Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I first saw the 1975 film Race With The Devil on VHS cassette some time around the dawn of this century. I walked into the video store, stumped as to what to rent, and asked the guy behind the counter for a good, thrill-a-minute action flick I likely wouldn't have seen before. I don't usually ask total strangers for recommendations, but the guy in question was an older rock & roll dude from the area who owned the store, knew his films and was prone to playing a bit of Can, Amon Duul and Cluster over the store speakers (hell, I walked in there one day and he was playing F/i!!). I'd accept his verdict. He recommended the Peter Fonda/Warren Oates suburbanites-on-the-run-from-murderous-Satanists thrill-ride, Race With The Devil, directed by Jack Starrett, a man who cut his teeth making biker exploitation flicks in the '60s and wound up as a bit-part actor in schlocky '80s TV fare such as Knight Rider.
I watched the film for the first time in over a decade just the other night. Far from disappointing me - I liked it a whole lot the first time around - it possibly impressed me more with a re-viewing. When describing it to a friend yesterday, I said it was an A-grade B movie. That is, the basis of the film is a total B-movie premise, and in lesser hands and w/ lesser actors it may well have totally sunk from view, but w/ a tight script, characters that make sense, actors who can actually act and hot stunt/action direction, Race With The Devil is superior drive-in fodder.
The film starts out establishing the main male characters: Fonda plays a professional motorbike rider whose form has recently slipped, and Oates is his best friend, confidante, owner of a successful motorbike store and repair centre and also an ace on two wheels. There's some early riding scenes as the two of them duke it out on the dirt hills, just to show that they're not totally stripped of all machismo in their dorkoid suburban surroundings. When push comes to shove, they may indeed fight back. Oates is usually known for playing the perrenial tough guy, so to see him playing someone so gentlemanly - the two of them are decent and likeable characters - is a refreshing change. Even more refreshing is seeing Fonda act beyond his usually wooden parameters. I usually rate him as one step above Charles Bronson, but this time his performance his believable and sympathetic.
So anyway, Oates has bought himself a mega-deluxe motorhome w/ all the mod cons (even a microwave oven!), so he and Fonda and their respective wives, played by Lara Parker and M*A*S*H*'s Loretta Swit, decide to take it on the road - their own self-contained home - to the back of beyond for a vacation. First night on the road, camped by a creek in the middle of nowhere, Oates and Fonda witness a firelit Satanic ritual across the water where a young woman is sacrificed. Both in shock, and not yet seen by the perpetrators, the shit hits the fan when Swit turns the outside light of the motorhome on, yelling for her husband to come inside, and they're spotted. Soon, the chase is on. But the film is not just 20 minutes of build-up and character development and then 70 minutes of road thrills. The action ebbs and flows, lulling you into a false sense of security that the foursome are finally safe and OK - even in the arms of the local police or at a well-lit, highly populated camp site - only to find they're back in imminent danger once again. It's an excellent example of the post-Manson paranoia of the time, but in a twist, and without meaning to give too much away, the Satanists aren't hippies or counter-cultural cut-outs.
Race With The Devil is a great snapshot of its time: lots of bad fashion, biege colours and a big dollop of whitebread Amerika. The foursome think they've found safety in their self-contained house-on-the-road, but at every turn it's shown to be a fallacy. When the situation seems hopeless, I found myself muttering in my mind, I'd be straight on the iphone to the FBI, but you've got to keep saying to yourself: those were different times. Technology has made it hard to get lost on a map in the US of A in the 21st century. Back in '75, there was still a sense of space between people and towns. When you're out of reach of the proper authorities, you may well be screwed. As they are.
Race With The Devil reminds me a bit of another superior B movie made over 20 years later: 1997's Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh. You've probably skipped over it a thousand times down at the local DVD rental establishment, but like Race With The Devil, it's a great white-suburbanites-in-peril flick, again set in the middle of nowhere (this time in the southwest deserts of America), w/ characters that make sense, both in their actions and motivations, a tight script and ace direction. Kurt Russell has surely made more bad films than good ones in his life, but I'll stand by Breakdown as one of the latter. Regardless, Race With The Devil is an intense, well-made action/thriller/horror flick I'd recommend to anyone and everyone. The feeling of hopelessness and dread throughout is almost too much to bear. In many ways, Race With The Devil is a much better film than it should be, and that's not a bad thing at all.