How does one explain ‘The Devil’s Rain’?

There is a movie that demands an audience, if for no other reason than it’s the definition of odd entertainment. The Devil’s Rain, a 1975 end-of-world thriller starring Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner, can be enthralling at times and hideously bad at other times. When taken together, these 86 minutes from director Robert Fuest are some of the strangest cinematic moments in history.

Shatner plays Mark Preston, a man hellbent on stopping the evil advances of a group of Satanists in the American West. Why this group is set up in an old church in the middle of nowhere is never fully answered. But that’s the expectation with The Devil’s Rain; just let it carry on, unexplained and mysterious.

Borgnine, with that signature gap between his front teeth and angel-like eyebrows, plays Jonathan Corbis, the leader of the Satanists. The movie ultimately becomes a standoff between Preston and Corbis, although plenty of supporting characters are thrown into the mix. Tom Skerritt turns up as Tom Preston, Mark’s brother, and Ida Lupino has one of the scarier parts as Mrs. Preston. Also, it takes some close inspection, but look for an early cameo by John Travolta.

So what’s bad about the film? The plot is pointless and confusing. The motives of most of the characters don’t quite make sense, and there’s an unfortunate emphasis on stopping the action, rounding up the characters and discussing what to do next (a telltale sign of a weak film). The history of the Preston family is needlessly complex. We know they are preservers of some important book, but again why their family and not someone else’s is never explored.

The most egregious error is the unfortunate casting of Borgnine. The actor, best known for Marty, McHale’s Navy and Spongebob Squarepants, is a man who is tough to take seriously. He’s always smiling and feels like a grandfather figure. They couldn’t find a more convincing head of the Satanists? The pivotal villain in the piece is somewhat dull and commonplace.

So what’s good about the film? The final 20 minutes are impressive for 1975. There’s an obvious parallel between The Devil’s Rain and Hieronymus Bosch’s religious paintings. This parallel is fully exploited with a fireworks finale that features a lot of characters that melt into this dead Western town. The special effects are frighteningly real and serve the movie well.

I saw The Devil’s Rain for the first time in a 35mm screening. The scratches and donut holes of the movie added a certain cinematic charm, and many serious lines of dialogue became unintended comedic one-liners. The Devil’s Rain is not a must-see for genre fans, but it’s an interesting story featuring early performances from some of the best in the business. It’s probably best experienced late at night during the month of October. Feel free to fast forward to the final 20 minutes.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • The Devil’s Rain

  • 1975

  • Directed by Robert Fuest

  • Written by Gabe Essoe, James Ashton and Gerald Hopman

  • Starring Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Ida Lupino and John Travolta

  • Running time: 86 minutes

  • Rating: ★★☆☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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