The Devil’s Rain: One of the Strangest Horror Movies Of All Time

Ernest Borgnine’s Satan (!) battles Wiliam Shatner(!) for the souls of the damned in Devil's Rain.

Okay, there’s no denying that The Devil’s Rain makes little if any sense. The plot is full of gaping holes, and the details and the explanations we are given are merely confounding. Even the tagline—”Heaven Help Us When The Devil’s Rain”—despite the stab at a bad pun, is meaningless and grammatically incorrect.

Director Robert Fuest (The Abominable Dr. Phibes) knew as much before he agreed to take on the project. He complained to the screenwriters about this, but they calmly assured him that no, it all made perfectly clear sense. So he went on ahead and made the film anyway, attempting to clarify those things he could as he went along. In the end it didn’t help much.

But if you’re going to look at a film in terms of whether or not it “makes sense,” then you’ll have to admit that The Wizard of Oz and The Ten Commandments don’t make a hell of a lot of sense, either. Once you dispense with those niggling questions of “logic” and “coherence,” however, The Devil’s Rain—like those other two—is a hugely entertaining picture, thanks mostly to the all-star cast, and all the zany things they were asked to do and say.

Poor Ida Lupino, the noir legend who was on the skids in the mid-’70s, co-stars here with the great Ernest Borgnine (as a powerful and deathless earthly avatar of Satan!), Green Acres’ Eddie Albert (as a clinical parapsychologist of some kind!), and the always splendid Keenan Wynn (as The Sheriff!). The film also boasts a mini Big Bad Mama (!) reunion, with William Shatner, Tom Skerrit (as William Shatner’s brother!) and Joan Prather (as a psychic or yogi or something!). And if that weren’t enough, founder and High Priest of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, was not only the film’s technical advisor, but also has a cameo as a High Priest!

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And the same year Welcome Back, Kotter premiered, John Travolta made his big screen debut as one of Ernest Borgnine’s many black-robed minions. He even has a line. More a “word” than a line, actually, but at least it’s repeated (“Blasphemer! Blasphemer!”). When the sit-com proved to be a hit, Travolta’s name was edged up toward the top of the credits and prominently added to newspaper ads. By the time of the home video release, the packaging made the film look like a John Travolta vehicle, which by that time I guess it was. The only one missing, it seems, is R.G. Armstrong, which is a bit of a surprise given he appeared in at least five devil movies from roughly the same time period. I always wondered a little about that R.G. Armstrong.

The film opens with one of the most unnerving credit sequences of the era: a series of detailed close-ups of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, accompanied on the soundtrack by the wailings and moanings of the souls of the damned. Regardless of what followed, that opening remains quite effective.

Trying to sketch out the plot is an exercise in futility, but very roughly, Jonathan Corbis (Borgnine) was a 17th century Satanist who was burned at the stake for gathering a coven of converts. Before he died, the book containing all the names of the damned souls was stolen from him by Martin Fyfe (Shatner), so Corbis cursed the whole Fyfe clan, vowing to follow them through the ages until his book is returned. Well, now three hundred years later his book still hasn’t been returned, but at least he’s found the descendants of those sneaky Fyfes (now using the name Preston) living in the New Mexican desert. Corbis begins snatching the members of the Preston family one by one, selling their souls to Satan and turning them into living wax figures or something before giving them new black robes to wear.

Now the damned souls, see, he keeps in a sort of giant ornate sno-globe. It’s kind of a holding pen for damned souls known as “the devil’s rain.” I guess because it’s always raining inside the sno-globe. And they have to stay in there getting all damp until the book is returned, at which point they’ll be transferred down to Hell. 

Oh, I give up. I’ve seen the damned picture twenty times and still haven’t quite figured it out. I mean, I know Satan is a stickler for signed contracts, but it seems to me the book was just kind of irrelevant, at least in terms of accounting. I mean, if you have all those damned souls sitting right there in that handy sno-globe, all you’d really need to do is take a head count. But these are the kinds of questions you quickly learn not to ask during The Devil’s Rain.

According to Fuest, producer Sandy Howard just wanted to make a movie about Satanists that ends with a whole lotta people melting. The rest of the story leading up to that was pretty much ad hoc, and written by a couple guys who were stoned most of the time. Howard (who was behind the prestige hit A Man Called Horse) got his melting Satanists, though, even going back and re-editing Fuest’s cut of the film to make sure the final sequence went on a good ten or fifteen minutes, far beyond the point of effectiveness, and in fact so long it left most audience members glancing at their watches. But it was the centerpiece of the ad campaign, so he had to deliver.

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For all its glaring faults, there is plenty here to like without snickering. The cinematography is quite good, and the shots of the New Mexican desert are beautiful. The makeup effects (created by the same team responsible for the original Planet of the Apes films) are excellent and believable, if overused. The production design is surprisingly good for a film of this budget. Most important of all, Fuest was a genre director who knew how to keep the pace snappy, could play horror in the brightest sunlight, and didn’t shy away from the simply weird. In fact he keeps things moving so fast here and the individual details so intriguing that it’s easy to ignore (as was his hope) the fact that none of it really makes the slightest bit of sense.

The highlight of the film, however, is the performance from Ernest Borgnine. As Corbis, he plays essentially four roles here. When he first appears on screen he dresses and acts like a wealthy rancher in his checked shirt and white cowboy hat. He’s friendly and charming and full of folksy quips. A few minutes later he dons a hooded robe and becomes a Satanic high priest, reciting the text of the actual black mass. In the flashback sequence he’s in pilgrim attire and smatters his speech with appropriate “thees” and “thous,” even as he burns at the stake. And as the goat-headed vessel for Satan’s worldly incarnation, he’s guttural and growly and hungry for souls.

But they all remain unmistakably Ernest Borgnine from Marty, The Wild Bunch, and From Here to Eternity, and it’s just a delight to hear him speak lines like, “For I…am a true worshipper of the most high and exalted King of Hell.”

That, and several other details of the film reveal it to be (as was the case with most of the Satan films from the era) much more subversive than it appears on the surface. In the film’s most interesting sequence, Mark Preston (Shatner) offers to pit his faith in God against Corbis’ faith in Satan in order to win the souls of his parents back. Well, Mark loses, pulls a gun, and starts shooting waxy black-robed Satanists willy-nilly. To this Corbis calmly and knowingly asks, “Is THAT your faith?”

And sure enough, after all the melty business is over and all the Satanists (even John Travolta) are soaking into the desert sands, the film tosses in a final twist and ends on a decidedly dark note, which in itself is something worth a little respect. Even if it doesn’t make any sense.

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