The 70’s…when Satan was King!
Before the onslaught of derivative slashers and zombie movie flicks, the Devil ruled the box office. During the Satanic “Golden Age” of 1968 to 1977, Old Nick ran rampant at drive-ins, grindhouses and first-run theaters everywhere. The whole country seemed possessed by demons and deviltry and movie-makers, knowing a trend that they could exploit and cash in on, were only too happy to provide customers with a truckload of demonic delights. Films ranged from high-tone blockbusters like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (both of which really ignited the satanic movie craze) to gritty grindhouse numbers like The Devil’s Nightmare and The Asylum of Satan. Happy endings were rare in these movies…the whole country was submerged in deep pessimism and evil was often shown to be superior to good.
And that brings us rather neatly to the subject of this particular diatribe. 1975’s The Devil’s Rain must surely be regarded as the Ben-Hur of 70’s Satan flicks. True, some films were more successful, others perhaps more frightening or accurate as far as the details went, but none were more totally obsessed with occult darkness and the manifestation of Hell on Earth than The Devil’s Rain.
And what other movie features John Travolta melting into a puddle of bubbling slime? That right there is worth admission price…or at least a rental!
The Devil’s Rain does mark the film debut of the chipmunk-cheeked uber-hack, but he’s just one face amidst one of the best casts ever assembled for a movie dealing with people turning into melted wax, goat-headed demons and unholy rituals. How about this line-up: William Shatner, Eddie Albert, Keenan Wynn, Ida Lupino and Tom Skerrit? Not to mention the unforgettable Joan Prather. Joan who? OK, maybe we’ll skip her.
Not only do you get to see Barbarino teaming up with Captain Kirk and Oliver Douglas, but you also see the Commander of McHale’s Navy, Ernest Borgnine himself, as a goat-headed high priest of Satan. Just imagine if his lonely butcher Marty had some of Borgnine’s characteristics from The Devil’s Rain: “Hey, Marty, what you wanna do tonight?”
“Oh, I don’t know…maybe sacrifice a chicken and then go bowling.”
This movie was certainly drive-in fodder but it was also a major release in 1975. I remember as a kid seeing TONS of advertising for this. Borgnine made the TV talk show rounds dressed up as his demonic character. I very clearly recall him showing up with horns, make-up and all on an edition of The Mike Douglas Show. Ernest obviously LOVED playing such a totally evil character and his robust performance is one of the highlights of The Devil’s Rain.
The movie was also directed by well-regarded Robert Fuest, who was coming off two successful Dr. Phibes movies. Fuest got a lot of acclaim for the Art Deco look of the Phibes flicks. Here, he masterminded the infamous “melting” scenes of The Devil’s Rain. These images of human beings reduced to moaning pools of melted goo are unforgettable and a high point of ‘70s exploitation cinema.
The Devil’s Rain gathered a ton of publicity from the involvement of “actual Satanists” in the movie. For once, this was not drive-in movie bullshit but the “gospel” truth. Supreme leader of The Church of Satan, Anton Lavey, was signed on to the film as a “consultant” and also had a bit part as one of Borgnine’s henchmen. His wife Priscilla is somewhere in the movie, too. Lavey helped with the staging of the “ritual” scenes and the cultists are using chants that Lavey cooked up. Lavey’s recollection of working on the film was rather droll. He remarked that the highlight was seeing Borgnine and Travolta scream and melt before his eyes.
The story begins in classic style, on a dark and stormy night. We are thrust into the middle of a drama. Mark Preston (Shatner) has spent the night out in a raging downpour looking for his missing father Steve, causing much consternation to mother Emma (Lupino). There is more to the elder Preston’s disappearance than meets the eye…dark forces are at work and we read between the lines that they have always hovered over this family of Arizona ranchers.
Steve Preston returns in the midst of the storm, but his blackened eyeballs and corroded face reveal that he’s suffered worse than just another bender. He pleads for his wife and son to return “The Book” to “Corbis” and then promptly collapses. Before disbelieving eyes of son and wife, Preston degenerates into a gooey pile of melted wax-looking material. I don’t know who got the chore of cleaning up the mess that once was Dear Old Dad but I don’t envy them.
Mark Preston is determined to confront Corbis, who has hounded his family for generations, against the better wishes of his mother. He sets out for a nearby ghost-town where Corbis lurks. On the dusty streets of this empty village, he is met by the cowboy-hat wearing, beefy Corbis (Borgnine), who is Satan’s top banana on Earth. Borgnine is a joy to watch in this film…he tears into the malevolent character of Jonathan Corbis like a hungry dog into a bone, reveling in evil dialogue and Satanic verbiage. His confrontation with Shatner is electric and doesn’t work out very well for the former starship captain. After failing to subdue Corbis with his crucifix, he is captured by the High Priest’s robed and hooded followers. Our last sight of the “normal” Mark Preston is a screaming Shatner being fed “the water of forgetfulness”.
The Preston family is in pretty deep trouble. Mark’s younger brother Tom (Skerritt) comes to the ranch to see what’s going on, accompanied by mopey wife Julie and intrepid psychic investigator Dr. Sam Richards (Albert). Richards has already explored Julie’s memories of a past life which seem to be connected to Corbis, as well as odd premonitions of being trapped in a glass cage. When this troop arrives on the homestead, they find both Mark and Mrs. Preston gone and the family’s feeble minded old servant John tied up and brutalized. When finally untied, John utters one of the film’s most memorable lines: “They had no faces!”
Now begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between Corbis’s forces of damnation (called McSatan’s Navy by some) and the powers of good, represented by Tom Preston, his psychic wife Julie, and Dr. Richards. Popping in for a brief visit is the clueless local Sherriff (Keenan Wynn) who doesn’t think anything too weird is going on even though Steve Preston has been melted into wax, Mrs. Preston and Mark have gone missing and old John has been beaten to a pulp by faceless goons. Arizona’s finest on the job.
One of Corbis’ chief henchmen in the struggle to regain control of “The Book” is a plastic-faced, black eyed young goon named Danny. Look closely at this pawn of Satan and you will recognize John Travolta just before he took on the role of Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. Danny has little to say but is a faithful follower of Satan. With this role, perhaps Travolta was warming up for his later journey into the cult of Scientology.
We gradually learn that the mysterious “Book” in the control of the Prestons bears a list of Corbis’s followers whose souls he has captured in a glass vessel called “The Devil’s Rain”. Centuries ago, during the days of the Puritans, Corbis was chief warlock of a coven of secret Satanists in New England. But the coven was betrayed by ancestors of the Prestons who stole the Book of Names that was the key to unlocking The Devil’s Rain. Led by a stern priest, the witches are killed and burned. Borgnine is a sight to see during this “flashback” sequence, laughing even as he is burned at the stake and even encouraging his death. For hundreds of years, the Prestons have been on the run, hiding The Book from Corbis…until now.
There is much running hither and thither amongst the dusty canyons and empty ghost towns of the Southwest. Eventually, Julie is taken prisoner by a blank-eyed Mrs. Preston (who pops up in the back seat of a station wagon) and taken to the satanic church in the old ghost town, where the hooded acolytes of Corbis have gathered. And who would be more fitting to find in such a church than a true priest of Satan? This is where Anton LaVey appears as Corbis’ second in command, looking every bit the diabolical emissary of evil. This movie was filmed arguably at the height of LaVey’s notoriety and mainstream press made much mention of his presence on The Devil’s Rain as technical adviser.
The scenes that are set in the Church as poor Julie is prepared for sacrifice are some of the best in the movie. We get a ton of satanic mumbo-jumbo written by LaVey as Borgnine is temporarily transformed into a goat-headed demon. This make up job is terrific and ol’ Ernie puts uses every ounce of energy as he plays a literal devil. There’s more than a hint of sexual debauchery in the air as Corbis lovingly caresses Julie as a dead-eyed Mrs. Preston and Mark look on.
Within the bowels of the Satanic Church comes a colossal confrontation between good and evil…and a less than happy reunion of the Preston family. What’s left of Mrs. Preston confronts young Tom, sternly saying, “You, my son, have defiled all that is holy.”
To which a recoiling Tom blurts, “Mother! My God! MY GOD!”
Professor Richards confronts Corbis before Julie’s sacrifice. He has gained possession of “The Devil’s Rain” and threatens to destroy it, unleashing all the souls Corbis has imprisoned. But the wily Satanist regains the precious item and prepares to complete his sacrifice in order to restore to life his followers from long-ago Salem. One of those followers is Martin Fyffe, whose mind supposedly inhabits the blank body of Mark Preston. But something stirs inside Mark’s shattered mind and with great effort, he smashes “The Devil’s Rain” on the floor.
Now we get to what everybody has been waiting for…the gooiest, ickiest, most over the top scene featuring melting bodies ever committed to celluloid. Imagine Toht’s disintegration in Raiders of the Lost Ark times 10 and stretched out for ten minutes. A hissing sulfuric rain suddenly begins INSIDE the church and whoever of the Devil’s spawn that rain touches begins to OOZE. Flesh melts like wax. It does more than that…it bubbles, it pops, it runs in rivers. It also frequently changes color, leading to a psychedelic rainbow of agony. The hooded cultists all moan and shriek in agony as they melt…and melt…and melt.
Director Fuest lovingly spends a lot of time with this process of gruesome decay. We see the evil ones gradually transform from human figures into literal puddles of bubbling effluvium. Corbis’s goat-headed demonic form becomes even more warped, an eye bulging out of the socket and wax dripping from his hair. And have I mentioned how much fun it is to see John Travolta, William Shatner, and Ida Lupino turn into screaming masses of goo?
It looks like the end has come for Corbis and his cult. Julie is freed and Tom and Dr. Richards stagger with her into the night. But wait, this is the 70’s, right? The good guys can’t really win, can they? Stick around for that final demonic 70’s twist and remember Julie’s first vision as Dr. Richards’ subject?
The hype for this film was phenomenal before its opening. Borgnine appeared on several TV shows in full Corbis mode, including the Mike Douglas spot I mentioned earlier. It seemed like just about every drive-in in the country ran it in the summer of ‘75 and a lot of big newspaper ads heralded it as the successor to The Exorcist.
Predictably the critics tore it apart. The drubbing the movie received finally translated into box office terms and after a fast start, The Devil’s Rain faded fast. The once red hot career of Robert Fuest nosedived and never recovered. He wound up doing TV movies and finally softcore porn. As for the movie’s stars, none of them put The Devil’s Rain on the top of their resumes.
I can understand why, but whatever happened to entertainment for its own sake? Nothing quite like The Devil’s Rain had ever been done before and nothing really like it since. Despite variable acting, big plot holes and a sizable amount of cheese, there was also some really disturbing atmosphere to the movie and although one can accuse the climax of being over the top, no one can say it was forgettable or dull.
Time has mellowed some of the vitriol spewed at The Devil’s Rain over the years and many now look upon the film with fondness, as the apex of 70’s satanic drive-in cinema. That is truly the spirit in which it should be remembered. Even Corbis might agree…