Synopsis: Satanists in the middle west terrorise and sometimes melt the terrified locals.
What a stupid tagline. What a stupid synopsis.
Mark (William Shatner) goes missing while investigating a Satanic cult (led by Ernest Borgnine). Tom Skerritt plays Mark’s brother Tom, in a casting move that seems to have inspired the Tony Danza effect of the 1980s (Danza has no less than eight credited roles as a ‘Tony’, and at least one ‘Tommy). The film chronicles Tom’s search for Mark and eventual battle against Borgnine and his motley crew of Satanists, including our man John Travolta in his screen debut. You gotta start somewhere, right?
The Devil’s Rain gets some stuff right: falling as it did between 1973’s The Exorcist and 1976’s The Omen, as a religious horror film it was definitely in the right place at the right time. Much of the imagery is effectively creepy, the opening montage of Hieronymus Bosch paintings backed by sounds of moaning and crying (spoiled only by an overly audible and very campy shout of LET ME OUT OF HERE!) is fantastic, and the special effects aren’t bad either.
But the acting is largely very cheesy, the premise is C-grade Twilight Zone (or B-grade Outer Limits), and the film itself is so padded…by slow…ponderous… grimy shots…of scenery…architecture…and sometimes just nothing of interest whatsoever…that it takes…much longer than necessary…to tell…what…is…essentially…a pretty simple story. Audiences…hate…you know, they despise…that kind of thing…meaning…when…something…takes…way longer…than they feel…that it should. Don’t they?
Also, the effectiveness of religious horror depends largely on the viewer’s own faith. What’s terrifying for a Christian might be totally benign to a Buddhist. Likewise, what petrifies a Roman Catholic will probably make a Scientologist laugh and/or become aroused. I guess you could always convert…
The film (and indeed, film as a whole) gets its first dose of high Travoltage about 40 minutes in, when Tom is exploring a seemingly-empty house. John provides the jump scare, bursting out of the shadows and engaging in a very lame fight scene that lasts all of twenty seconds – about a quarter of the time spent on the exterior shot of the house. Close-ups are scant, and that, coupled with his heavy monster make-up, meant that on first viewing I wasn’t even sure it was him – despite his urban cowboy attire:
Being Travolta’s first film, he only manages a ‘Featuring’ credit, although the end credits reveal his otherwise nameless character to have been ‘Danny’. Wait, ‘Danny’? Surely you don’t mean…
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For me, the most striking thing about The Devil’s Rain is the foreshadowing of what Travolta would become by the early 90s – a relic of an earlier era, spawned from a popular TV show, and tied too closely to his most iconic role to be taken seriously in anything else – in the form of co-star William Shatner.
Unable to break out of his Star Trek typecasting after the show’s demise in 1969, Shatner’s career stagnated until 1979 when he gave in and returned to the franchise in the first of a series of popular feature films. Creatively though, it wasn’t exactly the kind of get-out-of-jail-free card eventually awarded to Travolta by Tarantino.
After affording the plot way too much time than was necessary, the climax of the film sees the Satanists melting under the driving Devil’s Rain, with John in particular receiving more than a featured player’s share of closeups. It’s a strange sight, watching the young Travolta bubbling and melting in an admittedly impressive-for-the-time display of special effects work that is the film’s centrepiece, his skin and essence washing away. Gee John, it never would have happened if you’d been encased in…oh, I don’t know, maybe some kind of plastic bubble?