February 19, 2012

Reader's Choice: Race with the Devil (1975)

Directed by Jack Starrett. Starring Peter Fonda ("Roger Marsh"), Warren Oates ("Frank Stewart"), Loretta Swit ("Alice Stewart"), and Lara Parker ("Kelly Marsh"). Rated PG.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Shout! Factory)
Running time: 01:28:12
Country: USA

Picked by venoms5

Two vacationing couples (Fonda, Oates, and their respective wives) who are traveling together in a motor-home accidentally witness a sacrificial murder out in the woods one night and are subsequently stalked by members of a Satanic cult who wish to cover their tracks. In following days, as they attempt to seek help from the authorities, they receive threats from people who are obviously tied to the cult, including a rune that warns them to "be silent", rattlesnakes planted in their motor-home, and generally dirty looks from suspicious locals. This all builds up to a wild high-speed chase involving unconventional vehicles for such a set-piece, like the aforementioned motor-home, a tow truck, and a number of seemingly ill-equipped pick-up trucks; said high-speed chase is like the last twenty minutes of THE ROAD WARRIOR if it took place on the backroads of rural Texas.

Those of you who've known me a while may remember that I reviewed this movie a long time ago on my old blog before The Death Rattle came into existence. I remember being a little underwhelmed with it at the time, but mind you this was like two-and-a-half or three years ago before I had dug into the filmography of both RACE WITH THE DEVIL's lead actors, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates. Since then I've developed quite a fondness for the both of them, especially Warren Oates, who I fell in love with as an actor when I saw him in Sam Peckinpah's outstanding BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and now consider to be one of my favorite actors from the 70s. I've been wanting to revisit this film ever since, so I'm glad Brian from Cool Ass Cinema picked it for me to cover.

After developing a bond on the set of THE HIRED HAND (one of my favorite Westerns), Fonda and Oates went on to work in a few films together, with RACE WITH THE DEVIL being their third collaboration. Apparently Fonda had quite a bit of pull behind the scenes and agreed to do the movie on his own terms, but I'm not aware of the specifics. What I do know - and this is mentioned by Fonda himself on a bonus interview on the DVD - is that a director was fired and both Fonda and Oates were guaranteed a percentage of the film's box office. The thing is, when watching the film, it doesn't come across at all that there was any sort of animosity behind the scenes or that Fonda had some sort of creative stranglehold on the project; it seems to be more of a case of Fonda wanting to do a fun project with his buddy Warren Oates and going out of his way to ensure that the experience would be a smooth one. This comes through in the final product, as it's pretty obvious that both actors are having a blast. There are certain shots in the film where it appears that either Fonda or Oates are seconds away from laughing and breaking character. Their real life bromance also carries over into the film and results in a natural chemistry between the two of them.

Even though Peter Fonda comes from the "School of (Roger) Corman" and essentially made a career out of starring in "drive-in movies" for lack of a better term, it's still odd to see him and Oates together in a campy horror movie such as this, which adds to the novelty of the film. I'd also be remiss to mention the actresses who play their wives: Loretta Swit and Lara Parker. Swit, who plays the wife of Oates's character, is still most commonly known for her role in the successful television series M*A*S*H. Lara Parker was also known for being a television actress, having worked on a number of shows, including the original DARK SHADOWS. Parker's appearances in genre films were few and far between, which is a shame since she proves to be a natural in RACE WITH THE DEVIL when it comes to playing a damsel in peril; she would have been a great horror actress because of her exceptional ability to scream (which she does a lot of in this film), and also because she has a great face for emoting terror.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL taps into the cinematic trend of the late 60's and early 70's that presented witchcraft and black magic as a common practice in the most unlikely of places throughout America. I wasn't around back then so I obviously can't make any personal comments on the matter, but it seems that the infamous founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, made the "black arts" hip because of his status as a relevant figure in pop culture. I assume the hippie, free-love movement at the time (or what remained of it) and the psychedelic culture also played a role in society's susceptibility to experiment with "the unknown" and immerse themselves in underground cultures. This is evident in the film when Sheriff Taylor (played by tough-guy character actor R.G. Armstrong) brushes off the lead character's claims of a Satanic cult as merely hippies who were doing drugs and having a little too much fun out in the woods on that fateful night.

To call this a "horror movie" would be both accurate and unfair. It does have obvious horror elements to it, but I think anyone going into this expecting a full blown horror film will be disappointed. For me, this one is all about the cast and seeing the two lead actors having fun in a project that was special to them. And even though there's a Satanic cult in the film, there's nothing outright supernatural in the film in terms of traditional horror - not to the extent of ROSEMARY'S BABY or something along those lines. RACE WITH THE DEVIL is actually hilarious at times because of how absurd certain aspects of it are, like the fact that at one point there are a bunch of toothless rednecks with shitty tattoos running around in capes, no shirts, and blue jeans. Another standout scene in the film involves the characters being terrorized by rattlesnakes while trapped in their motor-home, which I alluded to earlier. In general, there's a subtle amount of camp throughout the film. For a movie that doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, however, it's pretty well-made, and the chase sequence towards the end of the film features some jaw-dropping stunt work that just might be worth the price of admission alone.

Score: 7


  1. I love this movie! Jack Starrett is one of my favorite directors of exploitation cinema and he really knew how to deliver the friggin goods. You'll remember him as Gabby in BLAZING SADDLES and as the sheriff in the helicopter chasing Stallone in FIRST BLOOD. Also, if you love Oates, Aaron, you should see him in DRUM (1976). Your jaw will be on the floor. Another one with Fonda worth checking out sometime is FIGHTING MAD. It's his version of WALKING TALL.

  2. I noticed you have a question mark by the rating for the movie. It's a PG flick. I assume that's what the studio wanted and would explain why the nude shots during the satanic mass are blurred.

    I did feel there was a supernatural air in the film, though, as subtle as it might be. It was a palpable evil wherever they went and all these places, the satanists seem to always be there, too. Starrett populated his movie with some great faces.

  3. Whoops! Good catch with the question mark. I always write my reviews on a word document and leave a question mark next to the rating if I don't know it off-hand, and then I go in and add the rating when I'm adding the IMDB links.

    I'm a fan of Jack Starrett's as well, although I haven't seen maybe more than a handful of his films. Also, I'll be sure to check out DRUM! I need to see more of Oates's films in general, but you know how that goes. Thanks again for picking this.