Saturday, August 23, 2014

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

William Shatner, the Hawksian organizer of men in a far-flung future without currency. Shatner, determined player of crisis-bound priests, rock-like teachers, a race-baiting hate monger, an Esperanto-speaking Christian soul so pure he converts a succubus, and an Arizona sheriff named 'Dances with Tarantulas.' Shat, so so.. many things, all of them great, some of them even pretty good, but most so very strange that, if you look deep (and it's always worth looking deep with old Shat), you might find a whole other Shat self waiting below the gum line to spit forth in a torrent of surprise micro-thesping! 

For your consideration: two films from the early 70s occult revival in which you will see him drink from a flask and scoff at God while on a flight frozen-in-mid air (at 37,000 feet!); and bare his chest and risk his family to hold onto a stolen devil book one minute but then drop his protective amulet the next. What a man is Shat! Courageous, callous, stubborn, fearful, pompous and pugnacious, he's a relic from when scientists and captains had resonant voices and one could be impulsive and brutish yet catlike and dancer nimble. The Neil Diamond of science fiction icons, Shatner is his name. And in the late 60s-early 70s, we kids couldn't have been happier about it - Bop Bop! 

I know there are those hardcore Trekkies who are annoyed by Shatner's macho fey arrogance as Kirk. They seem to prefer the dry, safe, nostril-breathing baldness of Patrick Stewart. I am not one of them, I am not even a Trekkie, but I do enjoy the first three seasons, the Kirk era. Stewart, as an actor, can be fun when snogging with Steve Railsback in Lifeforce or snogging with Wolverine in X2, but Stewart is too sane as Picard, too much Polonius and not enough Hamlet.

Maybe my loyalty to Kirk is because of watching Trek every night with my dad as a child in the early 70s was so formative. To me, because of this familial connection, Shatner can do no wrong. So it is with every generation perhaps. For us, Shat's blowhard egotism is part of the charm. Kirk is 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 two I shall discuss here, or artsy experiments like Incubus, the Shat goes for broke, every time. Terrible or triumphant, he never phones in a syllable. Lugging Shakespeare-style oratory into the rarefied sphere of cowboys-vs.-Satanists, or fighting against ancient druid altars 37,000 Feet in the air, he gives 100% no matter how half-assed his vehicle.

So how half-assed does it get? Let's see!

1973 - TVM / CBS
In order to earn the primetime slot, a 70s TV movie had to explore at least three pop cultural themes of its moment so, for Horror at 37,000 Feet, we get: 1) the curse attached to an ancient artifact; 2) the social commentary, i.e. Salem witch trials; 3) the ensemble disaster movie, i.e. Airport. This latter influence was a huge staple of 70s TV, providing 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 or Chuck Conners, all got steady work. It was easy to figure out their characters, as they'd meet as strangers, be on a voyage, get picked off and end as bonded heroes--those who made it, if any--see also: Day of the Animals). The vehicle is jumbo jet luxury cargo-passenger "airplane" hauling a massively heavy Celtic altar exhumed from its sacred grove in Ireland, and an innocent dog, aside from a scattering of passengers. 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? It's upsetting! 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 the inside of the plane being anything but a breakaway set. Luckily the stewardesses all wear hot white go-go boots. Shat rocks some writerly glasses, sews, and sports a toupee far more natural than usual. That helps. But man, he's terrible. It's a part Richard Burton might have got away with, but the misanthropic drunk bitterly ranting about "homo-sapien" as a bunch of savages and noting "I didn't lose my faith - it lost me." He doesn't sound drunk, profound, or pleasant to be around. His bitter laughs sound forced and bitchy. He doesn't want to be in this film and is taking it out on us.

I ain't complaining about how bad it is, thugh. I love 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 monster or concrete threat (which is great, since the whole point of the 'mounting menace' is to keep you glued through the commercials- once you're back, who cares?). The strange fascination with sub-zero temperatures on a plane (just touching the door makes pilot Chuck Connors' 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??!" Playing like the unrehearsed confusion of an off-off-Broadway one-act drama read directed by Rod Serling's slow-witted nephew, who, incidentally, has never actually flown. And who seems to think stewardesses would confiscate a first-class passenger's flask, and not bring him a sip of champagne.

The sparse passengers include: the baby-voiced 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, 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-and" Johnson; Paul Winfield the nattily-dressed physician whose dogmatic rationalism is put to the test; Buddy Ebsen a cranky millionaire always ready with a homespun witticism. The only real sore spot is Will Hutchins as a spaghetti western B-cowboy with a terrible towhead mop top wig and rodeo shirt and a habit of shouting all his lines. Yeesh! His trying to hit on one of the girls is the most terrifying thing in the movie. Thank 'god' for Mrs. Pinder and her crazy eyes and straight dirt blonde hair, and the Shatner, the granite jaw of Connors, and of course, the Shat, drunk and sneering at his fellow passenger's atheist-in-a-foxhole panic, but then snapping to life when the other passengers contemplate child sacrifice after first trying to pacify the evil 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) whose rich architect husband (Roy Thinnes) brought the altar as a souvenir from her ancestral home, albeit against her wishes. The very fact a cargo plane is flying passengers as well as an 11,000 pound altar seems very odd. Does this kind of flight even exist? Seems like that altar should be shipped by a freighter. But hey, it saves on passenger manifests (i.e. no extras needed) and allows more room for the camera and later, the possible child sacrifice fire set up in the rear by the now frigid cargo hold. will the terrified passengers commit the ultimate transgression (child sacrifice) or be turned into green puddles before the dawn can come up in time to save them? But first a word from Alpo.

Horror at 37,000 Feet moves pretty fast without the commercials, and fans of Italian horror can luxuriate in the colorful red lights of the cockpit and everyone can appreciate the wild-eyed hysteria with which Loring rises to the occasion, furiously cutting off Jane Merrow's hair to wrap in the child's doll and wrapping it up in her clothes. "And some of your fingernails," she raves, as if possessed. When that doesn't work, it's time to actually sacrifice the child! Great hammy stuff with Shatner wobbling around drunk and all the actors wondering what do in this under-rehearsed closed-in space to 'portray' their types. Shatner out matches Buddy Ebsen in the finger bending department. "Here, take another pain killer,' says the co-pilot to Connors, "no pint in saving them." Shat  realizes he can terrify Mrs. Pinder by waving his Zippo lighter in her face. "Fire! To burn witches!" Yikes! He's  not very PC --he even 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. Take it from an old jimson weed-head. But Shat should know, having counseled the original teen 'mixed bag' drug addict that same year in Go Ask 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 only three channels and no VHS, this is as precious a memento as a family album. Maybe more so. For us, then, this DVD is a must. If only Satan's School for Girls or Death at Love House would one day get the same respectful remastering 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 dreamt of. 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 about them, 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. 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, total freedom, and 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 for me and my Generation X comrades, the last group who experienced the high of unavailability, of titles being forever out of reach and so projected upon with our most lurid imagination. 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 'adult' terror. Our constant imagining created a parallel subconscious repository so powerful it later 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' and too slow 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 upside down pentagram stained glass window, the ultimate futile weakness of Shatner's character in the face of Borgnine's magic, it all 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'.

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 very young John 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. Mighty Shat 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 no Shat screaming on the Satanic altar.

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