


Vanessa said...

It's not one of my favorites, but it does have some interesting ideas and visuals that differentiate it from so many other films in the genre.

deadlydolls said...

Now that I read your post, I have to say live blogging is the only way to go with this film. It's just so...I mean...Borgnine goat man! Shatner mumbling! Skerrit mustaching! Travolta travotaing! And melting, melting, melting!

I should revisit it one day. Fuest is an odd duck. It's hard to believe the same director who made the wonderfully disciplined And Soon the Darkness did this one too, although now that I look at your screenshots, I'm reminded that Devil's Rain is a good looking film...just...weird.

Gregor said...

Thank you for this interesting review Ben. It was a film I’d thought of seeking out, but now I’m not so sure. I’d heard of it because of the Shat being involved but didn’t know it was by the director of Dr Phibes… looks like this time he wasn’t being too ironic.

As for the Bosch credit sequences: I don’t think it’s inspired or lazy, but like the way that Bosch’s motifs (tree man, the bird-headed monster shitting out sinners, the burning towers, horse skull etc) have kind of become for the west what mythical motifs were for ancients, something that’s become a part of folk culture largely independent of the original context. I’m always strangely chuffed to see a Bosch homage in the unlikeliest of mediums or places, especially in paper back horror anthologies from the 60s.

In the visual art theme, it’s funny how Goya managed to make goat people so scary and realistic (IMHO anyway) but it seems that Devil’s Rain, like Devil Rides Out, The Stand and others I’ve prob forgotten just sort of belly-flops on that front… I guess maybe ruminants in general just aren’t very scary. Though curiously enough Shatner starred in one of my all-time favourite horror films (Incubus) which ends with him literally wrestling the devil for the soul of a young woman. I actually thought that pulled it off quite well, maybe because it was a black and white film that never actually showed a goat man but just a goat that was sort of implied to be bipedal. Ironically it was probably amongst the cheapest of special effects.