Race with the Devil (1975)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 6, 2010  | 
DVD
20th Century Fox | Region 4, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 Mono | 84 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Jack Starrett
Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker
Screenplay: Lee Frost, Wes Bishop
Country: USA
External Links
IMDB Purchase YouTube
The basic premise of Race With The Devil is pretty simple: Frank (the always watchable Warren Oates) and Roger (70s counter-culture icon Peter Fonda) and their two wives Alice and Kelly (Loretta Swit - "Hotlips" Houlihan from M*A*S*H*, and Lara Parker, best remembered from TV's Dark Shadows) have packed themselves up into an RV and are travelling across country to vacation in Colorado. But while camping en route in Texas, they happen upon a Satanic sacrifice in the woods. The local law enforcement can't seem to corroborate their story, given the physical evidence they have (or rather, don't have), and then the beleaguered couples are chased across country by the crazed cultists, who are eager to silence them for good.

Let's backtrack slightly: the road movie and the car-chase movie were staples of US 70s drive-in films, and Race With The Devil ticks all of the boxes of both genres. When you add in the contemporary interest in Satanism, the supernatural and the occult as seen in films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, The Devil's Rain, The Mephisto Waltz and Rosemary's Baby – melding the fears of cults and possession with the hi-octane thrill ride of the car-chase (Gone In 60 Seconds, Cannonball) and the more existential concerns of the road movie, where the destination isn't as important as the journey itself (Two Lane Blacktop, which featured this film's Oates in a star turn, or Fonda's own context-defining Easy Rider), surely what you should have is a film that works on visceral, voyeuristic and intellectual levels, right? Well, yes. Screenwriter Lee Frost's name should be familiar to exploitation fans – Love Camp 7 springs pretty readily to mind to mind – and the script remarkably (given some of Frost's other credits) delivers the goods – but I think a lot of the satisfaction I get from the film is due to the rock solid, credible performances of Oates and Fonda.

When we first meet Roger, he's astride a dirt-bike (I guess to capitalize on Fonda's rep from Easy Rider as a biker – although here, a more all-American seeming one), trying to shave more time off of his record. His older buddy Frank turns up to the track in his mobile home to get them started on their holiday as soon as possible. Frank's proud of his RV, taking some time to show us all the mod cons he's got in his state-of-the-art vehicle, although he's not best pleased by Roger's wife having brought her carpet-bug pampered dog into his shiny new RV. But the dog is more useful than it may at first appear, as animals are sensitive to weirdness – sometimes people in movies really ought to pay more attention to them. It would save them a whole bunch of trouble.

And so, while parked by the side of the road on the first night of their vacation, Frank and Roger have the bad luck, while drunk, to see and want to investigate a fire they noticed upon a hill near them. At first the boys get some cheap thrills viewing the goings-on through binoculars, as the cultists they've happened upon start to nude-up and prance around, but then the mood of the gathering changes, and so does the tone of the film.

The cultists know, due to Alice calling from the RV, that they've been seen, and they react immediately, wanting our heroes dead. The immediately suffocating sense of claustrophobia and dread is quite surprising, and immediately effective. Both wives, sadly, turn into clichés of the disempowered female, squealing and screaming. Having contacted the local sheriff, who's a pretty sinister fella, this transmitted solely through his good-natured black humour, Frank and Roger head back out to the site of the crime with the cops, after having made a pretty hectic getaway.

Alice and Kelly aren't idle either, and after finding a piece of paper stuck to the back window of the RV that the cultists smashed in during the previous night's chase, covered in runes and threatening death (Night Of The Demon, anyone?), head to the local library to find out what it means. As the movie progresses, the light-hearted tone established in the opening scenes disintegrates, the claustrophobia increases and the darkness casts a shadow of ever-growing gloom over the film. The piece of paper contains a malevolent spell, as it happens, and concern over their immediate future grows. Roger, having snagged a sample of blood from the murder site, decides to take it to the cops in Amarillo, not trusting the sheriff and his back-country ways. But – he's been overheard by the unnerving gas station attendant with the weird birthmark and the pet black cat, and we all know what that means…

Once at a mobile home park, the couples start to realise that maybe they're being followed. The locals seem somehow scary, staring at the girls while they're taking a dip in the pool, making them nervous. That claustrophobia I was talking about before hand becomes much more pronounced. But Roger and Frank don't buy into it, and decide to continue on to Colorado. However, even the fellas have started to realise, despite their bravado, that something is not quite right, and a night out with their mobile home neighbours at a local redneck bar does nothing to alleviate these fears, particularly when coming home from the bar, they find Kelly's dog Ginger strung up on the front door. Kelly has realized, even if they haven't: "It's the same people. They've followed us." But what she has to realise is that it isn't the same people – it's a faceless and close-knit network of Satanists, all working together – one of whom, interestingly enough, is played by Clay Tanner, who was Roman Polanski's Satan in Rosemary's Baby. That scotches the rumour that it was ever Anton LaVey, Black Pope of the Church Of Satan, in the role as the Prince Of Darkness in that film.

After a brief and unexpected episode with a rattlesnake in the RV, the couples' security seems even less sure, and the threat of the Satanists is even more pronounced, especially after the mobile home is sabotaged, and the dirt-bikes, too. Frank invests in a shotgun as the film progresses into some pretty grim territory, as much as Roger starts sharpening knives, and the audience starts realising how widespread this network of devil-worshippers is. And their net starts tightening immediately, and quite scarily.

This is about the point where the chase-movie aspect of the film really starts cranking, and it's good, edge of the seat stuff. And yet, the darkness is approaching on all sides, and the Satanists are attacking, and the pace is picking up, and the cars are going faster, and the violence is escalating, and the excitement is mounting, and the vehicular mayhem increases, and….you should really have a watch of this movie to find out how it ends. I think you'll be surprised. I know I was.
Video
The picture quality is pretty good, about as sharp as you would hope from a 70s drive-in film. OAR and anamorphic, Race With The Devil's got some decent blacks and a glitch-free picture.
Audio
I actually found it to be quite loud, but a decent soundtrack, nevertheless. And Leonard Rosenman's score is quite good, changing as the film progresses from the initial optimism through the later dread to the eventual tension very well indeed.
Extra Features
The original theatrical trailer, and that's it, sadly. The R1 Anchor Bay disc has a feature-length commentary track, and a featurette. So much for supporting the local industry, huh?
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Race With The Devil is not necessarily a film that's going to knock your socks off, but what it is, is a very solid contender in the realm of the 70s exploitation/horror canon driven by some pretty good performances by some fine actors, and a neat plot and some great chase scenes, shot through with an ever-mounting bleakness and sense of claustrophobic dread. If you're a fan of 70s US exploitation/horror, I'd actively recommend that you have a look - I really don't think you'll be disappointed.

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