Monday 23 June 2008

The Devil's Rain (1975)

How can anyone go wrong with a film like this? Before watching it, that is. It's a horror movie directed by Robert Fuest, the man who had already brought us the Dr Phibes movies. The stars are Ernest Borgnine and Eddie Albert. In a horror movie. Backing them up are co-stars William Shatner, Keenan Wynn, Tom Skerritt, Joan Prather and Ida Lupino. That's a stunning and varied clump of actors to which only question would be, 'Who is Joan Prather?' Well she was someone who had appeared with Shatner and Skerritt half a decade earlier in Big Bad Mama, that's who. There's even John Travolta in his film debut, the one he must happily ignore since his next films were Carrie, Saturday Night Fever and Grease. The Hieronymous Bosch paintings and dark choral work backing the opening credits bode well too.

And then it begins. Shatner is Lupino's son and it's raining and the phone's dead and everyone's upset wondering where Shatner's dad is. Then he turns up and literally melts outside ushering dire warnings and praising Satan. Lupino wants Shatner to take The Book to Corbin but Shatner doesn't want to. Then a truck arrives and Shatner races out but it's all a ruse. There's nothing in the truck but a voodoo doll and the thirty seconds while he realises this is enough for the house to get wrecked, the old man get hung upside down and Lupino kidnapped, apparently by people without faces. The Devil's rain is obviously way too much for Shatner's wicker cowboy hat to deal with.

And you won't believe me but that's just the first five minutes. It may go somewhere towards highlighting why this is an amazing movie, and by that I don't necessarily mean any good, merely amazing. Ida Lupino won an award for this film, a Golden Scroll from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Now I think Lupino was a superb actress, a groundbreaking director and one of the most influential women in the history of film, but she must have laughed at that award. I don't think she had a clue what this film was about and she knew it and she doesn't actually get that much to do either.

So Shatner goes to see Corbis at some ghost town called Redstone. Shatner is Mark Preston, one of a whole slew of Prestons in this film, and Corbis is Jonathan Corbis, the leader of a Satanic coven, played by Ernest Borgnine, though far less seriously than Shatner. Amazingly enough, Preston challenges Corbin to some sort of psychic duel and naturally loses, thus causing his brother and his wife to head out to investigate. They're Tom and Julie Preston, played by Skerritt and Prather. They're inolved in some sort of ESP research with Eddie Albert's character Dr Sam Richards. Are you confused yet? You will be.

I get the feeling that this was a four hour mini series that suddenly got turned into an hour and a half movie, and all the dialogue that explained everything was in the two and half hours that got cut out. It's hypnotic viewing but for all the wrong reasons: Lupino in a skin mask, Shatner branded and sacrificed, Eddie Albert as a researcher into parapsychology, Borgnine's facial makeup, Travolta sniffing his way around everywhere. 'Weird, isn't it?' says Skerritt's character, talking about the church in Redstone, which is completely out of place architecturally speaking. He could have been talking about the movie and I bet he said the same line after he saw it.

The sheer weirdness does have an effect. This is a creepy movie, mostly because its journey into weirdness circumvents all the usual cliches we expect it to follow. It leaves us glued to the screen wondering just what the heck the filmmakers are going to do next. The unpredictability is only part of it though, it also has plenty of very cool imagery, some of which seems decades ahead of its time. This is 1975 but some of the movements are reminiscent of J-horror, Japanese horror of the late '90s and early 2000s. The makeup effects look really bad the first time we see them but they get more and more impressive as the film goes on. Borgnine looks great as a goat and the ending of the film must have been truly shocking to 1975 audiences. These are the sort of effects that got films banned as video nasties in England a decade later.

It's not a great film, that's for sure, and it received a highly negative response from critics and viewers but it has every ingredient required to become a cult classic, down to the inclusion of Anton LaVey as a high priest. It has so much that's so watchable for all the wrong reasons.

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