Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Devil's Rain

The O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

The Devil's Rain
seen online via YouTube

The first impression most people have of him is that acting style of his. It defined his most popular role when he was young and in his prime: a kind of stop-and-start cadence in which he'd carefully punctuate... certain...words, andthenspeedup! In that sense, he was a bit of a throwback to movie actors of the past, whose distinctive voices and mannerisms marked them from one movie to the next - unlike today, where actors are generally expected to be more chameleon-like in their roles.

I can't say that it ever bothered me. I noticed it, of course, but I don't recall ever thinking it was that unusual an affectation. I suppose I might have thought it had more to do with his signature character than with the man himself, but I couldn't make such distinctions back then. It was enough that I even knew his name.

He has such a strong sense of himself. Some who have worked with him have called it ego, and perhaps they're right. I would guess that he'd say that one needs a healthy dose of bravado to survive as long as he has in show business. Still, he has rubbed some people the wrong way over the years, and while that's unfortunate, to say the least, I try not to judge him for it. After all... one could take on a ship full of Klingon warriors like he could.

I'm not gonna go into a rundown of William Shatner's long career. I thought about it, but there are other places you can go to for that, and besides, I don't want this to read like a eulogy. He's still very much alive. I thought I'd take one portion of his career and look at it instead: the 70s, specifically the period between the demise and the revival of the show, and the franchise, with which he'll always be associated with.

The Montreal native continued to find steady work in television as well as film after you-know-what went off the air in 1969, and indeed, his resume from the 70s alone includes some of the most noteworthy programs of the era, including Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, The Six Million Dollar Man, Kung Fu and Ironside(Shatner also lent his voice talent to an animated version of you-know-what, that lasted two seasons.) In 1975, he starred in a new live-action series called Barbary Coast, a Western-comedy, which also featured the late Richard Kiel. It began as a TV movie pilot before returning as a series, but the series blunted some of the edges of the pilot and attempted to make it more family-friendly. It lasted only a single season as a result.

Shatner made a variety of TV movies during this period as well. In the Civil War courtroom drama The Andersonville Trial, directed by George C. Scott, he plays the prosecutor in the trial of the commander of Andersonville, the infamous Confederate POW camp. It would go on to win three Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Single Program, Drama or Comedy. He also appeared in another Emmy winner, the Western mini-series How the West Was Won, and an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. At the other end of the spectrum, he also made The Horror at 37,000 Feet, an all-star affair in which an airline full of passengers are threatened by a demon. It's gone on to become a cult sensation.

Shatner's theatrical releases during this period were few. Among them included the Roger Corman-produced crime flick Big Bad Mama, with Angie Dickinson. Being a Corman movie, it naturally contains copious amounts of sex and violence. Also, he made a slasher movie that he has more or less disowned called Impulse (aka Want a Ride Little Girl?), which included his wife at the time, Marcy Lafferty. If the IMDB reviews are any indication, some fans like it a whole lot more than Shatner does, or the critics, for that matter.

One of the strangest theatrical movies Shatner made from this period - and, I would imagine, one of the strangest movies he or anyone else has ever made - was a horror movie called The Devil's Rain. It came out in 1975, almost a decade after the founding of the Church of Satan, and it was made with the cooperation of Church head Anton LaVey, who even has a small role in the film.

Ernest Borgnine stars as a devil-worshiping cult leader who's after an ancient book, with ties to a past life, which he wants for certain nefarious purposes. Shatner and Tom Skerritt are brothers in a Southwestern family in possession of the book, and Ida Lupino (!) is the mother. Eddie Albert is the Van Helsing to Borgnine's Dracula, so to speak. This is also John Travolta's first film, but his must have been a small role because I don't remember spotting him.

I remember the satanism scare from my childhood, when heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons were thought to promote devil worship. I knew a kid in grade school who claimed to be a satanist, but he was really just a bratty Beavis & Butthead type who loved getting a rise out of people. My parents bought into the scare, and for a little while, so did I. I distinctly remember going out of my way to avoid a record store that specialized in rock and metal merchandise, because I'd see the posters and T-shirts in the store window and think, "Satanism! Must avoid!" Then again, I was as curious about that store as I was afraid of it, and by the time I entered high school, I had already been inside and found it to be no big deal at all.

Watching Rain, a movie bizarre and twisted beyond words (face melting; goat-headed men; etc. - and all this from a PG movie!), I see where the paranoia and fear came from. The basic satanism tropes are all here: upside-down stars, altars, cult of robe-wearing worshipers, ties to witchcraft (particularly the witch trials of the colonial period), etc. One thing the movie doesn't address, though, at least not to the extent which one might expect, is that belief in the Devil should presuppose a belief in God as well, yet there's little discussion of God or the conflict between the two. No big surprise, perhaps, with LaVay as a consultant!

Borgnine's character challenges Shatner's early in the film, claiming that the latter's faith can't stand up to his, and one expects some sort of powerful battle of wills, but Shatner's beliefs aren't as sharply defined as Borgnine's. In their confrontation, one rarely feels as if Shatner has much of a chance against Borgnine, and as a result, what should be a heroic stand against evil comes across more like a lamb being led to the slaughter. A movie like The Exorcist, by contrast, while it's remembered for its satanic elements, is also very much about the dichotomy between God and the Devil.

Rain isn't terrible - as a horror movie, it's undeniably creepy as hell, from the opening credits to the over-the-top and difficult-to-watch ending - but it's confusing and convoluted in places and campy beyond a doubt. Shatner, surprisingly, isn't as hammy as you might expect - that's left to Borgnine, who's the film's centerpiece. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Shatner's wasted in this movie, as is Lupino, who has very little to do. I'd say this is for hardcore horror fans and B-movie lovers only.

Fast-forward forty years or so, and Shatner is in the industry news again, as there's talk of him possibly returning to his signature character one last time. As I wrote on my Tumblr page, I think this is a terribly regressive idea which does not serve the long-term needs of The Franchise well. It makes the current cast seem weak by making them reliant on their predecessors, Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, way too much. Even if his proposed role would be crucial to the plot, it still reeks of fanservice, meant to take advantage of The Franchise's 50th anniversary... but these are the kinds of shenanigans I've come to expect from The Franchise's current incarnation.

In addition, since this is a Canada-centric blogathon, I should make mention of the work Shatner did within his native country. In the 50s, he appeared in such Canadian productions as The Butler's Night Off, his first movie; Oedipus Rex, where he was part of the chorus; and the kids' TV series Howdy Doody. He was also in another TV series about space exploration, Space Command, with James Doohan. After Shatner became a star, he continued to appear in Canadian movies, including The Kidnapping of the President (with Ava Gardner) and Visiting Hours, both from the early 80s.

In a song from his fabulous spoken word album Has Been, Shatner says, "And while there's a part of me/In that guy you've seen/Up there on that screen/I am so much more." Over the years, he's proven that to be true, redefining himself over and over throughout a variety of media. In 2004, after a long and productive career spent mostly in television, he finally won the first of his two Emmy awards. He continues to work even today, fueled by a strong desire to get as much out of life while he's living it - and he's not done yet.

Other William Shatner movies:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Captains


  1. Wonderful synopsis of Shatner's life. I think Shatner has a lot of acting chops, which you've referred to. I also love how you wrote this and your use of the phrase "you-know-what" when referring to a certain sci-fi television series. I don't think I'd rush to see "The Devil's Rain", although you've made me appreciate William Shatner a little bit more.

    Thanks for joining our blogathon. We could hardly call it Canadian if Shatner weren't included!

    1. Couldn't agree more! Besides, I've wanted to see more of his films that are devoid of phasers and transporters.

  2. Borgnine doing metal fingers makes this the blogathon winner right out of the box. Fun!

    1. If only Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were on the soundtrack...

  3. I for one have always found Devil's Rain totally watchable with an above average cast for the material. I also have the original film poster in my collection which is a wonderful print. One of Shatner's films I like during his tv movie era is Pray For the Wildcats as well from 74.

  4. Then you're a better man than I, Gunga Din, because that ending had me squirming in front of my laptop like you wouldn't believe. I'm sure that poster's quite a prize, though.

  5. Great analysis of a period of Shatner's work I was unfamiliar with. When an actor has such an amazing 'back catalogue' it's easy to remember the big or obvious films and overlook the smaller gems. That's certainly something I'm guilty of when it comes to Shatner, I can't wait to watch this and see him in a new light.

  6. Good point. It's so easy to think of him as that guy from that space show, or that cop show, or that lawyer show, when in fact he's done a tremendous amount of work, good and bad.

  7. I came to Shatner much later, due to my love for Denny Krane. It's so interesting to learn more about his earlier work. Thank you!


  9. And now this post is complete.

  10. I have to agree about two things: I knew little about Shatner's career in the 1970s, and The Devil's Rain really sounds strange. But, well, I'd never miss a chance to see a satanist Ernest Borgnine.
    Don't forget to read my contribution for the blogathon! :)

  11. Nor should you! It's something to see, that's for sure.


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