in Shocktober

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

This marks my first foray into this year’s Shocktober, and as far as devil or possession-themed movies, this one has about as much as you could ask for. It’s got a creepy Satanic cult, people melting, ritual sacrifice, a shirtless William Shatner screaming, a future real-life cult member (in a young John Travolta), and a technical advisor credit for Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. It’s absolutely the kind of batshit film you look for if you’re parsing through the weirder corners of ’70s cult films. However, if you were looking to worship at the altar of great story-telling or well-defined characters, well, you came to the wrong church.

The film starts somewhat disorientingly, seemingly like there were scenes cut out before we’re introduced to the Preston family (which could be the case considering the film’s 85-minute runtime). One night, the family’s patriarch John returns home babbling about Satan in Latin, before melting into a pile of goo in front of his wife Emma (played by Ida Lupino) and his son Mark Preston (William Shatner). It seems that John had a run-in with Corbis (Ernest Borgnine), who wants a book that the Preston family has been in possession of for years. Mark then goes to see Corbis at the church in a nearby ghost town in the desert, where Mark vows not to give into Corbis’s evil ways. It seems unclear whether these guys have a past with each other, but we eventually learn that that is the case.

Mark then enters Corbis’s church to find a cult of eyeless, robed followers of Satan, one of which appears to be Mark’s mother. The cultists then overwhelm Mark and keep him kidnapped in their church, planning to perform a ritual on him that will turn him into one of Corbis’s Satan-worshipping disciples. We then switch main characters entirely, as the film then focuses on Mark’s brother Tom (Tom Skerritt), who has gotten word that his family has been abducted by Corbis’s cult. He has an encounter with the Satanists before his wife Julie (Joan Prather) is abducted by them.

Tom then infiltrates the Satanists’ church by putting on a robe and sneaking into the ceremony where Mark is to be converted into one of the Satanists, which sees Corbis turning into a goat-man. However, once the cult notices Tom in their midst, there’s a free-for-all that includes a lot of gooey green blood being spilled by the Satanists when they’re either shot or stabbed with pitchforks. Even more goo starts flying when Tom uses the ancient book in their family’s possession to summon the devil’s rain, which rains down on the Satanists and melts their skin, seemingly dooming Corbis once and for all.

Let’s just get it out of the way. The Devil’s Rain is not a good movie. This is mostly due to the script, which never firmly establishes the rules of the Satanists or even how they came to be a part of this small town. There is a flashback sequence set in Pilgrim times, where we see that an incarnation of Corbis has been tempting Mark with the lure of Satan for centuries. But I’m still not sure if these guys are supposed to be immortal, or if just some version of them keeps being reincarnated and they’ve been fighting each other for centuries. Also, I could not tell you anything about Mark or Tom, our two leads, though it certainly doesn’t help that one of them disappears after the third act and one of them doesn’t appear until then.

Still, despite the fact that the film is a mess from a storytelling perspective, there’s just a lot of crazy shit going on visually that makes this movie pretty memorable. I mean, where else are you going to see Hollywood legends like Ida Lupino and Ernest Borgnine playing an eyeless cult member and a maniacal goat-man, respectively? Also, there’s something charming about the film’s very ’70s trashy-but-tasteful use of technicolor that brings its firey hallucinations and hellish visions of the afterlife to the screen. Then there’s the presence of William Shatner, whose bizarre acting decisions work a little better in a film as weird as he is, rather than in say something more tepid like Kingdom of The Spiders.

While it’s hard to say that any of the performances rise above the material, I do feel the need to single out Ernest Borgnine, since he is a performer who has always been a little easy to take for granted. His commitment here to playing this cult leader is a reminder that he was a true professional, putting his all into any part, whether it was Marty or Spongebob Squarepants. Also, the movie is well-produced and well-directed in an off-kilter B-movie kind of way, with some special effects — which include the aforementioned skin-melting and an orb that contains the souls of the possessed — that I honestly don’t know how they pulled off. So while The Devil’s Rain has some gaping story issues that keep it from being a transcendent piece of shlock, it’s still fun enough to make you throw up the devil horns and proclaim “Hail Satan”.