Following on from ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’, here’s another slice of low-budget 70s small town gothic starring a couple of Peckinpah alumni, this time Ernest Borgnine and Ida Lupino. I’m thinking I might make ‘Race with the Devil’ – featuring Peckinpah alumnus Warren Oates – my next Summer of Satan pick and consider it a trilogy of sorts. The “What I Did in Backwoods America with a Bunch of Satanists When I Wasn’t Making Movies with Sam” Trilogy.
‘The Devil’s Rain’ opens with the elderly Mrs Preston (Lupino) awaiting the return, in a howling storm, of her son Mark (William Shatner). There is a lot of portentous dialogue about the missing patriarch of the household, a book and the diabolical John Corbus (Borgnine), a Satanist who has set up shop in a deserted mining town nearby and who wants the book back. (There is so much blether about the book during the first half of the film, with the reason for its importance not revealed until a good 50 minutes in, that I was wondering why Corbus didn’t just go to a freakin’ library. Or, y’know, join a mail order book club.)
Then things turn nasty at the Preston household, some supernatural business occurs, and Mrs P is kidnapped. This pisses Mark right off and he heads for the mining town intent on confronting Corbus, kicking ass, and getting his dear ol’ ma back.
He finds himself up against more than he bargained for, and an abrupt segue thirty minutes into the proceedings hands over protagonist duties to his brother Tom (Tom Skerritt). Tom is introduced in a scientifically unsound vignette where he and his colleague Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert) are conducting an ESP experiment on Tom’s wife Julie (Joan Prather). Julie has a horrifying premonition – one that seems to involve her, in a way that never quite makes sense until the very end of the movie – at the same time that Tom receives news that his ma and his brother are missing.
With local lawman Sheriff Owens (Keenan Wynn) too busy with a recent flood to offer much assistance, Tom picks up the trail and heads off to the mining town. Pretty soon, he discovers that Corbus has as much interest in him as the rest of his family. It’s when he finds out why – and what the importance of the book is – that he is forced into a confrontation with the Satanists.
On the whole, ‘The Devil’s Rain’ is a much better production than ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’. Cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr – who also lensed Peckinpah’s whacked-out black valentine to Mexico, ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ – exploits the deserted mining town to magnificently moody effect. Imagine if the red-masked bad dudes in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’ had been card-carrying Lucifer lovers instead of casually racist gunslingers and you’re halfway there.
Robert Fuest’s direction is focused: the film is tight, pacy and decently structured. The face-melting effects have aged somewhat (although you can see where Spielberg got the final sequence of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ from), but the only bit of FX that’s truly embarrassing is the firecracker transition of Ernest-Borgnine-as-Satanist-in-a-jump-suit to Ernest-Borgnine-in-a-goat-mask.
Where ‘The Devil’s Rain’ really achieves its quota of what-the-fuckery, however, is not in the effects, or the revelation of what the Devil’s Rain actually is, or the incomprehensibility of how the Satanists managed to install a full-scale fucking pipe-organ in the mouth of a cave, but in its casting. The full import is probably diluted by the fact that I’ve scattered the principles’ names parenthetically across three or four paragraphs, so let me line them up next to each other. ‘The Devil’s Rain’, ladies and gentleman, gives you the opportunity to experience Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, Eddie Albert, Keenan Wynn, Tom Skerritt and The Shat in the same movie. Oh yeah, and if you scrutinize the ranks of the Satanists carefully, you’ll see a young John Travolta floating around in the background.
Effective little chiller it may be, but there are plenty of instances where ‘The Devil’s Rain’ verges on camp. The sight, just minutes in, of Lupino wringing her hands and projecting wide-eyed sincerity and trying to pretend that she’s not in a B-movie horror outing while The Shat gives it the thousand yard stare to a point just off camera (I began to suspect that he was locked in a stare-it-out contest with the dude holding the boom) while DELIVERING all-his-dialogue IN A MANNER that-randomly-alternates … between … STENTORIAN ENUNCIATION and rat-a-tat-speed … with … more … pregnant pauses … than … a … Harold Pinter play. But. At. The. Wrong. Moments. I can only assume that when the man read a script, his brain automatically Tippexed out all the punctuation and he paused and stopped and raised his voiced and then spokerealfast at what he thought were the right moments. (They weren’t.)
Mark’s verbal stand-off with Corbus is hilarious, The Shat pulling out a frown/pointy figure combo as it a stiff talking to is all it takes for a 300-year-old devil worshipper to repent his ways and ask forgiveness. It says something that, in this scene, that Borgnine (an inveterate scenery chewer except when he had the guidance of a director of Peckinpah’s stature) comes off as understated!
Robert Fuest spent much of his career in TV (in particular directing some cracking episodes of ‘The Avengers’), but the handful of feature films he helmed make it lamentable that his talent wasn’t deployed on the big screen more often. ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and its sequel are genre favourites, ‘And Soon the Darkness’ is a slow-burn exercise in Hitchcockian suspense, and his adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ with Anna Calder-Marshall and Timothy Dalton captures the viciousness of Cathy and Heathcliffe’s turbulent romance better than any other version.
In ‘The Devil’s Rain’, Fuest conflates the horror film and the western, without sacrificing or bastardizing the imagery of either. He pitches the old guard against young turks. He creates atmosphere (the storm that batters the Prestons’ homestead in the opening scene; the dusty avenues of the abandoned town; the out-of-place church and its unholy interior) on a nothing budget. Sure, some of it’s wonky (the very last shot, while brutally effective as a closer, actually doesn’t make sense once you think about it for longer than, say, 30 seconds) and it was never going to be anything more than a B-movie, but it’s a pisser to note that ‘The Devil’s Rain’ was his last big screen outing.