The subject of Devil worship is one that the cinema has returned to repeatedly over the decades, and for good reason: Honestly, is there anything much more frightening than a group of people who actually adore and pay homage to the epitome of evil? Whether you refer to him as Satan, the Prince of Darkness, the Serpent, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Old Nick or the Antichrist, you’ve got to admit that the dude is one intimidating proposition, and that anyone who willingly bows down to do him honor is one twisted – and fascinating – puppy. Any number of interesting films have been brought to the screen concerning these debased sects: Val Lewton’s wonderfully creepy The Seventh Victim (1943), concerning Devil worship in Greenwich Village; Eye of the Devil (1966), an underrated British film starring David Niven and Deborah Kerr; The Devil Rides Out (1968), a very fine Hammer film based on Dennis Wheatley’s infinitely superior novel of 1934; and of course Rosemary’s Baby (also from 1968), perhaps the best of the bunch and indeed one of the finest horror films ever made. But in today’s Shocktober column, I would like to discuss two lesser films dealing with Satan’s acolytes, both from 1975, and both of which would still make for ideal viewing this Halloween season. Taken separately or together as a double feature, both are sure to provide a devilish good time!
Opening at it does with close-ups of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” accompanied by the wailings and pleadings of the lost souls of the damned, Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain initially promises one sinister stew indeed. Unfortunately – and I know I’m probably going to antagonize many of my fellow baby boomers who grew to love this film after repeated late-night TV viewings – the picture soon revealed itself to this first-timer to be a shlocky, minor effort; one that is at times rather confusing, with an underbaked plot and some overripe performances. In it, a reincarnated (?) Satanic leader named Corbis, played by Ernest Borgnine, goes after the modern-day members of the Preston family (consisting of matriarch Ida Lupino and sons William “Spacetrucker” Shatner and Tom Skerritt) in order to recover a blood-engraved book of lost souls, stolen from him in 1680. The film, to its credit, features an interesting initial third, in which Shatner goes up against Corbis alone, but soon devolves into decidedly unchilling Satanic rites and the ludicrous spectacle of Uncle Ernie somehow, and inexplicably, transformed into the goat-visaged likeness of Old Scratch himself. The picture’s celebrated “meltdown” sequence begins in a mysterious manner – having to do with the destruction of the container of Devil’s Rain or something – and, impressive as it is, it can’t hold a Black Mass candle to the flaming deaths of the Satanists under the shadow of the cross in the 1960 British thriller Horror Hotel. With that fun cast (plus Eddie Albert, Keenan Wynn and a barely recognizable John Travolta), the film is always interesting to watch, but remains a not-very-scary mixed bag that should’ve been much better. And, oh … can ANYONE out there explain the film’s final 30 seconds to me?!?!
Race With the Devil is my idea of a “guilty pleasure” movie if ever there were one. A low-budget picture with not overly deep characters and a rather simple plot (even costar Peter Fonda, in an excellent interview extra on the great-looking Anchor Bay DVD that I recently watched, describes the film as having “not a lot of nuance”), it is yet so much fun to watch, its four leads so likable, its suspense so real and its action such a blast, that the viewer is compelled to put aside his/her critical objections and just enjoy. In the film, two couples – Warren Oates (who just about steals the picture for me) & Loretta Swit (how nice to see her away from the Pusan Perimeter for a change!) and Fonda & Lara Parker – pack some dirt bikes aboard their new $36K motor home and drive off into the wilds of rural Texas (which, ever since a certain 1974 film involving chain saws, has seemed like a pretty scary place to me). Trouble ensues when the boys accidentally witness a nighttime satanic ritual, and the devil worshippers begin chasing the quartet throughout the state. The picture gets maximum creepy mileage from the fact that just about everyone the four encounter – be it sheriff, librarian or gas station attendant (that last played by director Jack Starrett himself!) – seems suspicious; it’s almost as if everyone in the backcountry of Texas is an acolyte of Old Scratch! And this suspicion IS fairly well borne out, as the film goes all Road Warrior-ish and caps things off with an absolutely chilling ending. Buddies Fonda and Oates, who had previously worked together in The Hired Hand and 92 In the Shade, have great screen chemistry here; Peter tells us that the entire shoot was great fun, and that joy of filmmaking is certainly communicated to the viewer. A huge hit for 20th Century Fox back in 1975, Race With the Devil holds up excellently now, almost 50 years later. Although the vacationers in that summer’s Jaws had a rough time, Race…‘s four vacationers surely had it no easier!
Anyway, folks, for those of you looking for some lesser but still entertaining Satanic fare, these two films might surely fit the bill. Time to give the Devil his due?