You can often distinguish casual film fans who happen to enjoy a good scary movie once in a while from the horror film buff based on their appreciation of the rare and sometimes inept examples of the genre. The Devil’s Rain is probably as good as a litmus test as you could ask for as the film precariously straddles that fence between ‘so bad it’s actually good to ‘just plain bad’. Originally released in 1975, The Devil’s Rain has recently gotten the special edition Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Severin films. A part of a Hollywood cycle of occult-themed films that characterized the horror genre in the 1970s, The Devil’s Rain was notorious at the time for hiring Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey as a technical advisor to ensure the film’s satanic rituals were realistic.
The film features a ‘who’s who’ of 1970s B-list stars and up-and-comers including a post-Star Trek William Shatner, Tom Skerritt (Alien, Top Gun), Eddie Albert (Green Acres, The Longest Yard), and a woefully miscast Ernest Borgnine hamming it up in full-face goat make-up as the cult’s Satanic priest. Before he joined a real cult, John Travolta also makes a ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it” appearance. I missed it. The story revolves around the Preston family who, generations ago, betrayed a desert-based Satanic cult led by Borgnine’s Jonathan Corbis, stealing a powerful book containing trapped souls fuelling Corbis’ power. Or something like that. You won’t get far into the movie before you realize that the most thing stolen in The Devil’s Rain was a coherent plot.
It’s unfortunate because the first 20 minutes of The Devil’s Rain actually offer promise. After a suitably creepy opening credit sequence, director Robert Fuest foregoes a traditional narrative opening and instead drops the audience in the middle of the Preston family home during a rainstorm facing an unknown threat. While the special effects are obviously dated, it’s an effectively atmospheric start that engages as you try and decipher what is going on and where and what threat is at the family’s doorstep. Sadly, as The Devil’s Rain settles into a more traditional narrative it becomes increasingly clear that the mysterious circumstances in the opening may owe more to a general sense confusion in the screenplay than innovative storytelling. To say that the plot is muddled and convoluted is an understatement. Shatner’s Mark Preston disappears from the storyline abruptly, replaced by his younger brother, played by Tom Skerritt, and a psychic researcher (Eddie Albert), only to re-surface later. The film’s plot is driven by a Satanic book, trapped souls, and something about “Devil’s Rain” that literally melts people. None of this really matters as it seems as though the filmmakers are just making it up as they go along.
At a lean 86 minutes, The Devil’s Rain feels like it is dragging after about 30 minutes. For a film apparently informed by the Church of Satan founder, there is not much in the way of any kind of scares or tension. The atmosphere from the film’s opening disappears about as quickly as a summer rainstorm. Borgnine’s goat make-up will undoubtedly leave young modern audiences laughing; in fact, it’s hard to imagine that the make-up would have done much to scare up screams even in the mid-1970s. The film’s ‘melting faces’ in the Devil’s Rain, while outdated by today’s standards, still make for a somewhat memorable albeit utterly nonsensical ending. And like many 1970s horror films, The Devil’s Rain tacks on a completely unearned ending suggesting that the curse will persist – nothing in the film explains why this would be the case but most people will likely shrug it off, just happy that the entire affair is over.
As harsh as I am in my review, I’ll admit that I still rather enjoy The Devil’s Rain. A guilty, nostalgic pleasure, this was one of those films that I can remember sneaking up in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse while my parents watched it on TV. The kind of film that popped up on cable television on a rainy Sunday afternoon or midnight showing on local cable, The Devil’s Rain has a special place in my pop culture treasury. I wouldn’t recommend it to casual fans but if you count yourself as a horror film aficionado it’s well worth checking out.