Jack Starrett, 1975
Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker
Two couples - Roger and Kelly, Frank and Alice - pack up a brand new RV and drive across country for a skiing vacation in Colorado. Roger and Frank own a motorcycle dealership together and frequently race during the long drive. Their fun is interrupted in rural Texas when Roger and Frank accidentally witness a Satanic ritual. At first they think it is an orgy, but soon a woman is killed and the Satanists know that someone is on to them. They group begins to chase the RV and the couples barely escape with their lives.
Roger and Frank report the incident to a local sheriff, while Kelly and Alice borrow some occult books from the library to try to decipher a strange note the Satanists left in a broken window of the RV. Just when they think they’ve escaped a number of strange things happen: their dog is murdered, rattlesnakes are planted in the RV, and the sheriff has begun to follow them. They buy a shotgun to protect themselves, but wind up in a vehicular battle with the Satanists. Will they ever escape?
Somewhat banking on the reputations of stars Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, Race with the Devil is sort of a twist on the types of films both actors appeared in during this period of their careers. Fonda loved doing his own stunts and performed many of them here, including the scene with the rattle snake inside the RV. By this time, he was known for Easy Rider and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. While Fonda was associated with chase films and action movies, Oates was known for a number of westerns and his collaborations with Sam Peckinpah, including the Wild Bunch, Dillinger, Return of the Magnificent Seven, and hilarious war comedy Stripes. Oates had also appeared in one of the best chase films of all time, Two-Lane Blacktop. Fonda and Oates were also in The Hired Hand and 92 in the Shade together.
Loretta Swit and Laura Parker are memorable as the two wives. The female characters are pretty likable and perhaps a little more personable than I first expected. Loretta Swit was most famous for her role in MASH and Laura Parker had a long standing role in Dark Shadows as one of my favorite characters, Angelique. R.G. Armstrong also made an appearance as the Sheriff and would be known to genre fans for films like Evilspeak, Boss Nigger, and Children of the Corn.
Director Jack Starrett did a solid job with Race with the Devil and has a decent action/exploitation history overall. He also made the somewhat similar A Small Town in Texas and a number of blaxploitation films, namely Cleopatra Jones, as well as directing episodes of Dukes of Hazzard. Starrett previously blended genres with the biker war film The Losers, though Race with the Devil was his most financially successful.
Race with the Devil is not a perfect film and suffers from some typical ‘70s B-horror issues. The film’s main problem is that it tries to combine occult horror and the action/chase movie, combing entertaining elements of both but not really acing either one. The satanic cult, for instance, is so widespread and well connected that this plot point is simply ridiculous and feels overly contrived. The cult was also written to be fairly generic and merely provide the background for rural paranoia. The writers - which include exploitation director Lee Frost (The Thing with Two Heads) - could have done a lot more here. Regardless of these flaws, it was a huge hit on its release and has become a minor cult classic.
Undeniably, there are a lot of entertaining things about Race with the Devil. Despite some of the film’s more ridiculous moments, the conclusion is well directed and perfectly climactic, ending with a ring of fire and a surprise twist. The feeling of suspense and dreads runs solidly through the second act and builds towards the conclusion. There are some nice chase scenes, including the one where Fonda fires a shotgun from the top of the RV. There’s also an enjoyable score from Leonard Rosenman (Prophecy), particularly the delirious opening theme.
Race with the Devil comes recommend and will appeal to a relatively large number of genre aficionados as it is a car chase film where the antagonists are not cops or a rival gang, but Satanists! The film has been released on DVD - though it has one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen - and on split DVD or Blu-ray with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.