31 (Revived) Days of Horror: The Devil’s Rain

My sole criteria for “31 Days of Horror” is that they have to be movies I’ve never seen before. I’m slightly cheating with the final film in this year’s marathon. I have seen the end of this one, catching maybe the last 15 minutes of it once in college. That was enough to tell me it was a stinker, but I figured “In for a penny…” and I might as well subject myself to it in its entirety. Besides, it fits right in with this year’s theme of black magic, Satanism, and witchcraft movies.

The movie I speak of is The Devil’s Rain (1975), a film that stars Earnest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, William Shatner, AND John Travolta. I mean, how could you not watch a movie with that level of talent across the board?

The movie’s plot concerns a book that once belonged to the witch and Satanic high priest, Jonathan Corbis (Borgnine), but was stolen from him 300 years ago by one of his coven members in an attempt to save the soul of a loved one (at least, that’s what I think was going on). The descendants of that thief have guarded the book ever since, but now Corbis is really putting the screws to them. Mark Preston (Shatner) decides to test his faith against Corbis’ in an attempt to rescue his mother and father from the priest’s satanic clutches, but that doesn’t pan out too well. Next thing you know, Mark’s brother, Tom (Skerritt) gets the call his whole family’s gone missing and runs to help along with his wife, Julie (Joan Prather) and his friend Dr. Sam Richards (Albert). Can they stop the cult before they unleash the Devil’s Rain (or something)?

The Devil’s Rain was summed up succinctly by Australian film reviewer Michael Adams who called it “the ultimate cult movie”: “It’s about a cult, has a cult following, was devised with input from a cult leader, and saw a future superstar indoctrinated into a cult he’d help popularize.” The cult leader Adams refers to is Anton LaVey, the notorious and very publicity-minded founder of the Church of Satan, who served as a technical advisor on the film and has a small role along with his wife. The future superstar is a reference to Travolta and his well-known connection to Scientology. Travolta was purportedly introduced to Dianetics by co-star, Joan Prather, during filming, leading to his eventual association with the Church of Scientology.

Despite the high potential for sheer camp enjoyment, I found The Devil’s Rain to be an utter mess, even more so than the last 15 minutes of the movie which features lots and lots of melting people shuffling around in the rain. I swear, the movie isn’t even 90 minutes long and they still had to pad it out with shot after shot of eyeless faces running like a box of Crayola crayons left atop the space heater. The Incredible Melting Man didn’t have this much melting in it.

The joy I did get from the movie was entirely unintentional. Corbis’ cult members all lose their eyes when they join up, leaving black sockets in their place. This gives them the appearance of wearing Halloween masks. At the risk of spoilers, Shatner ends up an eyeless cult member, so he looks exactly like Michael Meyers from Halloween given that the iconic “The Shape’s” mask was based on a Captain Kirk mask. I chuckled, anyway. I’ll take what I can get here.

Unintentional Michael Meyer’s cameos notwithstanding, The Devil’s Rain is a real slog through the mud and deserves only 2 skulls out of 5. I was hoping for so much more, but I got exactly what I expected.

That wraps up this year’s 31 Days of Horror (delayed). I managed to squeak in the final film before the ball drops and 2022 is upon us. If you’ve read this far, thank you for your patience and I hope you do check out some of the titles I subjected myself to this time around. I’ll be back in about 10 months with another 31 Days of Horror.

Happy New Year, everyone!

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: In Search of Ancient Mysteries

This is not a horror movies and would ordinarily be outside the scope of my yearly marathon. However, it is firmly in the area of 1970s weirdness that I focus on around these parts and it’s been sitting on my watch list for a while now. It technically deals with aliens, so that makes it horror-adjacent and good enough for my purposes here.

In Search of Ancient Mysteries (1974) was a TV movie special produced as a sequel to In Search of Ancient Astronauts, which aired the previous year. With titles like these, you might think they’re inspired by the writings of Erich von Däniken …and you’d be right. Cashing in on the success and public interest in the ancient astronaut theory Von Däniken documented in his book, Chariots of the Gods, these two specials cover the same material: Was Earth visited long ago by beings from the stars?. These specials in turn proved popular, popular enough to launch the TV series In Search of… starring Leonard Nimoy.

But before we get that far down the road, we’ve got to make it through In Search of Ancient Mysteries. Narrated by Rod Serling’s dulcet tones, we are treated to a lot of globetrotting on a quest for unexplained oddities and inexplicable disappearances. All the highlights are hit: Peru, Mexico, Greece, the Bimini Road, the Bermuda Triangle, the Nazca Lines, etc., with each being offered up as evidence of mysterious, vanished cultures that might have been alien colonies in humanity’s distant past. I truly dig this kind of woo-woo pseudo-archeology. I don’t believe a lick of it, but I do find it comforting, strangely enough. It conjures up memories of a very young me staring at the wooden-sided color TV my parents owned, sitting far too close to the screen and drinking up every last bit of this stuff. That nostalgia is the very reason this blog exists, so I can’t throw too much shade around here.

There’s nothing particularly innovative offered up by In Search of Ancient Mysteries. By now, it’s all common knowledge if you pay any attention to this bunk. Nevertheless, grainy 1970s footage of crumbling ruins, the Bimini Road, and Flight 19 makes me happy on some deep, innocent level of my psyche. For that, I give In Search of Ancient Mysteries 3 and a half skulls out of five. Deduct 2.5 skulls if you’ve got no interest in this material and/or didn’t grow up as an impressionable 1970s’ child.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Demons of the Mind

I’d never heard of this one before I stumbled across it on Prime Video. The film’s description read “A physician discovers that two children are being kept virtually imprisoned in their house by their father. He investigates, and discovers a web of sex, incest, and Satanic possession.” How can you go wrong with that?!

Demons of the Mind (1972) is a Hammer production starring B-movie stalwart Patrick Magee as the somewhat shady Dr. Falkenberg. Dr. Falkenberg comes to the estate of Baron Zorn to treat his children, Emil and Elizabeth, both of whom have various issues. Trailing along in his wake is Carl Richter, a young former doctor who met Elizabeth in Vienna where she was undergoing treatment. Richter isn’t convinced there’s anything wrong with Elizabeth and suspects she may be suffering from the projected psychosis of her father, who believes the Zorn bloodline is tainted with madness. While this is all going on, young women keep going missing in the forest around the Zorn estate, leaving the villagers (and the audience) wondering who’s responsible for these crimes.

Demons of the Mind starts off on an interesting note. I thought we were going into psychedelic territory with the movie. There’s little dialog in the few several minutes of the film as Elizabeth is brought home, drugged to keep her calm, and she watches the world pass by the family coach. Here POV shows the world a trippy landscape of soft focus and a warbling soundtrack. Flashbacks intrude, breaking up the chronological order of what we’re seeing, leaving the viewer uncertain of what is occurring and when. It would have been a more interesting film if the movie leaned further into this. Instead, the narrative becomes more traditional soon thereafter and we’re treated to a standard gothic tale of suicide, madness, and murder.

The movie has some interesting touches, like Dr. Falkenberg’s hypnosis device or the “Carrying out Death” ritual in the village. Michael Horden plays a wandering priest who seems half-mad, yet might be serving a higher purposes and the sub-plot involving him makes for entertaining viewing. Originally, Marianne Faithful was cast as the role of Elizabeth, but was recast when the insurance company balked at backing the film with Faithful involved. One wonders what we might have gotten with her in the role.

Demons of the Mind is an average film that could have been much more had it shown a bit more bravery. As a middle-of-the-road movie, I award it the middle-of-the-road score of 2 and a half out of 5 skulls. Check it out if you’re a Hammer completionist or you’ve got nothing to do on a rainy afternoon.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: The Spell

As I watched this evening’s movie, I grew curious as to what year Carrie was released. Checking IMDB, I see it debuted in 1976. That made a great deal of sense, because this film clearly owes a great deal to Stephen King and Brian de Palma.

The Spell (1977) was a TV movie featuring the story of Rita, an overweight and unpopular high school student who develops supernatural powers and begins seeking revenge on those who made fun of her. The Spell’s writer claims to have not seen Carrie while writing the screenplay, but even if this is true, the parallels between the films makes it impossible to watch The Spell without thinking of the superior de Palma movie.

The film hangs itself heavily on the hexploitation of the 1970s, including not only witchcraft but a roving parapsychologist who gives us the usual breakdown of psychic energy for those in the back. Rita’s powers seem to rely more on the occult than the psychic, making her at least a little different than telepathic Carrie White. Another difference is that Rita revels in her power, finally finding something that makes her stand out from her peers in a (to her mind) positive way instead of one to be mocked for.

I’ll give The Spell this: the young actors both give fine performances, which isn’t always the case with less experienced child stars. Rita is played by Susan Myers, who had an otherwise undistinguished acting career, appearing on TV series and a minor role in Revenge of the Nerds. She shows real pathos as Rite, even as we watch her become corrupted by her own power and her desire to be unique. Rita’s sister, Kristina, is played by Helen Hunt, a name familiar to most readers, I’m sure. Hunt turns in a deft performance for such a young age and it’s no wonder she went on to have a long and varied career.

Despite the Carrie comparisons and its TV movie origins, The Spell was better than I’d expected. It’s not going to be on anyone’s Top 10 list, but it’s both enjoyable and a relic from the time when TV movies were a television standard. These two factors earn it a score 3 out of 5 skulls.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Tales that Witness Madness

I’m really, really running out of anthology films so it’s a good thing we’ve only got four more movies in this year’s marathon. This evening’s installment, however, doesn’t come from the studios of Amicus Productions, but could easily be mistaken otherwise. Instead, tonight’s film is from the good folks at World Film Services, who’ve done nothing else you’ve heard of. Can they compete in the world of horror anthology films? Time to find out!

Tales that Witness Madness (1973) uses the roughly the same wrapper story as Asylum: A person arrives at a mental hospital, in this case Dr. Nicholas, to speak with the institution’s director about several patients. This film’s doctor is Dr. Tremayne, played by Donald Pleasence (who seems to be prepping for his role as Dr. Loomis in Halloween a few more years in his future). Dr. Tremayne has claimed to have solved the cases of four patients and takes Dr. Nicholas on a tour of the facility. Along the way, we’re introduced to each patient and discover their cases all have paranormal elements—if Dr. Tremayne (and the short films shown as flashbacks) are to be believed.

Case #1 is that of Paul, a young boy whose imaginary friend, “Mr. Tiger,” seems to have killed and eaten his parents. Case #2 is Timothy, who may have been transported back in time on a penny farthing bicycle with unfortunate consequences. Case #3 is that of Mel, who developed unnatural affections for the curious dead tree he brought home, ones which the tree appears to have reciprocated. The last case is that of Auriol, who hosted a lavish Polynesian-themed dinner party with murderous results.

Tales that Witness Madness simply isn’t as strong as the Amicus films, but it’s not a terrible movie. The last two shorts are by far the best, with Mel’s vegetative sweetheart having solid folk horror vibes. The luau film is definitely a product of its time, with actors in brownface playing Polynesians and some far from politically correct exoticism tainting the movie. I will admit, however, I got a lot of personal enjoyment responding to every invocation of the god Mamalu by doing my best Ricky Ricardo “Babaloo!” Try it at home and see how it works for you.

While somewhat weak, the movie still entertains. It’s the worst of the anthology movies I’ve watched this year, but the bar was set pretty high by The House that Dripped Blood. In my opinion, Tales that Witness Madness earns 2 and a half skulls out of 5 on the old skull-o-meter, making it film worthy to pass the time with, but not one you’ll likely revisit.   

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: The Skull

I kept seeing this one on my recommended movies suggestions and avoided it like the plague. I had it confused with The Screaming Skull (1958), a film that turned up on MST3K if that’s any indication of its quality. Upon closer examination, I saw Peter Cushing’s name, a man whose become the iconic figure of this year’s movie marathon, listed among the credits so I gave it a chance.

The Skull (1965) in question is that of the Marquis de Sade and the acquisition and subsequent consequences of obtaining it form the plot. Stolen from the Marquis’ grave—and the Marquis, himself, really—the skull quickly does in the hapless, grave robber phrenologist who stole it, then vanishes into the world of occult antiquities. We’re introduced to this world some years later at an auction where frenemies Christopher Maitland (Cushing) and Sir Matthew Philips (Christopher Lee, naturally) are competing for a quartet of diabolical statues. Phillips succumbs to a strange trance-like state during the bidding, paying far more than Maitland can afford—and more than the statues are worth. Something is clearly amiss. After the auction, seedy occult antiquities dealer Anthony Marco approaches Maitland, offering to sell him the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Maitland later learns the skull was stolen from Phillips, but he’s in no hurry to reclaim his property. It appears the skull vanishes on the night of the new moon, the time when satanic powers are at their height. Despite the warning and a death or two, Maitland acquires the skull and is soon facing off against the demonic powers of the dead de Sade—or perhaps the demon who possessed him.

The Skull is an Amicus production, albeit not one of their anthologies. It’s a solid film and it’s always good to see Cushing and Lee sharing scenes together. I did have some trouble engaging with the movie, but I suspect that was because it was the third film I’d watched that day as I tried to wrap up my marathon before the year’s end. I’d like to return to it in the future when I can focus more on what’s happening and less on the clock counting down.

Despite the distractions, I still enjoyed the movie enough to give it 3 out of 5 skulls. Or maybe that’s 4 out of 6 skulls if we’re including the Marquis’ in the tally. In any case, this film is heads above Gallery of Horrors, but that’s not saying much at all.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Torture Garden

Once more it’s back into the Amicus Productions catalog for another anthology film. We’re treated to some familiar names and faces when we enter the Torture Garden (1967)!

As with the rest of the Amicus anthologies, Torture Garden consists of four films plus a wrapper story. This time, the wrapper tale is the sideshow of Dr. Diablo (played by a delightful Burgess Meredith). The cast also includes Jack Palance and Peter Cushing (of course), and is directed by Freddie Francis, who also helmed other Amicus features like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull, as well as Hammer’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.

The four stories involve glimpses into the possible futures of the unfortunate souls that stay behind to witness a Dr. Diablo’s special sideshow attraction: a wax doll of Atropos, the Fate that severs your life line. These are cautionary tales, intended to give each person a chance to turn away from their evil ways.

The first tale concerns a spendthrift playboy who tries to chisel money out of his uncle, only to discover the high cost of his uncle’s fortune: appeasing a diabolical cat. The second short is about an aspiring Hollywood actress who learns the secret means some stars use to stay on top of the marquee, a method that comes at a steep price to one’s humanity. The third movie, maybe the weirdest, is about the doomed love triangle between a concert pianist, a journalist, and a piano. The final film sees Jack Palance and Peter Cushing as rival collectors of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia and examines the lengths some people will go to in order to collect the rarest pieces of a famous person’s life.

Torture Garden is a solid entry into the Amicus anthology series. All four films are quite fun, with the second and fourth episodes being my favorite. Watching Burgess Meredith and Jack Palance devour the scenery is always a treat, especially given they’re playing against more staid British actors. I happily award Torture Garden 3 and a half out of 5 skulls, keeping the lovefest for Amicus films flowing this year.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Gallery of Horror

What a terrible, terrible film.

Normally, I’d preface my review with something pithy and hopefully entertaining, but since everyone involved in Gallery of Horror (1967) couldn’t bother to do the same, I’ll also pass. I’ve seen some bad movies in my time, but this one might actually be the worst of them. I say that with zero hyperbole.

Gallery of Horror is another anthology movie containing five short and equally terrible films. The only thing that serves as a framing story is John Carradine posed beside a piece of crappy gothic art and providing an introduction to each. Introductions which sometimes have nothing to do with the story to follow. Prime Video summarizes the film as “John Carradine narrates five horror tales, each with a comically predictable surprise ending.” I’ll argue that “comically” implies there’s some entertainment to be found here and there’s not.

The actors, including Carradine and an in-need-of-work Lon Chaney Jr., are more wooden than the sets. The cast is comprised of everyone who auditioned for community theatre and was turned away. The stock footage has more charisma than anyone appearing in the actual film and the English language went on strike to protest its mistreatment by the movie’s writers. There is nothing to recommend this movie. Not even an “it’s so bad, it’s good” factor.

For the very first time in the Halloween movie marathon history, I award Gallery of Horror a big fat zero out of 5 skulls. I repeat, do not watch this film. Forget I ever mentioned it.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

I’ll state this flat out: For years, I though this movie was a blaxploitation movie, as I knew nothing about it but the title.  Imagine my surprise to find out it’s actually a Hammer period horror film, one set against the backdrop of the Whitechapel murders. It’s a general highly-regarded film too. I now set out to correct my misconception of the film and see how it stacks up against my renewed expectations.

As you can likely guess now that you too know it’s not a blaxploitation film, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) is a take on the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. You can probably also figure out that there’s a twist to this adaptation. Instead of becoming the brutish and despicable Mr. Hyde, the good doctor’s research transforms him temporarily into a woman, the bewitching and murderous Mrs. Edwina Hyde. Edwina quickly decides she likes being around and the internal battle for control begins. Will the doctor’s upstairs neighbors, Susan and Howard Spencer, each of whom is smitten with a different aspect of Jekyll, become casualties of this battle and which personality will triumph?

I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely impress with the movie at first, but the more I thought about it, the more my opinion of it grew. It does a great job of mixing much of sinister history of the late Victorian era into a single film, throwing Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare into the plot in addition to the Jekyll and Hyde tale. There’s just enough humor to make the movie entertaining when not being horrific here, too. The film doesn’t exactly push the Feminist movement forward, but the idea of the masculine and feminine in a single body isn’t something we’ve seen a lot on film, especially in 1971, so it earns points for at least attempting a new take on Jekyll and Hyde.  The transformations are also very effective, utilizing mostly camera trickery instead of prosthetics and special effects.

In light of my rethinking—and despite my disappointment it wasn’t a blaxploitation film—both of my personalities give Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde a solid 3 out of 5 skulls.

31 (Revived) Days of Horror: The Pack

“Joe Don Baker” is not what I want to see as the first credit to any film, so this movie had me terrified mere seconds into its running time. Can the man best known to MST3k fans as “Mitchell!” deliver in tonight’s film? Let’s find out!

The Pack (1977) leaps right off the spinner rack of the local drugstore onto the celluloid screen in this adaptation of the novel by David Fisher. The movie is set on a remote island, one popular with summer tourists. Much to the regret of the island’s year-round residents, these city folk have an unpleasant habit of adopting dogs from the pound, bringing them out to the island for the summer, and then turning them loose at the end of the season when it’s time to go home. The dogs run feral and, by the time the movie gets going, they’ve decided that humans are a viable food source.  Standing between the islanders and canine Armageddon is Joe Don Baker as Jerry, a Department of Fish and Game researcher stationed there. Can hunky JDB stop the Pack before everyone becomes dog chow?

 The premise of the movie is laughable. I’m not saying it impossible that people do decide to adopt a dog, take it away on vacation, and abandon it when it’s time to go home (especially in the 1970s). However, I do have a hard time believing this is a regular thing on Seal Island (which should be renamed “Dog Dump Island” if the movie is to be believed), something that happens often enough to result in a pack of 15 to 20 wild dogs.

That being said, I found myself liking this film a great deal. Not because it’s a work of cinematic genius, but because it feels like such a faithful adaptation of its source material. I don’t just mean the plot, I mean the entire cheap paperback you buy at the drugstore or supermarket feel. The kind of book you ironically take with you on vacation and leave behind when it’s time to go home. The film flies by, every dramatic beat hitting on schedule, and the film ends in the perfect mix of fiery climax and hope for the future. I even enjoyed Joe Don Baker.

Like a warm pile of feral puppies, The Pack melted my heart enough for me to award it a score of 3 and a half out of 5 skulls. You might feel a little less fond of the film if you have a low tolerance for imaginary violence toward animals. There’s a couple shots that made me wonder if there was any actual oversight during the production, but the ASPCA seal of approval appears in the credits. Still, deduct a skull and a half at least if you’re sensitive to such things.