Race with the Devil (1975)
Director: Jack Starrett
Writers: Lee Frost and Wes Bishop
Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Lara Parker and Loretta Swit

The Plot: Frank Stewart (Warren Oates) has a state of the art mobile home and he takes his good friend Roger Marsh (Peter Fonda) on a trip, showing off all of its $36,000 luxurious accessories. The two, along with their girlfriends in tow, soon begin a trek across the country in order to get to Aspen Colorado for a friendly vacation. Along the way the group decides to stop-off in a very small, and strangely quiet, town. As the two men have a late night drink in the midst of a clearing in the woods, they notice a fire burning off in the distance. As they whip out their binoculars in order to spy on their distant neighbors, they discover that there is a group of people in the distance wearing long black robes, with some even cavorting around in the nude. Ultimately, a young woman is brought forth and stripped naked before being stabbed in front of their apparent cult-leader. As Frank and Roger grab their stuff and get ready to run, the group notices them and they barely make it from this clearing alive. When the group ultimately makes it to the Sheriff’s station in the morning, they are treated as if they are crazy. Frank and Roger realize the gravity of the situation however, and they immediately leave the small town. Unfortunate for them, the cult is keeping an eye on their movements and soon a cross-country chase begins!

The Review
The satanic cult angle is an interesting little pocket of popular culture, and a sizable niche within horror cinema. The concept has sustained itself throughout the seventies, eighties and even to this day in some circles. It is interesting subject matter for horror films, but unfortunately real satanic cults have shown themselves, more often than not, to be less dangerous than their cinematic counterparts. The Charles Manson “Family” definitely inspired much of the hoopla that helped carry over into the great “Satan scare” during the eighties, which ultimately culminated in the Jordan, Minnesota case which saw a great number of children having been molested and tortured by their parents who were, apparently, devout satanists. As it turns out, local authorities had coerced some stories from some children and the exact number of those who actually were molested, and the evidence of satanic rituals being behind the entire ordeal, were lost. In cinema, we’ve had any number of satanic forces try to coerce a group into joining them or simply destroy them, and although Race with the Devil doesn’t exactly do a whole lot of new things in order to add to the genre, it is comforting to watch a movie that truly “gets” where it should be heading and has a good time doing it. Race with the Devil may not be the most compellingly different attempt at this sort of film, but it makes up for its shortcomings with a great cast and tremendous energy.

Race with the Devil seems to be inspired by a great many films, and fits alongside many movies from this time period. There’s definitely a great deal of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) in here, as well as many other influential genre films that come from this time period. A very independent piece of horror, within Race with the Devil Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece can certainly be felt through both its use of budget and eerie distrust for common folk. Many films that come from this time period had a similar feel within their work. There was a culture war present during the seventies that is still felt right up until this day, whenever we hear about socialites referring to the mid-west or south as “fly over” states. However, these films of the seventies rarely glossed over the disproportional knowledge concerned with that ‘big-city vs. little-town’ philosophy. There is a fear of middle-America present in these films, and the counter-culture of the seventies with all of its philosophical new-age thinking almost always seems to have difficulty dealing with the brute force trauma of the ignorant regular Joe’s of society. Race with the Devil is no different in this regard. The difference between cultures is certainly amplified due to the supernatural angle that the film has, but the reality of the situation can still be felt. Deliverance may very well be one of the best films to point your finger to as an example, as it captures that mentality as well as the survivalist drama that our film today also evokes. While Deliverance definitely captures the right mood, the “satanist” angle sits our film right alongside true drive-in fare such as I Drink Your Blood and The Devil’s Rain.

Everything about Race with the Devil hearkens back, for me on a personal level, to what I feel was once pure about horror cinema. Even in the midst of the slasher-madness that the eighties brought upon us, the horror film at its very best was an attempt to scare the audience. It wasn’t just about the kills and it surely wasn’t about the glamorous young actress who has left her television drama and wants to shed her “youth” appeal and move into acting legitimacy. It was a true genre and not just a stepping stone. Even though it was as much about the money then, as it is now, there was still some life within the mainstream marketplace. Race with the Devil presents us with a cast that is far from the glamorous teenagers of today’s marketplace, but is chock full of talent. Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) kind of typifies old Hollywood, where rugged and manly actors could still land leading roles without having cosmetic surgery. Oates delivers a lively and youthful performance here, as he actually manages to fit alongside the “hip” Peter Fonda. The two have exceptional chemistry, no doubt due to their having starred alongside one another on two other occasions. The two actors were apparently good friends and when Fonda, who helped produce the film, was looking for a co-star he directly turned to Oates who filled the shoes admirably. Although the character is fairly typical for Oates, as an aging friend who can’t quite keep up with his younger counterpart but tries to anyway, his gruff voice and his odd mannerisms add an element of fun to nearly anything that he ever did.

Despite my praise for the film as a legitimate piece of oldschool horror (which I believe that it most assuredly is), Race with the Devil as a whole is what one could probably most easily refer to as an action-horror. While it does pack in a great deal of tension and suspense, the film ultimately leans more towards excitement than it does legitimate “scares”. The climactic second half really steps on the accelerator (forgive the pun), as the “race” truly begins and we are treated to numerous car chases and exploding vehicles. There are several daring sequences during this portion of the film, including one where Peter Fonda’s character climbs on top of their motor home with a shotgun in order to deal with one of the cult members. The cult members themselves would obviously be the closest that we ever actually come to dealing with horror film tropes or concepts. The film generally remains very obscure in just who or what this cult is based around, and I think that is part of the allure. While it is claimed that they are satanists, the ladies in the movie do their research and find that the ceremony that they watched earlier looked close to a Aztec form of ritual sacrifice. Obviously the Aztec’s did not worship Satan, and the sacrifice shown in the film didn’t appear all that close to what I imagine the Meso-American ritual looked like, so for the audience we are consistently confounded with varying ideas about this group and just how far their power actually reaches.

The Conclusion
Everything I have said so far has generally covered the positive, but the one glaring weakness that Race with the Devil ultimately has is one that it as a movie cannot shake. It is a movie that we have seen countless times over in more groundbreaking pieces of cinema. Imagine Duel, but with satanists. Imagine The Omega Man, but along the highways. Imagine any number of films dealing with a small community protecting a big secret and you ultimately get the idea. There’s no getting past the entertainment factor though, even if some of the plot is cliche, and I have to give the film some respect just for that. Overall, it can be a bit of a mixed bag, but for horror fans looking for a classic piece of seventies exploitation with a solid cast: you can’t go wrong with Race with the Devil. Overall I give the film a three out of five.

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