My pal Milky and I have had a weekly tradition of renting random crap to watch over Chinese food, Lil Burgers, or sushi. Last week we happened to both receive Satanic flicks in our Netflix queues: he had Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist take on Faust and I rented The Devil’s Rain after Final Girl posted about it. It intrigued me. Shatner, a goat-faced Borgnine, John Travolta’s debut, Tom Skerritt in full mustachioed glory, and a tale of Devil Worship set in the barren West? Who could resist?
The Devil’s Rain is pretty awful. We meet the Preston family one dark and stormy night when Poppa comes home without no eyes! And then his face melts off in the rain. Momma (Ida Lupino of all people) and her idjit manchild servant run to get son Mark, who’s a sheriff round these parts, played by William Shatner in all his dramatic, shirtless glory. They tell him of his family’s peculiar destiny, to keep a Satanic book from the hands of devil worshipper Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine). The next day, when Mark goes to confront Corbis at the old abandoned church in the desert, they have a quiet stand-off where Borgnine exudes malevolence. How great the movie could have been, with these two giants butting heads.
But no. Mark returns to find Momma kidnapped and the idjit trussed upside down, and then he himself gets captured by Corbis’s devil cult and tortured, shritless of course, until he becomes one of the many eyeless minions. As Borgnine performs the creepy ritual, he becomes a goat-faced devil, and the effects are actually pretty good. But the story is a huge mess that put us to sleep. From here, we learn there are more Prestons, played by Tom Skeritt in his pre-Dallas from Alien days, and Joan Prather as a psychic girl in the mold of The Fury (full review). No offense, but at this point the movie is better than Ambien and we both dozed off. Once they track down Corbis, they get attacked by a young, eyeless John Travolta, and then join forces with Sheriff Eddie Albert to disrupt the final ceremony.
We get a flashback to pilgrim days to see how the familial curse began, and learn that Corbis’s book contains the names of all the people who sold their souls to Satan, and without his rolodex he loses all his power. They don sacrificial robes and sneak in, and something that looks like the clock in Grand Central Station is declared to be “the Devil’s Rain,” but I never understood why. Does it matter? There’s also a hole in the desert floor full of explodium, since whatever falls in there explodes. Maybe it goes to Hell. The Sheriff throws the “Devil’s Rain” in there and it of course explodes, and frees everyone from Corbis’s curse. It also makes it rain, which makes all the eyeless minions’ faces melt off. And Corbis’s goat-face too. I’m guessing they wanted to call this movie The Devil’s Reign and misspelled it, and then had to put rain in it so people wouldn’t be confused.
Directed by the man who brought us the Dr. Phibes movies, I expected better. It’s worth seeing to watch Shatner do his thing, and more importantly to see Ernest Borgnine play the Devil’s Left Hand. He’s always amazing, even when he’s reading a terrible script. Not only was Ernie the first guy to make an ugly momma’s boy gets the girl movie with the Oscar-winning Marty, he was perhaps the evilest-looking of The Wild Bunch, the cabbie from Escape from New York and most recently, the 92-year-old coot who authored an autobiography titled I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm. The man is something else. He said he got the title from a guy selling roasted chestnuts in New York. And he’s grumpy that in the U.S., the title got changed to avoid offending the Midwest. Gotta love this guy.
Faust is the first Jan Svankmajer movie I’ve actually sat down to watch; I’d seen bits of Little Otik on Shotime Beyond, heard of his surrealistic take on Alice in Wonderland, and of his fantastic stop-motion animation work. I’ve always liked that form of animation and his style is rather unique. Darth Milk has always wanted to read Goethe’s Faust, but the mix of dramatic theater and epic poem is a bit daunting even for us snooty English majors, so he put this in his queue and brought it over. Say what you will about Svankmajer’s style, but the bizarre concoction of surrealism, stop-motion effects, full-size marionettes, and the play-within-a-movie structure certainly are gripping.
I like David Lynch like any good internet film nerd, and also Luis Buñuel and Peter Greenaway. So this wasn’t a shock to my sensibilities. I was unsure of exactly what Svankmajer was going for, but that’s part of the fun. As a story, it works in a circular fashion and as a dreamlike take on all the forms the Faust story has taken- opera, film, play, moral folktale. He has a morbid sense of humor and in one hilarious scene, the devil sends a demon disguised as Helen of Troy to seduce our Czech everyman who’s been forced to play Dr. Faustus. What’s the disguise? Well, he drills a hole in the life size marionette and pats on a little tuft of hair, and slaps a mask on him. The claymation effects for the summoning of Lucifer and how he appears are quite memorable too. It begins with a clay baby with a spell stuffed in its mouth; this disintegrates into three egglike blobs that roll around, merging into a horned and fanged face, or merely eyes and a mouth, depending on its whim. In the Englush version, all the voices are dubbed by one man- Andrew Sachs- who’s been in many small roles, including Gerard the Frenchman in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One.
If you’re in the mood for an odd one, this one gets Milky and I’s approval. Svankmajer’s Alice and Little Otik are queued for future movie nights.