The Devil’s Rain: Showers With A 100% Chance Of Overacting


Younger horror fans may not know it, but for a brief period in fright film history–between the ’30s and ’40s heyday of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man and the ’80s “splatter” era of Michael, Jason and Freddy–literature’s original “bad boy,” the fallen angel known as Satan, was the big screen’s number-one scare attraction. After decades of mostly pitchfork-wielding comedic appearances and the occasional Faust adaptation, Lucifer struck cinematic gold in 1968 as the proud papa of Rosemary’s Baby, and Ol’ Scratch solidified his box-office power as the behind-the-scenes instigator of the mayhem in such hits as 1973’s The Exorcist and The Omen in 1976.  By the time Ronald Reagan took office, it was back to being portrayed by the likes of Bill Cosby and George Burns, but there’s no doubt that in ’70s pop culture Mephistopheles was a force to reckoned with…which, of course, would also explain the rise of leisure suits, pet rocks, and The Captain and Tennille.

Perhaps no movie from that long-ago era better exemplified the devil’s reign than…er, The Devil’s Rain, a 1975 opus which pitted a family against the leader of a Satanic cult witha 300-year-old axe to grind. Yes, the film has a devil, as well as rain…lots of rain, in fact. There are also endless shots of cars driving across the desert;  a cast of veteran stars who must have approached this job with varying degrees of seriousness, plus an all-but-unrecognizable debut from one of today’s biggest names; and even “the special participation of Anton LaVey, high priest of the Church of Satan.” But is there, as the ads promised, “Absolutely the most incredible, unforgettable ending of any motion picture, ever”?   The answer, and varying degrees of spoilers, follow. 

After a title sequence boasting Hieronymus Bosch backgrounds and voices wailing “Let me out of here!” (those might have been off-camera cries from the actors, I’m not sure), the film opens rather abruptly on a “dark and stormy night,” with Ida Lupino and son William Shatner awaiting her husband’s return.  Shatner’s pa shows up, with a wax face and no eyes, and barely has time to say they must return “the book” to “Corbis” before the rain melts him, a la Margaret Hamilton, into a puddle of goo. When Lupino is abducted literally behind Bill’s back, an up-’til-then stony-faced Shatner gets his first chance to shift into Manic Shatner mode, screaming out “CORBIS! God damn you!” in his best Star Trek II: The Wrath of KAAAHHHNNN! fashion, before setting out for revenge.


In the cult’s desert ghost town HQ, Shatner confronts the mysterious Corbis, played by none other than Ernest Borgnine. This Kirk/McHale smackdown gives two of Hollywood’s biggest over-emoters a chance to glare menacingly at one another while feasting on some ripe lines (“We’ve both come a long way for this moment.” “And I’ve a ways to go yet.”)  before Ernie and his wax-faced, brown-robed minions (with Lupino now among their number) capture Shatner. Meanwhile–and seemingly arriving from another movie–Shatner’s brother, ESP researcher Tom Skerritt; his psychic spouse Joan Prather; and colleague Eddie Albert visit the town to find out what’s happened. Prather’s visions reveal the long-awaited backstory. A 1680s flashback, with everyone sporting Puritan garb and “thee and thine” dialogue, shows how the much-talked-about book contains the written-in-blood names of Borgnine’s followers, and was stolen by the wife of 17th-century Shatner (“The bitch howls our names to the heathen!,” rants Ernie). Burned at the stake, Borgnine swears vengeance against their descendants until the book is recovered.

 “Great,” you say. “That explains the book, but what the heck is the Devil’s Rain?” Well, it appears to be a mystic urn containing the cultists’ imprisoned souls…or it could just be an oversized Faberge egg with a ram’s head on top and a video loop of tormented souls in its middle, like an iPod from Hell.  Either way, its destruction during the final showdown between Borgnine and Albert unleashes a downpour that starts dissolving the bad guys, including a now goat-horned Ernie, in a non-stop orgy of moaning, melting and oozing. And yes, one of those disintegrating is none other than John Travolta in his very first film. Surely you recognized him as the cult member shouting out “Blasphemer! Blasphemer!” in an earlier scene? (I didn’t.)  Albert, Skerritt and Prather escape from the muck-filled melee, but stay tuned to the very end for a “twist” ending that these days may only be legal in New England and Iowa. 

Much like the finale, the performances in The Devil’s Rain tend to melt into nothingness. Once Shatner is turned into a cult member, his lines come even slower and more enunciated than usual. Skerritt sleepwalks through most of his scenes, and Albert and Lupino were there just long enough to pick up a paycheck.  Only the ever-earnest Ernest seems to be enjoying himself, delivering bon mots like “Didst one of thee fall from the favor of Lucifer?” with the goofy sincerity they needed. Even so, director Robert Fuest’s knack for mixing chills and suspense with a lighter tone, evident when he helmed episodes of TV’s The Avengers and The Abominable Dr. Phibes with Vincent Price, was of little use here.  The script raised more questions than it answered (How did Corbis stay alive for 300 years? Do Satan’s lawyers require signed-in-blood receipts before he can legally claim souls? How do the cultists wash up after a black mass? Why didn’t they re-shoot after Albert flubbed a line? ), but the biggest question comes from the movie’s poster (see above). “Heaven help us all when the Devil’s Rain!” When the Devil’s Rain WHAT? Is there a second verb missing? Or, as horror film maveness Stacie Ponder suggests on her very witty Final Girl blog site, did they mean plural, like “the Devils Rain,” but had to change the script because the posters were printed up first?

 Whatever the answers, this overwrought slice of ’70s Satanic cinema may yet be best remembered for two things: it was on the set of the film that Prather introduced Travolta to the curative powers of Scientology (insert your own “bizarre cult” joke here), and we now know where Jim Breuer got the look for his Saturday Night Live character Goat Boy.


“BAAAAHHHH down before the Prince of Darkness!,” indeed.