Saturday 3 April 2010

Race with the Devil (1975)

Director: Jack Starrett
Stars: Peter Fonda and Warren Oates

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates getting hassled by Satanic cult members in a seventies horror movie is precisely my cup of tea, but I was surprised at how innocent it all felt. One scene in particular describes the feel perfectly. They're sitting outside their RV somewhere in the wild blue yonder drinking beer when a huge fire bursts up across the river under a wicked tree. They get a little closer with binoculars to find out what's going on, thinking it's a pretty big barbecue or something. What they find is hooded figures chanting and swaying under a full moon, then stripping off to dance around naked. Hey, an orgy, they think, and look all the more, but then these guys raise up a naked blonde girl and kill her with a knife. Only then do they realise what they're looking at, devil worshippers sacrificing the 'white goat'.

Obviously none of these characters have watched a movie like this before and they remain innocent throughout, not the naive victims you might expect but believably human. It takes a lot for them to go beyond a particular moral level, even when their lives have been consistently endangered, and this helps. Not the most deep, original or consistent film in the genre, it is however one of the more believable examples, certainly put together with an admirable amount of tension. Sure, we know they're going to get rumbled when Alice opens the door of their RV and shouts at them to come back. Sure, we know they'll get caught up in the middle of the river trying to get away from the Satanists running down the stream towards them or heading them off as they climb the bank so they can leap onto the vehicle to attack. These scenes aren't surprising but the tension they achieve is.

Oates was one of the most consistently underrated actors of his day but also one of the most recognisable. He didn't have a bad decade in the sixties, ending it with The Wild Bunch, but in the seventies he came into his own, with Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, not to mention Dillinger, Cockfighter and Race with the Devil. That's just half the films he turned out in that six year period. Here he's Frank Stewart, who works at some sort of motorcycle company, perhaps the founder or the owner or some combination of similar important roles. Fonda, less of a name but riding very high in the counterculture after The Wild Angels, The Trip and, of course, Easy Rider, is Roger Marsh, who races the things for him. They've been building the place up for five years and they're long overdue for a holiday.

They each have wives. Alice Stewart is Loretta Swit, who may have been one of the most recognised faces on television a quarter of the way through her twelve year run as Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H, but she was nobody on film, her most prominent big screen role before this being as Jack Kruschen's wife in Freebie and the Bean. To highlight how much she was known for one thing, this film still left her with someone called Frank. She's decent here but not as memorable as the fourth of our heroes, Kelly Marsh. She's played by Lara Parker, certainly the least of the names involved but still no newcomer to the industry. Together they're all a pretty believable bunch and I'm sure the film wouldn't have played as well as it did had the casting gone differently.

The four of them, along with the Marshes' little yippy dog Ginger, head out one January to avoid the crowds, driving their new $35,000 RV from Texas to Colorado and 'their private road to seclusion'. I don't think they get out of Texas before they come across the human sacrifice though and their big mistake is to stop at the first town they find to report it to the cops. This is the point where you know they're making the wrong decisions but they keep on building. Stewart rationalises things like Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Dave knowing where to go without directions when they revisit the scene of the crime, but Marsh is a little more suspicious. He surreptitiously took a blood sample that he wants to take to a big city to test, far away from these small town cops, but he explains all this to his travelling companions while one of the locals fixes their broken window, a local that the sheriff recommended.

We know that the only way out of this is for these guys to just get the hell out of Dodge but if they did that we wouldn't have a film. So it all escalates, slowly but surely. The wives clean up the RV and find a note attached to that broken window, one with runes all over it and an ominous message, short but sweet. 'You are warned by this rune to be silent,' it says. 'Any evil you cause will be returned to you nine fold. So mote it be.' A red pickup truck follows them. Everywhere they go, Kelly thinks everyone is looking at her and she's not wrong. They find an RV park and go out to a bar, only to come back to Ginger hanging from the door. 'Didn't anybody hear anything?' they ask the people milling around. 'Didn't anybody see anything?' Nobody says a word. The bikes on the back of the RV get busted up and I was expecting that. I wasn't expecting the rattlers they find in the cupboard though.

The biggest success here is how ordinary these heroes are. They're nothing special, just regular folks, good people who want to get away from it all and have 'the best damn vacation they may ever have.' They're a little old fashioned, preferring home cooked food, get their kicks racing bikes out in the wilds and go out to a country bar when they want to let their hair down. There are no orgies in the RV or drug parties and they're far from teenagers. 'I'm getting too old for this shit,' says Warren Oates, over a decade before Danny Glover copied him in Lethal Weapon. And when it seems plain that they're turning into victims, they get the hell out of there, but they stop at places to try to call the big city authorities and they buy a shotgun too. They don't want to fight, but they will if they have to. We root for them without hesitation.

Unfortunately the biggest failure is also how ordinary these heroes are. While they bring life to the characters and keep our interest throughout, there's nothing else for us to really care about. They're merely the good guys, just as these Satan worshipping Texan lowlifes are merely the bad guys. We don't get any background to build either side up into much at all. The obvious comparison would be to Deliverance, but that film was an immersion into a location and there were connections between the heroes and the locals that spoke volumes. This film isn't really anywhere and the locals are faceless. What it really compares to is The Wicker Man, because really the effect of the story is very much the same, but this is a surface version with no religious depth and no undertones. It has to rely on the actors, the tension and the believability. On those fronts it's an often surprising success.

A number of the cast and crew would return a year later for Dixie Dynamite, another enjoyable though flawed exploitation film. Oates was the star, though he played back seat to the two young ladies who took centre stage. R G Armstrong is Sheriff Taylor here and returned as the bank president in Dixie Dynamite. Both films were written by Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, Bishop playing a deputy sheriff in both films. Frost was the director for both, but was replaced here by Jack Starrett after the studio expressed dissatisfaction with the dailies. All three of these names wandered through the exploitation genres and while none were especially prolific they found their way into interesting entries in almost every one of them. This one is no exception.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I always remember the scene where the car rolls about 10 times, that stunt still looks good now. Two other similar car stunts that i remember with the same levels of fondness are the 2 car roll in "The Hitcher" {1986} (which was one of the most magnificently choreographed and orchestrated car stunts i`ve ever witnessed) and that superb bit in "The Car" (1977) where the title character rolls towards the 2 other cars, it really is a fabulous and breathtaking moment.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I love old fashioned stuntwork and there's plenty of it in American films of the seventies. In twenty years time when people start getting nostalgic for the movies of the early 2000s they just aren't in for the same sort of treat. By then the CGI is going to suck.

I should add that the stunts here are great, though the panels in the car chase seem to hold up amazingly well. They're far better than in Dixie Dynamite, where they're all the same stunt.