Embarrassing as it may be, I've never tried to hide the fact that I didn't see The Exorcist until I was in my sophomore year in college, despite being fairly well versed in most of the other classics before I even hit high school. You can go back and read the appropriate Crypt on the subject if you're interested in knowing part of the reason why I skipped it and other Devil-themed horror during my teen years (short version: fear of damnation!), but obviously by the time I saw it, it wasn't because I saw it in the video store and thought it sounded interesting. No, I saw it almost as a sort of obligation as a horror fan, as I was starting to be somewhat ashamed that I had missed THE GREATEST HORROR FILM OF ALL TIME while having large chunks of Jason Takes Manhattan memorized. And while I enjoyed it, I did experience a bit of that "What's the big deal?" feeling many experience when they're late to the party for a film (any genre) that they've never heard a single bad thing about - it took me a few viewings to really warm up to its power (seeing it on the big screen was a big help).
But I'm never going to say it's my favorite horror movie or anything. I like quite a bit, and recognize the craft, but I'd be lying if I said I watched it annually or CONSUMED Exorcist like I do Halloween and my other known faves. It's more like a fine wine you want to enjoy every now and then, but since I'm more of a six-pack kind of guy it should be no surprise that I tend to gravitate toward the... let's say less refined supernatural horror films of the era. Or you can just go ahead and call them the junky ripoffs/wannabes of Exorcist (along with Rosemary's Baby and The Omen) because that's what they are, really. Without that trio, there is no Cathy's Curse (and therefore my life has no meaning), no Beyond The Door, no Manitou... these movies existed to cash-in on the box office and critical success of those films, just like the slashers of the early '80s owed a debt to Halloween and pretty much every paranormal movie of the past five years is aping either Oren Peli or James Wan (sometimes both). But unlike the largely plotless slasher, where one just needs to change the variables (new holiday, new mask... same crop of dead teenagers) to win over audiences, supernatural/possession horror is usually more narrative driven, and that's why we get those batshit insane movies that I love so much.
One that's been on my radar for a while is The Devil's Rain, which like many of these '70s films revolving around the occult boasted a pretty impressive cast of established actors (William Shatner, Ida Lupino, and Ernest Borgnine) up and comers (Tom Skerritt) and people who no one probably knew at the time of the film's release (John Travolta, with only a handful of TV projects to his name, shows up in what would be his first feature film). One might look at that cast and suspect this was just as prestigious as Exorcist or Omen, but they would be incorrect - this is one of the nuttier ones I've seen from an American company (the Italian knockoffs are on a whole other level), and most certainly was not up for any awards. It's most notable for its less than stellar reception; Roger Ebert listed it among the worst films he had ever seen, Travolta's blasted it (same guy that kept insisting he'd get to make the second half of Battlefield Earth, mind you), and poor Robert Fuest never got to make another major film again. Considering he made both Dr. Phibes films (plus a well received version of Wuthering Heights) you'd think he'd be allowed one flop, but apparently not - after this he was scuttled to TV, with his only other feature being a softcore sex comedy made in Greece, nearly a decade later.
That sort of stuff is all I really knew about the movie before sitting down to watch it, expecting the sort of batshit "so bad it's good" kind of fare where I usually fail to see the "bad" part of the equation. And while I got where most of the complaints came from, one in particular seemed odd: Vincent Canby's assertion that the film barely even qualified as a horror movie at all. We can argue all day about how effective the scares are, but perhaps he saw a different film entirely? Because the one I saw kicked off with an eyeless man melting before his family's eyes, followed by Shatner discovering a driver-less car sitting outside his house with a voodoo doll pinned to the steering wheel - and that's just the first five minutes! Perhaps it's because I was watching it late at night, but I was kind of unnerved (and if you read my stuff on the regular, you know I don't scare easily) right off the bat, and the film continued to present me with things that maybe didn't make me jump out of my seat, but certainly left me a little unsettled. The images of the eyeless cult folk surely caused nightmares for younger viewers who maybe saw commercials on TV for the film when it was released, and I'd be willing to bet there is more than one "Hey I saw this freaky movie on late-night TV years ago and I can't figure out what it was" kind of internet post that is actually describing this film.
Part of why I got sucked in so quickly is that the movie kind of starts in media res - Shatner's father is missing and the family is trying to calm themselves and figure out what to do next. Much like Fuest's original Phibes, they skip past the inciting incident for the plot (in that film's case, Mrs. Phibes' death) and hit the ground running, using exposition to fill in those blanks when necessary to minimize the time we have to spend getting to the "good" stuff. So when the dad shows up a few minutes later and melts, Shatner springs into action, already kind of aware of the cult instead of having to spend time asking questions or possibly even denying that they exist at all. Alas, this is where the film's script could have been tightened, because eventually Shatner himself is taken and then his brother (Skerritt) has to pick up where he left off, giving the film a slight air of repetition that it can't quite overcome (especially considering Skerritt then infiltrates the cult twice in his attempts to rescue his family). But that means plenty of creepy-ass cult members wandering around with their empty eye sockets, and a climax where a whole bunch of them melt into disgusting piles of goo, so it keeps the horror element up to more than acceptable levels, making me again question why Canby seemed to think it belonged to a different genre.
(Spoilers for a42-year-oldd movie ahead!)
It's also got a pretty grim ending, but I would argue that literally no one in the world should have been surprised by that. Not only was it a 1970s horror movie (not exactly overflowing with crowd-pleasing finales, especially in this particular sub-genre), but the credits boast the cooperation of Anton LaVey, who you might recognize as the founder of the Church of Satan. I admit I'm no scholar of the gentleman, but from what I DO know I can't see him happily contributing his time (and acting services, briefly) to a film that would let a group of Christian heroes triumph over the Satan-worshiping antagonists. At least with a film like Race With The Devil (spoilers again), with its group of four heroes, you can assume maybe one or two will be offed and the others can escape, making its full-stop tragic closing shot a bit of a surprise, but here there's almost zero reason to suspect that our heroes will even eke out a minor victory. It's actually the one thing about its cyclical storyline that benefits the film; you know everyone's a goner right from the start, so seeing every family member get taken/killed by the cult while trying to save the previous one makes it almost kind of tragic in a way. As soon as Skerritt returns to their church once again my heart just fell for the guy, because I knew he'd be better off cutting his losses and getting as far away from there as possible while he still could.
But if he did, we'd be deprived of more melting people! Thanks to the FX wizardry of Tom Burman, who has worked on more genre films than you or I probably remember (but I'll throw a few titles out for you anyway: Body Snatchers '78, Cat People '82, The Manitou, My Bloody Valentine, and - yes! - Howard the Duck), the cult members melting in the rain is an impressive effect even today, and holds up well under the scrutiny of Severin's well-presented high-def Blu-ray. Speaking of Burman, his interview is almost worth the price of the disc alone, as he spends maybe 90 seconds talking about his work on the film and the rest of the time throwing shade at the actors in it, particularly Eddie Albert who apparently was bemoaning how he ended up in such rubbish (Burman apparently replied "Yeah, you've come a long way since Green Acres") and Ida Lupino, who he notes he worked on another film with (Food of the Gods) and then dismisses her as a drunk. It's delightful, and made me wish they had him do a full length commentary, just in case he had any choice words for the other actors (or maybe so he could spend more time talking about his makeup effects).
Basically this is just the kind of movie that hits my sweet spot, joining the aforementioned Race With The Devil, plus more obscure entries like Blood on Satan's Claw and Psychomania as "B-movies" (again, their words, not mine) that I'm more likely to be revisiting and recommending to people when they ask for something to watch. Thanks to my kid's refusal to go to bed any earlier than 9pm (the trade off being that he usually doesn't wake up much earlier than I do) and the fact that he's now old enough to process what he's seeing on TV and thus sometimes get scared if it's a scary movie*, I don't get to watch a lot of horror at home anymore, and even when I do it's usually broken up into a few viewings (indeed, this 85 minute movie was watched in three chunks). So I try to make sure I see the meatier stuff theatrically - there's almost no way I could ever give the likes of mother! or Get Out a proper viewing at home - and then use my minimal time on the couch for movies like this, where the occasional disruption isn't going to be the end of the world. No one's ever going to make me feel bad for missing out on movies like The Devil's Rain, and therefore when I find the time to finally see them, I can enjoy it to its fullest extent regardless of the circumstances. May I never run out of new ones to discover.
*A couple weeks ago he came home with his mom when I was watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and watched a few moments of Leatherface chasing Sally with his running 'saw before turning to me and asking "What is that gardener doing?" I haven't laughed so hard in years. So innocent!