Race with the Devil
Directed by Jack Starrett
Written by Lee Frost and Wes Bishop
A follow up to the 20th Century Fox surprise success of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (released a year earlier), this Peter Fonda-Warren Oates cult classic is a strange hybrid of genres. One might assume the film offers a car chase with Satan himself. This isn’ t that movie; that would instead be the Nicolas Cage 2011 vehicle, Drive Angry. The result here rests somewhere between Rosemary’s Baby and Vanishing Point, featuring requisite road chases and a Satanic cult. With the mash-up of what was then, two popular fads, it is no surprise Race with the Devil was a box office hit in 1975. Action filmmaker Jack Starrett (Nowhere to Hide, The Gravy Train, Cleopatra Jones) hits his career high directing this slickly executed genre-hopping cult favourite. Race with the Devil is an entertaining, drive-in romp that delivers plentiful action and a few genuine chills.
Written with dry wit and prowess, the film was scripted by legendary exploitation duo Lee Frost and Wes Bishop, who produced such trash as The Thing With Two Heads, Slaves in Cages and Love Is a Four Letter Word, among others. Race with the Devil is about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and pits vacationing Peter Fonda, Warren Oates and their lovely wives Lara Parker and Loretta Swit against a horde of Devil worshipers in the Texas backwoods after they witness a satanic ritual. A long chase through rural Texas ensues, whereby everybody in the state, including the law enforcement, are suspected to be involved. The foursome finds the cult members have damaged their ultra-modern RV, left behind some deadly serpents, sacrificed the family dog, and are tracking their every move as they attempt to flee. A crescendo of near-death-misses, car collisions, terrifying discoveries, and out-of-order payphones, convinces the quartet that everyone in rural Texas is in on the conspiracy.
What sets Race with the Devil apart from all the others of its ilk is that the film manages to incorporate a number of the thematic obsessions of ’70’s American cinema to shape its story. Truthfully, director Jack Starrett doesn’t dig deep enough but they are there. Race with the Devil seems to be trying at times for a model confrontation between middle-American values, and much like Deliverance, the film also draws on a cinematic current which sought to find everyday horror within the backroads of rural America. There is a reason they call this the poor man’s Hills Have Eyes: Like Wes Craven’s classic, the couples shelter themselves in their fortress-like mobile home out in the middle of nowhere. With its wide open landscape, desolate roads, Race with the Devil fits perfectly into the backwoods horror sub-genre. Of course, it can also be labeled a conspiracy film, the conspiracy here involving just about everyone they encounter which extends to figures authority. And while the exploration of black magic is rather weak, Starrett is fairly successful at creating an atmosphere of paranoia. No matter how far the two couples travel, and no matter where they turn, their nightmares catch up with them.
Race with the Devil is equal parts horror and road movie combined. Amidst the suspense and savagery, is the film’s highlight – an extended road race akin to the climactic chase in Mad Max 2. The climax features some terrific stunt work and all in all, Race with the Devil is an engrossing, exciting nail-biter that makes the most of every single one of its efficient 95 minutes. This is a spare, solid, sharply paced thriller that does what a thriller is supposed to do.
While the cast isn’t asked to do much more than looking strong or scream, how can you complain when the film stars Warren motherfuckin’ Oates and Peter motherfuckin’ Fonda. Interesting enough, both actors literally destroy their iconic image to star here. Oates and Fonda became screen legends in search of the elusive ‘American Dream’ each time leading to tragic deaths. But there is no denying the dramatic reversal from the roles seen in such film as Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Easy Rider and Two Lane Blacktop. Replacing the Dodge Challenger,
Pontiac GTO and Harley-Davidson is a motor home, and replacing the bellbottoms, aviator shades and long hair is suburban and middle class apparel. Call it a ‘sell out’ on the part of the actors, but watching Race with the Devil, feels like you’re watching a travelogue following two best friends who just happen to be two of the coolest actors who ever lived. Throughout the film, they remain calm and collected but Swit and Parker sadly suffer from heavily-cliched direction that makes them hysterical in every scene. Unfortunately, the actresses spend the majority of their screen-time either screaming, crying or clinging desperately to their men. The only time they actually try to do something useful is when they head over to the library to research witchcraft.
Race with the Devil is an underrated classic that still hasn’t received the treatment it deserves. While it does have its flaws, mostly with the female cast, it joins the likes of Breakdown and Duel as the best of ‘vehicular horror’. The ensuing chain of events leads to an ending that will burn itself in to your memory long after the credits role.
– Ricky D