Monday, July 14, 2014

Monster Serial: THE DEVIL'S RAIN, 1975

Ernest Borgnine shows off his Corbis sculpture, courtesy of Barry Crawford. Find his work online at


MELTING HEADS!  I’ll get to those in a moment, but first ...

You know what we’re missing today?  Nature’s most precious resource: the noble local TV station manager.  They were godlike beings who individually sculpted how communities saw television. Oh, and they often picked the afternoon movies.  That is a lost and wondrous delight.  Before cable and before Netflix gave us so many choices that no choice was possible, they would pick entire themes for ancient and b-level movies to be shown over a week.  At WAVE 3 in Louisville, he was a genius.  

We had Bee Week.  An audacious PLANET OF THE APES week featuring none of the PLANET OF THE APES movies but instead, repackaged TV episodes.  Overall, though, they gave us far more hits than misses in the b-movie department, and I’m happy for the guidance.  

Devil Week was especially marvelous, and it would invariably end with THE DEVIL’S RAIN.  It remains a strange, arrogant, and grandly mad movie.  Ernest Borgnine, all ninety eight teeth of him, plays a Satanic priest named Corbis who may be Satan, himself — he has a tendency to turn into a ram.  He’s taken up in a stark, New England-style church in the Southwest which has a convenient shaft into Hell built into the floor.  There, he seeks to regain The Book filled with the names of those whose souls he stole three hundred years prior.  It turns out that the descendants of the Book thief live nearby, and among them are William Shatner, Ida Lupino, and Tom Skerrit.  But Tom isn’t alone.  He’s brought psychic researcher, Eddie Albert, along for the ride.  When Shatner is kidnapped, Tom and Eddie spring into kung-fu action, dispatching sheriff-turned-cultist, Keenan Wynn, with ease.  Equally easy is locating Corbis’ prized possession, a large jar containing The Devil’s Rain.  What is said Devil’s Rain?  It seems to be the liquid distillation of all of the souls he’s claimed.  Now, why he needs the book is still beyond me.  Maybe he wants to separate the different souls, like what Batman does to the powdered representatives of the United World in the good movie bearing his name, BATMAN (1966.)

(As a side note, in 1989, my boss Carl, of the Vogue Theater in Louisville, had had enough of the Bat-mania surrounding the rather wonky Burton movie.  He rented the ’66 BATMAN, put it on the marquee as, well, BATMAN, and laughed at the outraged patrons. Carl was a good man, and we miss him.)
Anyway, Corbis wants the book.  Eddie Albert has it and the Rain.  Eddie Albert wants Shatner and Ida Lupino.  But there’s no trading with Corbis.  To stop him, the jar is smashed and the liquid souls do what any schoolchild could tell you; they melt the soulless adherents on the spot in… a Devil’s Rain.  Or is it God’s rain?  Why would the Devil allow the souls of the people he’s converted to melt themselves?  Or why would he put his own name on it?  That would have been like Hitler calling Patton’s soldiers, “Adolph’s Pals.”  I don’t know.  Such matters are beyond me.  All I know is that it’s a fun movie. 

I love it because it really gives you Maximum Devilry.  In most of these movies, they really spare you the good stuff.  You get trapped in hum-drum domestic situations until they finally give in and show you the good stuff.  Not here.  There are Satanic ceremonies every five minutes.  Or it feels like it.  And they’re good ones.  Corbis talks a lot about light and pleasure and truth.  I only had to go to church a few times as a kid, but I can tell you that Corbis was a lot more fun.  Big red robe.  Says cool stuff like, “Open wide the Gates of Hell,” with passion and zest.  Ernest’s popping eyes!  Yeah, I’m down with that.  I don’t want to melt or die or have my eyes turn black.  But they seem to be having a lot of fun. We don’t really know what the oneg shabbat was like, but I suspect that it was full of the brand of lusty fun only Borg of Nine could bring to the altar.  Seriously, for a movie that ends with the Gates of Hell blowing up everything in sight (including the dilapidated church covering it for the last laugh), THE DEVIL’S RAIN seems to be almost drunk on prop-devil sentiment.  It’s only when it reluctantly has to that it hands itself over to “doing the right thing.”  Sigh.  It’s more fun when Corbis is leering at a busty acolyte named Lillith and saying “thy” a lot. 

This column is among those featured in
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Director Robert Fuest knew a good devil story when he found one.  Since he was pals with Church of Satan founder, Doktor Anton LaVey, he brought in the Dok as his advisor to get all of the details on spot.  LaVey can be briefly seen on screen in an amazing, Romulan-style helmet and ensured that all of the Mexican extras were pronouncing their Enochian like seasoned pros.  Fuest also had deep appreciation for a melting head.  In his earlier masterpiece, THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES, Fuest had Vincent Price melt the wax heads of his victims. That was merely a overture to the symphony of head meltin’ that THE DEVIL’S RAIN creates.  There must be five minutes of heads melting in various stages of meltosity.  He elevates the melted head from a mere effect into an artistic medium.  I don’t know if he advised on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or if he saw Spielberg as his bitter enemy for stealing cinematic headmeltery.
Still one of the most delightful (and brief) drive-in delights, THE DEVIL’S RAIN is a gem I encourage you to seek out.  Fuest.  Skerrit.  Shatner.  Borgnine.  Wynn.  Albert.  LaVey.  Satan.  Oh, and John Travolta.  That’s my kinda Rat Pack.  (Although Sammy Davis, Jr. was a Church of Satan member around this time, so we’ll include him, too, in the name of ... well, I mean, he’s Sammy.  You gotta have Sammy.)

Hail Corbis!  Hail Sammy!

PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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