Race with the Devil
U.S.A. / 1975
Directed by Jack Starrett
Starring
Peter Fonda
Warren Oates
Lara Parker
Color / 88 Minutes / PG
Format: DVD / R1 - NTSC
Anchor Bay Entertainment
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2011 Shout! Factory
double feature edition
Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
6
    10   10 = Highest Rating  
I vividly recall seeing this film, as an impressionable 12 year old, when it was theatrically released. What I then thought was an awesomely cool movie can now be properly evaluated for what it truly is: not a great film to be sure, but rather an above average drive-in B picture that delivers solid thrills despite a plot that tosses logic to the winds.
    Good friends Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) eagerly look forward to the "best damn vacation" of their lives. Accompanied by spouses Kelly (Lara Parker of TV's Dark Shadows) and Alice (Loretta Swit, "Hot Lips" on the sitcom M.A.S.H.), the pals load up in Frank's luxury recreation vehicle and depart San Antonio on a leisurely road trip to Colorado for some skiing. (The RV even comes with a microwave oven... A real high tech amenity in 1975!) In the rural Texas countryside they find an idyllic spot in which to get in some dirt biking and camp for the night. Under a full moon the guys are drinking and shooting the breeze when they see a huge bonfire being lit across the river. Surreptitiously observing the scene, Frank and Roger at first think they're witnessing a wild orgy; the naked women cavorting around the fire (optically fogged to secure a PG rating) have them jovially passing the binoculars back and forth. ("That's choice!") Amusement turns to horror, however, when one of the female revelers is stabbed by a masked figure in some kind of ritualistic human sacrifice. The boys quickly decide to get the RV the hell out of there before they're spotted, but it's too late a pack of cultists is splashing across the river, charging straight for them.
    After a very narrow escape the couples head for the nearest police station to report what happened. Amiable Sheriff Taylor (veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong) duly investigates but Frank smells something fishy. The local law seems just a tad too flippant about a possible murder, not to mention the incontrovertible physical evidence of the attack on the RV. The sheriff suggests that drug-crazed hippies are responsible and that the killing was faked. Kelly's discovery of a cryptic warning message, marked with Satanic runes, would seem to indicate otherwise. Not exactly sure what to believe, the foursome continues on their vacation, happy to leave the horrible memory behind. Gradually they come to realize that someone is following them...
   
Race with the Devil is really just a mishmash of themes from the 'Backwoods Brutality' films of the early 1970s (Straw Dogs, Deliverance, etc.) worked into a suspense/action thriller with horror overtones. The whole satanic cult angle could easily be replaced by some other type of nefarious activity drug smuggling, white slavery, you name it and little else in the plot would need to be altered. (I suppose a different title would be in order, though.) Basically it's just a McGuffin to set the titular "race" in motion. But rather than going for the jugular, the film commendably takes its time establishing the scenario while gradually ratcheting up the suspense. The demolition derby doesn't kick in until the final 15 minutes, in an exciting sequence pitting the protagonists' RV against a posse of trucks driven by the cultists. (In this age of computer-enhanced action it's refreshing to see real stuntmen taking dangerous falls and pyrotechnics generated with explosives instead of Pentium-powered pixels.) Folks weaned on today's Attention Deficit Disorder style of cinema may grow antsy waiting for the vehicle crunching to commence.
    An old hand in the exploitation field (both in front of and behind the camera), director Jack Starrett (The Losers) helms in an efficient, straightforward style, eschewing any pretense to slickness though he does manage to throw in an interesting shot here and there. (That a significant portion of the film takes place in the restrictive confines of the RV had to have been a real challenge.) Action set-pieces are deftly handled, given urgency by some first-rate editing. The total lack of process shots in the driving scenes, as well as Fonda's willingness to do a lot of his own stuntwork, lends an air of realism to the otherwise less-than-believable story. (It seems west Texas is literally crawling with devil worshippers. Who'da thought? And that ending...) In the main composer Leonard Rosenman's score sounds like a retread of his music for Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), although the satanic chanting and wailing during the ritual is actually kind of creepy.
    In their third film together, Fonda (The Wild Angels) and Oates (The Wild Bunch) are just coasting but they're well paired as guys of different ages, from different backgrounds, who are nonetheless best buds. (Much as in real life, apparently.) The underwritten female leads are given significantly less to do. This seems a bit odd considering the feminist movement was in full swing by the mid-Seventies; the wives in Race are throwbacks to the completely helpless ingénues of earlier decades. (Were my wife and I attacked by homicidal Satanists she damn well better lend me a hand!) Although they acquit themselves nicely in their roles, Parker and Swit mostly just scream a lot and I mean a lot. Visits to the Howler Monkey exhibit at the zoo seem downright tranquil in comparison.

Mastered from the original negative, Anchor Bay's edition of Race with the Devil looks terrific for a low budget flick that's 30 years old. There's a light sheen of grain visible in the daylight scenes but this is nothing out of the ordinary for a film of this pedigree; otherwise the anamorphic letterboxed (1.85:1) transfer is nigh on flawless. A strong, crystal clear digital mono mix serves the dialog and music well.
    We get a surprising number of quality extras here considering that the disc sells for under $14. (A buck or two cheaper in retail stores.) There's the theatrical trailer (a nice bit of ballyhoo that gives away too many of the highlights), a trio of radio spots, and two image galleries one of promotional artwork, lobby cards and VHS covers, the other a selection of behind-the-scenes photos supplied by Race's executive producer, Paul Maslansky. A slickly edited 17 minute featurette called Hell On Wheels is a recent sit-down with star Peter Fonda, who waxes enthusiastic about his participation in the film, his costars (especially good friend Warren Oates) and crew. The audio commentary with Maslansky and Lara Parker, moderated by AB's Perry Martin, makes for an interesting, entertaining listen and is well worth your time.
8/18/05
UPDATE The DVD reviewed above went OOP in 2008. In April 2011 Shout! Factory is releasing Race with the Devil as the co-feature in a two-film set.
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