At the time of its making, The Devil's Rain had one Hell of a potential pedigree. It was following a series of successful films all dealing with Satan and the growing interest in the black arts, including The Exorcist, Beyond the Door, and Abby. Its director, British journeymen Robert Fuest, was fresh off the one-two popularity punch of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its slight sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and was looking forward to making a serious horror film. While the script was an unimportant effort by a trio of untried writers, actual High Priest of the Church of Satan, Anton LeVay, was brought in as a technical consultant, and actually had a part in the production. Even better, the pre-production hype announced the creation of heretofore unparalleled special effects, make-up work that would allow the characters to literally "melt" onscreen. And the casting was first rate – William Shatner, Ida Lupino, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Joan Prather and Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine. So what happened along the way? How did so many talented tendencies get accused of being one of the worst movies ever made? Perhaps, the truth is a little more telling. Sure, Michael and Harry Medved labeled The Devil's Rain one of cinema's biggest atrocities in their Golden Turkey Awards books. But what we have here is actually an ambitious miscalculation that functions just fine after three decades removed from its unremarkable debut.
During a horrible thunderstorm, the Preston family is attacked by a band of brazen cult members under the direction of the diabolical Jonathan Corbis. Long known to the family, they understand that he wants his antique book back, and yet they consistently refuse to hand it over. It costs Pa Preston his life, and soon Ma and brother Mark are missing. The clans other sibling, Tom, discovers the disappearance while working on an experiment in ESP with his partner Dr. Richards and his wife, a quasi-clairvoyant named Julie. Heading out to the ghost town of Red Stone, Tom meets up with a weird group of people, faces deformed and obviously bent of evil. Lead by Corbis, they will kill any Preston who won't give up the book. Eventually, Julie "sees" that this is all part of some feud between members of a Satanic sect driven out by the Puritans in the 17th century. Corbis is hundreds of years old, a direct connection to Hell on earth, and desperate to get that ancient volume back. Richards then arrives, and discovers that Corbis is also keeping the souls of his faction in a large orb-shaped vessel. He wants to release the spirits, but it will inspire The Devil's Rain – an acid deluge that will cause Corbis' clan to melt away to nothingness. Eventually, it's a battle between good and evil, with Tom on one side and Beelzebub's brethren on the other.
To call The Devil's Rain one of the worst horror movies ever made is just plain wrong. Granted, it hits the ground running and never takes time to fully explain its storyline, and when it comes to serious Satanism, the worship here is positively tepid. There's nary a demonic possession, a smidgen of sacrificial blood, or a worshipping of wickedness in sight. Instead, director Robert Fuest and his novice screenplay threesome aren't sure if they're making a thriller, a chiller, or a look at how religious intolerance lead to the creation of a murderous cult-like sect during Puritanical times. There's also some misplaced ESP, a mountain of mannered overacting, and a throwaway turn by Keenan Wynn (doing lackadaisical belligerence with just a hint of centered psychosis better than anyone else in the cast), all resulting in a frequently unfathomable family feud. Indeed, at the heart of The Devil's Rain is a simple story about two clans who just can't get along. Jonathan Corbis is pissed at the Prestons for holding onto his soul scrapbook all these centuries, and means to get back the tome however he can. Apparently, his ploy has something to do with stealing souls, removing people's eyes, turning them into wax zombies, and forcing them to listen to overlong prayers to the Mangoat. Making about as much sense as the random appearances by John Travolta as one of Corbis' crew (he only has one line, but the Barbarino-era lips are a dead giveaway), the narrative is so nonsensical that it begs to be dismissed.
But something about the way Fuest presents this craven claptrap keeps us entertained and interested for most of the movie. Perhaps it's the high-pitched level of the performances. With certified scenery chewers like Shatner, Lupino, and especially Borgnine on board, you've got some major Method mannerisms to contend with. Big Bill offers a precursor preview to his terrific turn in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, giving "Corbis" a considered shout out that matches his manic reading of Ricardo Montalban's moniker in loudness and lunacy. Lupino is so fidgety and nervous at the opening of the movie that she makes the audience antsy. Once she's "turned" to Corbis' side of things, she's all mopey and melancholy. Borgnine is the best, however. Totally believable as a high pagan priest, he gives each Satanic incantation the proper amount of deliberate direness to help sell the sacrilege. He even looks good in his vile velvetine robes. With such sensational servings of ham at our disposal, it's hard for the rest of the actors to stand out. Still, Skerritt does a good job of playing the proposed hero, attempting all the macho daring do with an air of compulsory caring. Albert is given just a couple of scenes to prove he is a paranormal scientist that's completely clued in on what Corbis is up to. He almost manages it. Finally, Prather plays a mind-melding honey that "sees" the reason for the Corbis/Preston falling out in a long, labored flashback. Talk about your cases of expositional ESP.
Filtered through Fuest's visual finesse, however, The Devil's Rain delivers just enough genre intrigue to keep us connected to the creaky content involved. Even during the outdoor Black Mass meant to measure out rewards and/or punishment to Corbis' miserable membership, we snicker at the situation as we admire this filmmaker's attempts to capture something interesting and unusual. As a director, Fuest finds the right level of dread throughout, achieving mammoth mood with little or nothing to go on except an old ghost town and a gross of Thingmaker goop. The finale, so celebrated and hyped at the time, is a tad underwhelming today, especially when you consider that better examples of human putrescence have been offered all throughout the legacy of post-modern movie macabre. When blank eye sockets burst with viscous green glop, when hands dissolve into puddles of flesh colored flotsam, the effect is supposed to be scary, not silly. But since we never quite understand the whole 'soul vessel/Devil's rain' connection (do these demonic dummies melt in ANY precipitation, or just the one created by Corbis?) and get distracted during the fire and brimstone setpiece featuring Borgnine in full billygoat's gruff, the slime-a-thon is just one big goof. It does put the clever capper on what is a half great, half groan-inducing attempt to bring Moloch to the masses. The Devil's Rain may not be perfect, but it's not the pile of crap its heritage would have you believe. Instead, it's an ambitious attempt that can't quite get its imp together.
As they did with their recent release of Eaten Alive, Dark Sky Film's terrific transfer of The Devil's Rain resurrects this mostly forgotten fright film rarity. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is absolutely stellar, a pristine presentation offering consistent color levels and an excellent attention to detail. From the solid reds of Corbis' garb to the excellent management of the exterior and interior sequences, this image is amazing. It looks practically brand new, and argues for DVD's ability to revive films long dismissed because of their optical obstructions.
Sadly, the sonics are a little flat. The Dolby Digital Mono is managed well, with a crystal clear mix of music and dialogue, but there is very little spatial or directional ambience in the soundscape. As a result, there is practically no mood beyond what Fuest creates visually. Since the aural aspects of a horror film are just as important as the imagery, the lack of a beefed up auditory experience tends to deflate the potential impact of The Devil's Rain.
Dark Sky also steps up and supplements this release with a couple of decent added elements. First up is a dry, but descriptive commentary by filmmaker Fuest. Accompanied by Marcus Hearn, who helps keep the conversation on track, we hear how Fuest's post-Phibes fame lead to lots of offers, how Rain was constantly crippled by frequent financial issues, and how much the director despised the "far too long" meltdown sequence at the end of the film. As it's been ages since he's seen the film, Fuest is a little light on information and insight, and Hearn can only help so much. Still, the discussion is entertaining and engaging, providing details on the production (William Shatner's contractual break to attend a Trek convention!) that we would otherwise not be privy to. Also part of the package is a trailer, a collection of TV spots, and an odd newsreel, running about three minutes, showing LeVay in full Church of Satan mode. It's intriguing, but adds little to our appreciation of his efforts for the film.
Highly Recommended for everything it does right, and equally embraced for those elements that simply atrophy and blow away, The Devil's Rain deserves to be rediscovered by today's fright fans. It is not as bad as motion picture mythology makes it out to be, nor is it some forgotten masterwork made unimportant by years of rejection and ridicule. Instead, this is a mediocre movie turned magnificent by facets brought to the narrative by Fuest. It is also a great experiment in terror tripped up by dated F/X and sloppy scripting. Put together, the cinematic combination proves far more competent than most of the mid-range horror films from the era, and light years beyond the independent drivel that DVD seems to drag out on a regular basis. Forget what you've heard and give this perplexing gem a chance. While never very scary, The Devil's Rain is an entertaining, aggravating spectacle. It deserves respect for what it accomplishes, not ridicule for everything that it lacks.