‘The Devil’s Rain’: Satanic Panic Goes Legit

The culture of the 1970s has always fascinated me: a disgraced American president and subsequent political conspiracy theories, shag carpeting, station wagons, hideous earth-tone plaids, key parties, punk rock, NASA space probes, New Age/occult trends, and Satanic Panic. The latter, likely inspired by whispers of randy occult devotees having key parties (Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey performed ceremonies at his home that were thinly veiled excuses for orgies), was baseless propaganda created by a group of religious conservatives who felt spurned because they weren’t invited to any key parties. Looking for a scapegoat for inflation or the energy crisis? Blame Satanists! Worried about horny teens exploring their sexuality? Lock up your sons and daughters, Satanists are coming to your God-fearing town! Hollywood had already cashed in on America’s obsession with the occult in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, but by 1975, it wasn’t just Satan who was trendy, but also his followers, those mysterious cloaked men and women for whom darkness reigned supreme, even if they didn’t truly exist. 1975 had two notable Satanic Panic films: Race with the Devil and The Devil’s Rain. The former had Peter Fonda and Warren Oates battling Satanists mostly from the confines of an RV, while the latter employed LaVey as a technical adviser and had an impressive cast of Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, Eddie Albert, Tom Skerritt, and William Shatner (not to mention cameos by LaVey and a young John Travolta). Compared to the aforementioned films, The Devil’s Rain isn’t as good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining—47 years later, it’s still a lot of fun, provided one doesn’t think about unimportant things like plot and actual terror.

After multiple viewings, I still don’t know what The Devil’s Rain is really about, other than the basic clash of good vs. evil between the Preston family and nearby rural Satanists in a ghost town (standing sets from Westerns filmed in Mexico, likely a connection to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but I’m terrible at recognizing film locales). Ernest Borgnine, the Oscar winner for Marty, receives top billing as Chief Satanist Corbis, who transforms into Satan himself (?) as a goat-like figure. Eddie Albert, still collecting Green Acres residuals, appears briefly in several scenes as a scientist who studies ESP via brainwaves. (I love ‘70s pseudo-science!) William Shatner, in his aimless ‘70s period (cut him some slack—he was living in a camper after his post-Star Trek divorce), appears early as Mark Preston, presumably the film’s protagonist. He looks ruggedly heroic in denim, plaid shirt, and a shiny belt buckle, and I wonder if it was this film or 1977’s The Kingdom of Spiders that inspired his love of horses? Unfortunately, there are no horses in The Devil’s Rain, but there is rain! A lot of rain. Sadly, the common meteorological occurrence is neither a reference to the film title nor the Satanists’ true plan; it’s used to establish the film’s stormy mood quickly when Papa Preston arrives at the family home with black orbs for eyes, uttering a vague warning about giving Corbis a book, before melting into bubbling green goo. Mark leaves to confront Corbis, but his mother (Ida Lupino, wasted in what’s little more than a cameo) is kidnapped by unseen forces and the elderly hired help, John (Woody Chambliss), is strung upside down by rope. “CORBIS! Goddamn you!” Shatner screams as only Shatner can, clutching John in his arms. The local sheriff (the always delightful Keenan Wynn) isn’t helpful, so Mark collects the family amulet and drives the family station wagon to the ghost town to rescue his mother. How does he know where to go? How does he know Corbis? It’s not clear, but quickly he faces Corbis, clad in similarly dusty Western attire before denim is traded for a crimson cloak. There’s a rundown church house, but it’s not a Christian house of worship—it’s the home of Satanists! Shatner recites the Lord’s Prayer against the Satanists and disappears from the film after 30 minutes. (He’ll return, shirtless, his chest freshly waxed, in order to be tortured.) Enter Tom Skerritt and his signature mustache, as a scientist, Tom Preston, Mark’s brother, as he and his wife, Julie (Joan Prather), assist Eddie Albert with his ESP research. Julie has mad ESP skills, so in the latest experiment, she envisions the unholy church house, the Prestons, Corbis, and future events, so the game is afoot! Julie and Tom travel to the ghost town to save his family; it’s Skerrit’s turn to look confused and overact as he and Julie encounter Corbis’ minions. Julie is kidnapped and Skerritt enlists Eddie Albert to assist—they discover the book everybody keeps referencing, a centuries-old tome containing the names of those who have sold their souls to the Devil. The scientists dispense quickly with their empirical worldview in favor of embracing the occult to defeat the Satanists. “The Devil’s Rain” is revealed to be a fancy globe housing the purchased souls! The forecast calls for more rain, plenty of wailing, and additional scenes of melting bodies. A lot of scenes, actually—the climax goes on and on and on…and still bodies melt, writhe, and wail.

The Devil’s Rain is notable for being Robert Fuest’s last theatrical film for nearly a decade, as he was placed promptly in a Director Jail Cell after the film bombed at the box office. The director of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its sequel guided intricate homicidal traps in those films, but he was powerless to escape Hollywood’s unemployment trap. Fun fact: this was the second film Shatner and Skerritt appeared in (the first being the 1974 exploitation classic, Big Bad Mama), though they only share one distinct scene together. The makeup/special effects department made a mold of Shatner’s face in order to create his eye-less visage and it was later used for Star Trek Halloween masks, and we all know what happened to the Captain Kirk mask in Haddonfield, Illinois. Attentive viewers (who haven’t fallen asleep yet) will note the brief scene between Shatner and Skerritt in which Shatner, in Satanist makeup, predates the signature Michael Meyers Head Tilt by three years!

The film starts promisingly with eerie music, Hieronymus Bosch paintings similar to the one hanging in my dining room, and an opening shot of a crucifix, but Fuest doesn’t know how to sustain the tension from the opening scene. Even at 86 minutes, the film feels laborious to watch; the lack of plot is obvious when characters spend a lot of time wandering around cluelessly, showing little emotion unless it’s shouting unexpectedly. The material isn’t substantive for a feature-length and would’ve made a decent 30-minute Night Gallery episode. It’s disappointing that such an acclaimed cast is wasted and I don’t know what LaVey did to earn his consultant fee, fancy credit (“Technical Adviser: ANTON SZANDOR LAVEY, HIGH PRIEST OF THE CHURCH OF SATAN”), and silent cameo, but ever the huckster, he reaped the financial gain and publicity. The makeup effects are inconsistent, there’s no gore and, even worse, no nudity—Satanists without nudity is like a potluck dinner where everybody forgets the food!

Despite its numerous shortcomings, The Devil’s Rain is still an entertaining slice of ‘70s Satanic Panic kitsch that will please genre enthusiasts and Shatnerian scholars. Crack open some craft beers and let the film’s incoherence wash over you blissfully. The arid Mexican landscape creates a novel setting for a supernatural conflict and one can’t help but root for brawny William Shatner as he shoots Satanists while running awkwardly in the desert sun to his doom. It’s the type of film that has to be seen to believed, in a time when fading Hollywood talent was desperate to stay relevant, taking any role offered, including B-movie fare. Thankfully for Shatner and Skerritt, their careers would improve in a few years, as each starred in two of the biggest box office hits of 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien. Borgnine would continue to work steadily in film and television until his death at 95. As he revealed to daytime FOX News viewers in 2008, the secret to a long life wasn’t devotion to the Dark Lord, but frequent masturbation! Perhaps Borgnine was onto something, as The Devil’s Rain endures as a beloved cult classic nearly half a century later.