Publicity for the US release of Dario Argento’s super-stylish Suspiria (1977) made prominent use of the line: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 80”, from which prospective viewers could only have drawn the perverse and erroneous conclusion that Argento’s Horror tour-de-force ended on a note of anti-climax. The publicity campaign for the seventh feature outing by another noted stylist, Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain (1975), made no such error, insisting that it packed “absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture ever!” For their characteristically lush BD revisit, Severin take a scarcely less rabid tack, promising “the most eye-popping, flesh-melting finale in grindhouse history”. So, does the ending of The Devil’s Rain live up to those billings? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Fuest things first…
After a Bosch backed title sequence, TDT throws us abruptly, in the best Shakespearian tradition, into the thick of its action and leaves us struggling to work out what the Hell is going on. In a remote desert dwelling, Mrs Preston (legendary film noir actress / director Ida Lupino) and her son Mark (William Shatner, filling in time before the Star Trek revival and putting in his customary… broad… performance) open their door to find an agitated daddy Preston insisting that somebody named Corbis wants his book back, before rapidly disintegrating into a rancid pool of goo on the porch.
At this point I was expecting a quick cut to Diana Rigg receiving a message that reads: “Mrs Peel, we’re needed”… too clever dick by half on my part, as although Bob Fuest production designed very early (pre-Honor Blackman) episodes of The Avengers and directed several in the final series, when Linda Thorson had replaced Diana Rigg, he never worked on any in the Emma Peel era… more’s the pity.
Anyway, back in the desert Shatner hot foots it over to Red Stone for a confrontation with Corbis, in the Saturnine form of a brilliantly cast Ernest Borgnine (it couldn’t have taken too many hours of make-up to turn him into a randy old goat). Under a glowering sky they enact Fuest’s little tribute to John Sturges’ Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) before repairing inside a clapped out, boarded up wooden church whose interior reveals a groovy stained glass window, various Satanic paraphernalia and pew-loads of hooded, chanting acolytes with empty black eye sockets. Borgnine swaps his cowboy threads for a crimson robe and their battle of faiths begins in earnest. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a one-sided battle and Mark is soon himself reduced to the status of empty eyed Satan fodder.
Meanwhile his brother-in-law Tom (Tom Skerritt) is attending a scientific demonstration of his wife Julie (Joan Prather’s) psychic powers, presided over by Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert). In the course of this she experiences visions of what’s going on at Red Stone so everybody heads over there in an attempt to save Mark and Mrs Preston, setting up the climactic battle between Good and Evil and the Burman’s much touted goo spouting, Play-Do vomiting finale…
Fuest felt himself to be on a mission to “smuggle Art into Product” and although The Devil’s Rain affords him nothing like as many opportunities to do this as his Phibes brace or The Final Programme (1973) there are some startling moments herein, e.g. when Julie stares into the empty sockets of a devil worshipping drone and finds herself in the midst of a sepia-tinted flashback to Puritan times which explains (or purports to explain) what’s going on with that book of bloody signatures, the cauldron of souls and all manner of other bewildering stuff. In retrospect, it occurs to me that this sequence exerted a big influence over the opening one to Lucio Fulci’s gothic gore mini-masterpiece The Beyond (1981).
That the above-mentioned devil worshipping drone is played by unrecognisable movie debutant John Travolta (whose then room-mate Prather got him this role and also converted him to the cause of Scientology) is just one of the esoteric footnotes to The Devil’s Rain, the authenticity of whose Satanic ceremonies was ensured by the participation, in a consultancy role, of Anton LaVey, founder and high priest of The Church Of Satan. You also see him, golden-masked, at Borgnine’s elbow during significant ritual moments.
Much is made of LaVey’s participation in this disc’s extensive bonus materials (apparently “approved by Lucifer himself!”), including interviews with his biographer Blanche Barton, also Peter H. Gilmore and Peggy Nadramia, the Church’s current high priest / priestess. The consensus which emerges is that LaVey had a ball making The Devil’s Rain and got on famously with everybody while doing so, but wasn’t crazy about the finished film and would probably have been prouder of appearing in one of Lupino’s noir efforts. Further interviews follow with Skerritt, FX technician Tom Burman, pundit Daniel Roebuck and a short, contemporary one with Shatner. As well as her reminiscences, we get to see the on set Polaroids taken by script supervisor Ana Maria Quintana and of course the expected trailers, TV and radio spots are present and correct.There’s also an invaluable 2005 audio commentary with Fuest (who passed away in 2012), mediated by Marcus Hearn. The director is every bit as distractedly eccentric as I remember from my own brief meeting with him. He frequently seems to tune out of the conversation, only to admit to Hearn that he’s getting wrapped up in watching his film. They still manage to cover his career in reasonable depth and it’s interesting to learn that after doing the Phibes movies, he turned down the chance to direct Vincent Price again in the thematically similar Theater Of Blood, though he makes a point of praising the job Douglas Hickox did on that in 1973. He declares his philosophy of production design to be “anything to disturb the eye” and refutes, in passing, the claim (originating in Cinefantastique magazine) that he suffered a nervous breakdown while making the picture under consideration here. Fuest reveals that much of the “most incredible ending of any motion picture ever” was shot by a second unit and that he finds it “like some sort of wake… it goes on and on… you could take about 20 minutes of that stuff out!” His keenness to make what is already a pretty pacey movie into something even pacier (perhaps it was Fuest’s extensive TV experience that influenced his apparent desire to constrain things within something like an hour’s running time) is evident when he attributes TDR’s “unrelenting” momentum to an apprehension that “if you stop to think about it too much, you get into trouble”.
Fuest’s Faustian folly is indeed a gloriously senseless, massively entertaining mess of a movie. What a cast! What a visionary director! What a fantastic release by Messrs Daft & Gregory, doing what they do best… rescuing cinematic oddities that have fallen into disregard or indifference from late night screenings on obscure standard definition channels and affording them definitive HD restorations, with a crop of boss extras to boot. Hail Severin!