After watching this low-budget slab of half cheese/ half-ripe manure I am still reeling from the fact that it was directed by Robert Fuest, yes the guy who made one of my absolute all time favourite horror films The Abominable Dr. Phibes just four years previous to this little ‘gem’, as well as Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and Brit thriller And Soon the Darkness… ( I am using gem as a substitute for shit, oh well I have said it now). Now we have that out in the open I am going to have to backtrack to highlight while this film was mostly dire in all the worst ways possible, it did have its fair share of memorable moments, so is not a complete write off.
I blame Rosemary’s Baby for a lot of these crazy pensioner Satanist type films, I loved Rosemary, but the early 70’s seems to have been hit by a slew of half-baked low-budget movies which have obviously taken some sort of inspiration from the aforementioned; some good (Brotherhood of Satan wasn’t a bad effort), some not so good (this). The story follows the plight of the Preston family who are being hounded by Satanist High Priest Corbus ( Ernest Borgnine) for a book which has been in their possession for some years. It starts off quite good with the father turning up at the family home and promptly melting on the floor. Following this son Mark Preston (William Shatner) takes it upon himself to go after Corbus leaving behind a hysterical mother and grandfather, equipped with his cowboy hat and rifle he heads off to a mysterious ghost town with stereotypical tumble weed blowing around (wild west style) to put matters to rest. It is here that things start to drift off into the netherworld of made for TV Western for a couple of scenes at least (only with eyeless, robe clad Satanists) and well boredom really. Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey is credited as being a technical advisor for the film, and what this means is anyone’s guess (maybe to secure himself the small cameo he supposedly had, not that I noticed him) because any attempt to ground this in authenticity is sadly undermined by the ridiculous make up effects, plot, and shoddy acting.
Now to the high points, and there were a few, which is why I cannot condemn this film entirely. First off I could not decide whether Shatner’s awful over the top acting was good or bad, as it added to the overall cheesy air I am thinking maybe it was good, it did provide some laughs if nothing else. However the pinnacle of his contribution is when he actually becomes a living, breathing, version of the Michael Myers mask, this was insanely genius (although completely unintentional given the mask hadn’t yet been designed when this was made- or maybe it was their inspiration to use Kirk as a blueprint for The Shape, who knows? ). I did have a bit of a speculation on social media prior to writing this as to whether they could have just put a mask on a stick and it might have done a better job, but then I would have missed his acting range demonstrated in Devil’s Rain which moves on a scale of high camp to amateur dramatic melodrama. Then of course we have award-winning actor and Airwolf staple Ernest Borgnine as wicked old Corbus, he was fabulously amusing to watch in a farcical way, he literally looks like he is having the time of his life playing out the role of the devilish Priest, completely stealing all his scenes. When Borgnine becomes a Satanic Goat Lord things get even better, his preposterous rams head make-up makes it impossible to take anything but laughs from these moments. We also have a small, early role for John Travolta here as an eyeless ghoul ‘ Danny’ which was immensely satisfying to see him in such an embarrassing situation, given I have always found him on the smug side. Last but not least is the epic 15 minute climax which will literally melt the heart of any self-respecting lover of cheesy horror, it just goes on and on, and is glorious because of that.
It is sad to say that Tom Skerritt as Shatner’s brother Tom Preston did not fare so well, being neither camp, interesting or worthwhile, he moves from scene to scene going through the motions. His onscreen wife Julie (Joan Prather ) does slightly better, but not by much. Far more interesting is the back story I picked up off Wikipedia ( so I cannot verify its validity) that actress Prather introduced Travolta to the concept of bonkers religion Scientology on the set of this movie.
To further muddy the waters there are some strange subplots going on, one featuring yet another Academy nominated actor Eddie Albert as Dr. Sam Richards, a doctor who is involved with Tom and Julie Preston with some weird public ESP experiments and then gets dragged into matters. The strangest thing about this angle I found was, good old Dr. Richards seems to know an awful lot about occult practices for a scientist. This placement felt awkward within the overall story and really could have been spared. Likewise there are some flashback scenes to the original cursing of the Preston family which come off as rushed and slotted in to tie things together. Ultimately what lets the film down, and that’s moving all the other things aside as it overshadows them all , was a major flaw in the pacing; the script is uneven and large portions of the film just meander on with nothing happening. If this was an attempt to establish mood or tension, it can be taken as a complete failure given that it just resulted in making the running time far too long and the entire film just dragged unnecessarily.
So there you have it, I would not completely dismiss this film, and I am quite sure if I had seen this film as a kid I would perhaps harbour some rose-tinted affection for it (as some reviewers appear to have, and I can understand that completely), as it is I was gratefully spared that ‘treat’ so felt nothing either way prior to viewing. It does have that old made for TV shlocky feel that makes it partly likeable and Ernest Borgnine is a complete marvel to watch. Ultimately let down however by long drawn out scenes and a convoluted and confusing plot, there are enough moments of high cheese to provide some entertainment, and the insane ending alone was worth the hour or so of boredom leading up to it.