Monday, September 25, 2017

"You'll Never Find the Reason" - The Devil's Rain (1975)

"Heaven Help Us All When The Devil's Rain" is the tag-line for The Devil's Rain (1975), one of the most famous examples of a copywriter misunderstanding the difference between a possessive apostrophe and a plural noun. However, the clumsiness of the advertising copy does not detract from the high quality of Robert Fuest's allegorical masterpiece of good versus evil.

When the film was first released, someone named Roger Ebert wrote, "The problem is that the material's stretched too thin. There's not enough here to fill a feature-length film. No doubt that's why we get so many barren landscapes filled with lonely music and ennui." (In fact, this film is on a list of Ebert's most hated films, along with other fine movies such as The Deathmaster, Critters 2, and Halloween III.) Continuing with reviews, on IMDB Aaron1375 writes, "Most of the movie is sadly rather underdone. Seems they had a somewhat interesting concept and just rushed it to the finish line." Lee Harris, also on IMDB, writes, "Volumes could be written about what this film lacks; plot, compelling diologue, catharsis, acting."

Simply put, these reviews are incorrect. Correcting them requires a detailed exploration of the film so detested by this "Roger Ebert" character.

The film opens with its titles shown over details from Hieronymus Bosch's paintings of the Garden of Earthly Delights. Familiar names from the titles include actors Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, William Shatner, Keenan Wynn, Ida Lupino, Tom Skerritt, and John Travolta, among others, as well as Oscar-winning film editor Michael Kahn (who edited this film between Hogan's Heroes and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), director Robert Fuest (between the Dr. Phibes movies and a series of ABC Afterschool Specials), and of course High Priest of the Church of Satan Anton Szandor LaVey (aka Howard Levey), a technical advisor.

The film begins in a remote farmhouse, where a nervous Ida Lupino sits and watches the thunderstorm outside. Rain pours down outside, but is it The Devil's Rain? No, not yet.

Ms. Lupino's son, played by William Shatner, bursts into the house. (In real life, Ms. Lupino was 13 years older than Mr. Shatner, but it is a mark of their acting prowess that we never question whether he could be her son.) Mr. Shatner was searching for "him" outside, but couldn't find "him" or "his" truck in the storm.

Ms. Lupino is even more agitated now. She has been having a disturbing dream that always begins with a storm.

Suddenly, Mr. Shatner's father Steve arrives, his face disfigured.

He tells them someone named Corbis is in the desert. "He's waiting for the book. Give Corbis what belongs to him." Then Steve falls over and begins to melt in the rain, saying, "In nomine satanis."

Mr. Shatner decides to go out into the desert to face Corbis. With a gun, and not a book.

But when he steps outside, he sees lights flashing inside the house. He runs back inside, only to find the place ransacked--that is, supernaturally ransacked--and Ms. Lupino gone.

When he walks outside, it is no longer raining--and it is no longer nighttime. He drives a station wagon through a valley. He drives through a river, though this path seems unnecessary, and finally he reaches a small Western ghost town in the middle of nowhere.

Parking his station wagon, Mr. Shatner catches the attention of a grinning Ernest Borgnine, who implies that he is Corbis. He offers Mr. Shatner water from a dusty pump. Mr. Shatner says it tastes bitter. "Sweet way to end a thirst, though, isn't it?" says Mr. Borgnine.

"Let me show you what I put my faith in," says Corbis, walking toward the ghost town's small church.

The two men come to an agreement. If Mr. Shatner's faith is stronger than Mr. Borgnine's, then Mr. Shatner will get his parents back. If Mr. Borgnine's faith is stronger, he gets the book--and Mr. Shatner. The filmmakers use ambiguity wisely here, as we are not told what either man puts his faith in. From the participation of Anton LaVey indicated in the credits, however, we can only assume one of them is a Satanist. But which one? Which one? (Spoiler: Mr. Borgnine.)

They enter the dark church.

A Satanist service with a red-robed Ernest Borgnine in charge begins almost immediately. Mr. Shatner counters Mr. Borgnine's chanting with the Lord's Prayer, and the two prayers overlap like an ecumenical duet.

Mr. Shatner holds an amulet, given to him by his mother, high, but Mr. Borgnine's amulet appears larger, clearly cancelling out the Christian amulet, and even turning said amulet into a snake through Satanist magic.

Having dealt definitively with religion, the film moves on to science. We see Eddie Albert on a stage, demonstrating via oscilloscope a woman's mental control over her bodily functions.

"Our experiments would indicate that there's nothing in the subconscious that cannot be raised to the conscious level."

"Nothing, doctor?" says someone in the audience. "What about parapsychology? Telepathy? Can that be controlled too?"

After a moment's thought, Mr. Albert says, "Yes, I'd include that. Extrasensory perception." In fact, Mr. Albert and his assistant, played by Tom Skerritt, has identified the brainwave pattern associated with ESP.

It turns out Mr. Skerritt is Mr. Shatner's brother, and the woman demonstrating ESP is his wife Julie. (Julie is played by Joan Prather, who appeared with Mr. Skerritt and Mr. Shatner in Big Bad Mama the previous year.) They receive word that something has happened to their family, so they immediately journey out to the desert.

When they reach the church, Mr. Skerritt readies himself with an extraordinarily large rifle. "I've seen churches like this in New England," says Julie. "It doesn't belong here."

"Yeah, I noticed that from back there," Mr. Skerritt informs his clearly less observant wife.

Inside the church, they find a possibly Satanist stained glass window. (Although Ron Perelman is one of the few actors who does not appear in The Devil's Rain, his visage is reproduced in the glass image.)

Mr. Skerritt and his wife chase an eyeless man who resembles Garry Shandling across town and into a saloon, where Mr. Skerritt pins him down and his wife uses her ESP powers to divine that someone is looking for a book.

In an ESP-induced flashback, we go back to sepia-toned Puritan times in New England. Mr. Borgnine is there, a Satanist even then. "Didst one of thee fall from the favor of Lucifer?" Mr. Borgnine asks a gathering of Pilgrims. "Without the book, thou art nothing."

Shockingly, William Shatner is one of the gathered Satanists, a man named Martin Fife. We find out that Martin Fife's wife was the one who stole the book.

The god-fearing Pilgrims choose this very moment to march with torches to the Satanist church and break down the door. As he is burnt at the stake, Mr. Borgnine cries out, "Martin Fife, a curse on thee and thine forevermore! I will follow thee and thy descendants for all eternity until the book is mine again!"

The ESP flashback over, Mr. Skerritt and his wife flee the ghost town in Mr. Shatner's abandoned station wagon, but Mr. Skerritt decides to get out of the car and return to the town to look for his brother.

He allows Julie to drive away, and she almost immediately drives into the only tree in the desert when she sees an eyeless child in the back seat of the car.

Mr. Skerritt somehow disguises himself as a Satanist and follows several hundred of the cultists through the desert. Mr. Shatner is their prisoner, and eventually he is chained to a stone altar. (It is unclear why the group has walked many miles into the desert instead of using the Satanist church in town, which had a similar altar.)

Mr. Borgnine calls to his master. There is a smoky explosion, and Mr. Borgnine becomes a terrifying ram-headed beast, the personification of Satan himself!

The purpose of the ceremony is to allow Pilgrim Martin Fife's soul to enter Mr. Shatner's body, which becomes suddenly eyeless.

Before he can reveal anything useful, however, Mr. Skerritt's identity is discovered and he is chased by the Satanists, firing at them repeatedly. We find out, interestingly, that Satanists discharge a milky white substance instead of blood. It is here that John Travolta appears as a robed Satanist. (He yells, "Blasphemer!" and he pronounces the word with a short e sound while many people pronounce it with a long e sound.)

Despite the long walk through the desert to reach the stone shrine, Mr. Skerritt makes it back to the ghost town in a matter of seconds. As do the Satanists.

There follows a long action sequence in which Mr. Skerritt fends off the cultists with his fists. He escapes the town and returns to Ida Lupino's house.

Eddie Albert has arrived at Ms. Lupino's house and found the book, which Mr. Albert has discovered includes a list of signatures in blood who sold their souls to Satan, via Corbis. The book also includes the phrase "the devil's rain."

Referring to the time between the book's signatures and today, Mr. Skerritt asks, "Now what in the hell is he waiting 300 years for?"

Mr. Albert replies off-handedly, "I don't know, maybe the right moment. You'll never find the reason."

They also find a new name in the book: Mark Preston, the character played by Mr. Shatner. "It wasn't there this morning," says Mr. Albert.

The next night, we see that the Satanists have captured Mr. Skerritt's psychic wife Julie, who was not killed when her car hit the only tree in the desert.

Back in the Satanist church in the ghost town, Mr. Skerritt and Mr. Albert find what appears to be a Satanic television hidden underneath the altar.

The round screen shows images of people, but Mr. Albert believes these are not mere movies. "Souls," he says.

"Yeah," adds Mr. Skerritt.

"Possessed by Corbis for 300 years!" Mr. Albert concludes.

"The Devil's Rain," says Mr. Skerritt, seeing that it appears to be raining on the screen behind the tormented souls.

As frequently happens in a Satanic church, the two men are interrupted by Sheriff Keenan Wynn, who is working with the Satanists. They toss Mr. Wynn into the hole under the altar, and he promptly explodes.

Mr. Skerritt and Mr. Albert hear the Satanists chanting loudly as they return across the desert. The forces of good climb into the rafters to hide, but they realize they left the book near the altar, and one of the Satanists finds it.

Mr. Borgnine, understandably, is thrilled to have the book back in his possession.

When Mr. Skerritt sees his wife being brought into the church as a potential sacrifice, he leaps into action and is captured by his brother, Eyeless William Shatner. Mr. Shatner looks confused but he obeys Mr. Borgnine's orders.

Mr. Albert emerges and everything stops. Mr. Borgnine is aware of Mr. Albert's scientific work.

"Corbis, you want the Devil's Rain," says Mr. Albert. "I want Tom and Julie Preston." (One might think the good scientist rude, or perhaps he has a grudge against Mr. Shatner and Ms. Lupino.) "Unless you allow Tom and Julie Preston to leave here safely, I will destroy the Devil's Rain!"

Showing considerable strength for a white-haired man of advanced age, Mr. Albert lifts the Satanic television above his head.

Eyeless William Shatner simply takes the television away from Mr. Albert.

It comes down to a decision for the eyeless man. Mr. Albert attempts to convince him to break the vessel full of souls, while Mr. Borgnine says it will make him a being of nothing, neither Heaven nor Hell.

This battle of the wills takes several minutes.

Finally, Eyeless William Shatner chooses. He breaks the vessel, releasing the Devil's Rain. As well as real, earthly rain.

There is a great deal of confusion inside and outside the church. It is unclear whether the souls from the vessel returned to the bodies of the Satanists, because their faces are still eyeless.

In any case, Mr. Borgnine reverts to his ram-headed form, and most of the Satanists begin to melt in the rain.

Mr. Borgnine begins to melt, too, as he struggles with Mr. Skerritt. Clearly, the Devil's Rain is not a good thing for Satanists, and one wonders why Mr. Borgnine wanted to release it in the first place.

In the climax, Mr. Borgnine stumbles into the hole beneath the altar and, like Sheriff Keenan Wynn before him, he explodes in a ball of fire.

Mr. Skerritt, Mr. Albert, and Julie make their way out of town, while Mr. Shatner, Ms. Lupino, and the other eyeless Satanists tragically melt away in the Devil's Rain.

This shocking melting process takes a great deal of time.

Finally, the church explodes. Twice.

I must reveal the ending here, which is clever, chilling, and not at all ridiculous. If you do not wish to have the ending "spoiled," please refrain from reading at this point.

With the church burning down and the Satanists trickling away, Mr. Skerritt runs to embrace Julie. But the camera reveals to us the Mr. Skerritt is embracing not an eyeless Julie, as less creative filmmakers might have shown, but in fact a grinning Mr. Borgnine. Corbis is clearly thrilled to be in the arms of Mr. Skerritt, though who among us could say they would feel any differently?

Outside of the film's phenomenal star power, the brilliance of The Devil's Rain can be attributed to the fact that it is both allegorical and concrete at the same time. At the beginning of the film, we are thrust into the story with little understanding of who the characters are, what they want, and even where they are. Everything seems symbolic of something else: the vast desert, the lonely church, the book, the amulet. When we learn more, however, we realize that the characters are what they are. Mr. Shatner is the personification of Christian good and Mr. Borgnine is the personification of Satanist evil. They are not figurative symbols. Instead, they are exactly what they stand for, and there is no mystery about it. Mr. Fuest's approach to the story is comforting as the ambiguity is dispelled over the first half of the film and the audience becomes pleasantly secure in the knowledge that good is good, evil is evil, and all ambiguity has evaporated.

The approach is somewhat curious, however, considering the involvement of Anton LaVey as technical advisor. One would expect that Mr. LaVey would be concerned if Satanism were represented as entirely repugnant and foolish, but in the case of The Devil's Rain, one's expectations would be incorrect.

Only one more point needs to be added, and that is that the climax of this film was clearly copied for the climax of the far inferior Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) six years later. One can only imagine how much better the Indiana Jones films would have been if they had driving through puddles, Eyeless William Shatner, and Ernest Borgnine turning into a ram-headed devil. Truly, the mind reels with excitement for what might have been.