Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shatner on the Altar: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET, DEVIL'S RAIN

William Shatner, the Hawksian organizer of men in a future without currency, determined player of crisis-bound priests and rock-like teachers, and an Arizona sheriff named 'Dances with Tarantulas.' In the following two films you will see him drink from a flask on frozen airplanes, and bare his chest to preserve a book and drop and lose a protective amulet the minute a Borgesian glimmer spell rolls its 20 sided serpent die his way... He's a relic from when hunky sci fi guys were brainy, had resonant voices and a certain catlike nimbleness. A tad macho and impulsive, but able to draw on cooler minds to guide him. Shatner is his name. He never lived with common people, but common people are all we have now. The Emmys prove that more every year. And the winner is, American Family.

Not in the late 60s-early 70s it wasn't! And we kids couldn't have been happier about it, even we didn't want to see kids onscreen unless they were going to be terrifying - Bop Bop! 

I know there are those hardcore Trekkies who are annoyed by Shatner's nimble macho fey arrogance as Kirk, who prefer the dry baldness of Patrick Stewart. They probably also hate There will be Blood and W.C. Fields. I am not them. Stewart's a bore. Maybe it was growing up watching Trek with my dad in syndication as a wee nipper. But to me Shatner can do no wrong. Even his terrible toupee is all right with me. Always just a bit hammier than called for, his expressive resonant voice... his unique... pauses...followedby... rapidcascades.... ofwords, have brought decades of amusement to a beleaguered nation. (See: Sex, Drugs, and Quantum Existentialism).

And when starring in dopey films like the ones included here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, he went for broke, lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of cowboys-vs.-Satanists, ancient druid altars 37,000 Feet in the air, with only someone blowing air up a tube snaked under a puddle of hellish light green slime for Satanic special effects. And damnit he made it work.

1973 - TVM / CBS
In order to earn the prime time slot, a 70s TV movie had to borrow from at least three popular cinematic themes then in vogue, so here we get: 1) the ancient curse attached to an ancient artifact, i.e. devils, possession, human sacrifice; 2) the social commentary, i.e. Salem witch trials, Monsters of Maple Street; 3) the ensemble disaster movie, i.e. Airport (a welcome form of actor equity: faded 30s-50s stars, aging child actors, nearly-ran and upcoming starlets, and granite-jawed authority figures like Christopher Plummer or David Jansen could all meet as strangers and end as bonded heroes or die in order of their fame--see also: Day of the Animals). Here these types board a jumbo jet luxury "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar exhumed from its sacred grove in Ireland, and an innocent dog. And the downstairs storage freezes --the dog is frozen solid! Why did we need to go through that, so the studio could show off it's frozen dog prop? And then the plane become suspended at 37,000 feet, trapped in a crossfire of wind tunnels, providing an ingenious explanation of why the plane interiors never once give the impression of movement, or engine roar, or being anything but a three-wall set.

I ain't complaining though, I love the result: a kind of zero point surreal experience where some smoke wafting up from a hole in the carpet and the occasional Val Lewtonian shadow substitutes for any kind of literal monster or concrete threat (which is great, since the whole point of the 'mounting menace' is to keep you glued through the commercials and then remind you what's been going on when you come back). The strange fascination with sub-zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes Chuck's whole arm go numb) goes well with the array of locked-in ensemble types waiting for their chance at a terse "Why doesn't somebody do something??!" scene or two, all interacting with the reserved unrehearsed confusion of an off-off-Broadway one-act drama directed by Rod Serling's nephew after too a night of too many cherries in his Manhattan cocktails.

The sparse passengers: Mrs. Pinder (Tammy Grimes), a wild-eyed single lady with straight dirty blonde hair and aversion to fire (she knows all about the stone's colorful human sacrifice-enriched past and who makes the most out of every evil syllable of dialogue); her dog, named Damien (this was years before The Omen though that is also the priest's name in The Exorcist), stored below by the altar and clearly given no ketamine, the swines; Chuck Connors as the square-jawed pilot; Shatner the boozy priest who lost his faith (there's always one); Lynn Loring his Mia Farrow-ish wife; Russell "The Professor" Johnson; Paul Winfield as a physician whose science is put to the test against this pre-Christian soul glutton cargo; Buddy Ebsen as a cranky millionaire; Will Hutchins with a terrible towhead mop top wig and rodeo shirt. Yeesh! Thank 'god' for Mrs. Pinder, and the Shatner, of course. Once he's drunk enough, our friend William laughs ruefully at their collective fate, though snaps to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice after first trying to pacify the spirit with the kid's doll as effigy. As Mrs. Pinder says, it just pisses the evil one off by trying to trick him; he wants the blood of one of his ancestors, the psychic girl (Jane Merrow) who's rich architect husband (Roy Thinnes) brought the altar as a souvenir from her ancestral home. Will they commit the ultimate transgression or will the dawn come up in time to save them? Or will they all turn to bubbling pale green puddles? We'll find out after this commercial break.

It all moves pretty fast and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can appreciate the readiness with which all the passengers want to sacrifice the child to appease a hunk of possessed rock, trusting fully perhaps that CBS would never allow it to actually happen. Meanwhile Shatner realizes he can terrify the druidess by waving his Zippo lighter in her face. "Fire! To burn witches!" Yikes! Meanwhile, witches use fire all the time, so that whole notion is absurd (as is the presumption that normal proof liquor is flammable). So burning witches is okay, child sacrifice not? Dude, that's misogynist, though at the time we didn't use that word, it was "male chauvinist." Shatner sneers at people who "believe jimson weed will make them immortal!" Dude, no one who does Jimson weed would ever think that, it would be quite the opposite. He should know, having counseled the original teen 'mixed bag' drug addict, Alice.

Those of us who were around in the 70s and remember when this first aired are far less likely to care about all this stupidity, or that the film can no longer hide its poverty in an analog cathode ray blur. But those of us who were kids at the time (I was seven) those days when everyone watched the same shows all the time for there were three channels and no VHS. Then you will be glad to know the DVD of this looks way better than most TV movie discs. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful treatment. May Cheesy Flix die a thousand deaths for its profaning the profane and blurring the Kate Jackson! Still, better than nothing. Though I hear 'nothing' is getting better all the time.

1975 - dir. Robert Fuest
I've seen hellfire and I've seen face-melting rain. I've seen green puddles with air bubbling up through them, and it wasn't impressive, even via nostalgia's glowing tolerance. But if you were a kid in the 70s, The Devil's Rain falls into the unholy and powerful relic category of stuff unseen but nonstop thought about. Its TV spots were an inescapable part of local prime time TV in 1975. I was eight and gleefully spooked by the melting faces. I had a bizarre childhood dream that stuck with me for years based on those melting faces and even now there's a lingering prepubescent  jouissance associated with imagining acid rain hitting me and my coven and melting us like candle wax. Still, even back then we'd heard Devil's Rain was lousy, but my dream was amazing, and if I wasn't so savvy about Satanic cinema even at eight years-old, and it was the 80s instead of the 70s, and a careerist child psychologist heard my dream, he'd probably think I was abducted by Satanists and arrest my parents and teachers. But in the 70s it was anybody's game, a whole Middle America demographic gone to the devil with touchy feely sharing: cocktails, bridge, Jaycees, smoking on planes, turtleneck and medallion conclaves of wife-swappers, communes and encounter groups, all-night block parties leading into softball breakfast picnics of still-drunk adults and kids high on their very first sunrise and sleep deprivation. It was grand indeed, even the devils were cool. And church was just an excuse to act rambunctious doing my devil impersonations, followed by gleeful hearing of plots of devil films by those who were allowed to see them, or even just heard about them from an older sibling.

That sub-sexual supernatural power of not being able to see a film like Devil's Rain as a kid is of course a substantial amount of the appeal. Just seeing the TV commercial for an R-rated horror movie was enough to give us sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange telekinetic magic and unimaginable terror. Our constant imagining created a parallel subconscious repository that all of us, down to the smallest most impressionable infant, knew was only fantasy, yet a fantasy so powerful it spilled over into our adult reality, dragging us by our budding sexual drives towards a dreaded obsession that finally led to the 'satanic panic' witch hunts of the 1980s and the rise of nervous overprotective brand parenting we're still hurting our children and ourselves with today.

Turns out, in real life, seeing it now on DVD as an adult, I realize the film is too strange, too 'off' to be scary, but with its daytime afternoon Satanic ceremonies in the Arizona desert, the boarded up church in the middle of a nowhere ghost town, the ultimate futile weakness of Shatner's character in the face of Borgnine's magic, generates a collective creepiness, as does the idea of looking for your parents and finding only life-size animated black-eyed wax effigies urging you to bring them 'the book'. There's a nice 'start in the middle' approach to narrative (it's never really explained why or how Shatner's family's holding onto the Corwin's magic Satanic bible until a flashback late in the film) and like a checklist of everything that made the 70s great, we take ESP as a given with the heroine--Shat's sister--coming to the town after him like she's Sylvia Miles in Psycho because she senses he's in trouble, this during an ESP demonstration with husband Tom Skerritt.

Earnest Borgnine is an odd choice for the head Satanist, but Shatner is great as the cowboy whose parents are sucked into the coven, which has taken over the whole ghost town. Meanwhile Joan Prather is psychic for no good reason except to allow her to 'see' the flashback (via looking into coven member John Travolta's dead black eyes) and to provide an interesting scene where she performs an EKG for a crowd of psychology students while Dr. Eddie Albert explains that ESP is very real and he's in the process of discovering what brainwave controls it. Tom Skerritt is her husband and eventually wrests the lead away from Shatner like Sylvia Miles in Psycho. 

I love lots of things about this screwy picture, from the ESP angle right down to the way Scientology and plastic surgery are subtextually critiqued by the sight of a ceremonial robe-clad Travolta's face melting in the rain. Any film that gives Hieronymus Bosch and Anton LaVey screen credit deserves some halting respect. My only complaint is the unnecessary, depressing final 'twist' so I try to remember to stop watching beforehand, like somewhere during the last 20 minutes which is all just rain and melting. I still like it better than Fuest's higher praised work, like Dr. Phibes. Shatner makes shit shows like this soar, son! Drink to that... or be damned like a black Cadillac chasing James Brolin through the dusty desert... with no driver!! Now that's a movie, even if it ain't got Shat.

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