Patriarch Steve Preston goes missing and worried mom Emma (Ida Lupino) sends eldest son Mark (William Shatner) in search for his father. Corbis (Ernest Borgnine) is a Satanic priest hell-bent on recovering a valuable book listing the names of those who sold their souls to the devil – a book that resides with the Preston family. Mark refuses to hand it over and puts up a brave fight, only to wind up an unwilling sacrifice. (From Dark Sky’s official synopsis)
Separated from its incredible reputation, Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain is another dumb, but fun and ultimately harmless ‘70s horror fantasy – one that is only really notable for its ooey-gooey, face-melting finale and the surprising calibre of its cast, including William Shatner (who was set adrift for most of the decade when Star Trek was canceled), Ernest Borgnine, and a bit part from John Travolta. But sometimes, a well-cultivated reputation can supercede the quality of actual on-screen shocks for decades after a film’s release, leading to an enduring and ravenous cult following. The Devil’s Rain is very much the sum of its parts, beginning with the legend that Gerald Hopman, Gabe Essoe, and James Ashton’s screenplay was devised with input from Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, who also appears in the film. Then there are the stories of spooky on-set mishaps plaguing the production and scaring poor Ernest Borgnine into never appearing in a movie about Satanism again, followed by accusations that the film was financed by the mob and reports that Fuest himself suffered a nervous breakdown, and almost died from stress (even though he didn’t actually die for another 42 years).
The problem with The Devil’s Rain has never been its lack of objective quality – to the contrary, Fuest’s atmospheric compositions are quite attractive – but the fact that there’s not enough content of any kind to fill out its runtime. The thin plot is padded with ineffective western motifs, incessant staring off into space, and laboured exposition. These long, bland stretches are probably what makes it such an enduring drive-in favourite. Had the story been more riveting, there may not have been enough time to take a bathroom break or trip to the snack bar. However, unlike other cult horror films from the era, there’s very little exploitation appeal – no nudity, only stilted action, and little violence. Only a few flashy editing tricks and the melting makeup effects that bookend the story really kick the audience in the ass and remind them to have some fun. The filmmakers (or, more likely, those mafia producers) tied their own hands by trying to make a family-friendly scary movie out of material that average, God-fearing American families would never want their children to see. Even the performances are oddly sedate, considering the calibre of the cast. None of this makes any sense, given Fuest’s genre pedigree after he made two of the best camp horror comedies of the 1970s – The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel (Dr. Phibes Rises Again, 1972). Grievances aside, I can admit that the Satanic imagery, interminable silences, and lack of structured storytelling does lend the film an enigmatic quality. I suspect that fans can enjoy inserting their own mythology and meaning into the nonsense. The arduous dialogue can be quite quotable as well.
The Devil’s Rain was readily available on VHS, aired regularly on television over the years, was released on non-anamorphic DVD by VCI, and on special edition anamorphic DVD by Dark Sky Films. Severin’s Blu-ray marks the first HD availability I know of and has reportedly been restored specifically for this release, though there’s no precise description of the process. I don’t have access to the DVD for comparison’s sake, but I can guarantee that this new 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is a decent upgrade. The film’s cheap and rushed nature shows in the occasionally fuzzy quality, so don’t expect the footage to look like a brand new movie. Grain levels, though a bit uneven, appear accurate and other print artifacts are both minimal and in keeping with expectations. Other print artifacts are limited to white spots, a couple of black smudges, and some green or blue vertical lines at the edges of the screen. Alex Phillips Jr.’s photography tends to be very dark, which poses additional challenges for its overall detail. Severin may have over-cranked the contrast levels a bit in an effort to punch up the sharpness, strengthen shadows, and make the warm parts of the palette pop. The crispness is attractive, but some of the subtler background details seem to have been sacrificed. Shadows appear less crushed in motion than they do in the still frames on this page. There’s little compression noise, even in gloomy skin tones and vivid reds.
The Devil’s Rain is presented in its original mono and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound. Severin seems to have been handed an iffy source track, because the audio tends to warble at its busiest moments, though these issues may very well be inherent in the material. Many of the effects had to be added in post and the constant stream of bad weather ensured that a lot of dialogue was re-recorded. In addition, Al De Lory’s droning, creepy music has a purposefully dissonant quality that causes plenty of warble all its own. Assumptions and hypotheses aside, there are only a few definitive high volume crackles and even fewer pops over the silent bits. At its best, the track also exhibits surprising depth for an old, somewhat damaged single channel affair.
Commentary with director Robert Fuest – Marcus Hearn, the author of Hammer Glamour: Classic Images From the Archive of Hammer Films (Titan, 2009) among other Hammer Studio themed books, moderates this track, which was originally recorded for the Dark Sky DVD. The tone starts out a bit clipped and stodgy, but Fuest eventually settles in and Hearn is able to pry informative behind-the-scenes anecdotes from him.
Confessions Of Tom (10:59, HD) – Actor Tom Skerritt talks about his early career and being forced to reshoot some of his Devil’s Rain scenes after he and other cast & crew originally members tried to make the material more campy and funny.
The Devil's Makeup (5:05, HD) – Special FX artist Tom Burman briefly describes the film’s melting scenes and Borgnine’s devil mask.
1975 archive interview with William Shatner (3:46, SD) – A quick clip of Shatner, who is mostly taking questions about the possibility of a Star Trek movie, but mentions The Devil’s Rain.
First Stop Durango (14:47) – Script supervisor Ana Maria Quintana recalls breaking into the business with The Devil’s Rain, in part because she could speak Spanish and the movie was shot in Mexico, her crush on DP Alex Phillips Jr., and learning the ins & outs of the industry.
Consulting with the Devil (10:17, HD) – A conversation with Peggy Nadramia and Peter H. Gilmore – the current High Priest & High Priestess of the Church of Satan – who breakdown LaVey’s part as advisor and the few actual references to Satanism.
Hail Satan! (8:04, HD) – Anton LaVey biographer Blanche Barton further explains her religion and the Church of Satan founder’s role as a consultant.
Daniel Roebuck on The Devil’s Rain (10:33, HD) – The filmmaker, actor, and horror collector recounts childhood memories of the film and shows off his original prop mask and autographs.
Radio spots set to a gallery of Quintana’s Polaroid photos (7:57, HD)
Trailer and TV spots
Poster & still gallery
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.