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Race with the Devil (1975)
It’s taken me several years to get around to watching Jack Starrett’s 1975 film Race with the Devil – partly because I had heard that it was a poor man’s The Hills Have Eyes. It’s worth stipulating that Race with the Devil was made a year before Wes Craven’s film and that, if it fails to measure up, it is perhaps because Starrett (like the characters in his film) is on relatively untrodden ground. Race with the Devil is a strange hybrid of genres that doesn’t quite work. Part horror film and part chase film, it rests uncomfortably in a cinematic limbo between Rosemary’s Baby and Vanishing Point. The result is an entertaining, if schizophrenic, drive-in romp.
In the opening scenes, it appears that we’re being set up for a dirt bike / buddy movie. Warren Oates and Peter Fonda joust with each other on and off the race track, establishing a genuine rapport that provides the backbone of the story. At this point, one might imagine that the duo’s “race with the devil” will take place on two-wheelers (especially considering Fonda’s onscreen history with motorcycles, in films like Hell’s Angels and Easy Rider). Instead, they abandon their bikes for a state-of-the-art motor home and, in the company of their tiresome wives, embark on a rather un-adventurous adventure. Things only start to get interesting when they run afoul of a violent Satanic cult.
The rest of the film is fractured. Starrett is fairly successful at creating an atmosphere of paranoia – not unlike that in Rosemary’s Baby. There is one particularly effective scene that takes place beside a trailer park pool, in which the characters are convincingly suspicious of every person they encounter. It suddenly seems possible that the entire state of Texas is conspiring to sacrifice our heroes to the Anti-Christ. This pervasive fear sets up a “run for the border” scenario that never quite delivers the goods. As a horror fan, I’m expecting suspense and savagery, not Smokey and the Bandit. As a fan of chase movies, I want to see Oates and Fonda on their bikes – not playing demolition derby with a cumbersome motor home.
The Hills Have Eyes – or, for that matter, the like-minded Deliverance, which was made a few years earlier– sets its civilized characters against wilder adversaries, forcing them to become un-civilized in order to stay alive. Race with the Devil uses the same formula, but adopts a more playful tone – “boys will be boys.” Oates and Fonda don’t have to dig very deep to get into survival mode – they live for this stuff! – nor do they ever face any challenges that seem insurmountable. Throughout the film, they remain calm, cool and collected. The “terror” is conveyed entirely by their wives, who scream a lot and cling desperately to their men. For me, these hysterics got so annoying so fast that I found it difficult to empathize with the characters at all at all. In its failure to generate empathy, Race with the Devil didn’t work for me as a horror film. What’s left is a straightforward, unspectacular chase movie.
Despite its flaws, Race with the Devil has become a cult classic for one very simple reason. It’s fun. Warren Oates and Peter Fonda play off of each other like old friends, and it’s hard not to root for them as they tag-team the faceless marauders. On that strength, the film has garnered enough of a cult following to make it a candidate for remake in 2008, under the direction of Project Greenlight’s Chris Moore, and I’m genuinely curious to see how the story will fare on its second run. The filmmaker has a perfect opportunity to make a more suspenseful horror film and a more spectacular chase film. Now if only he could bring back Peter Fonda and Warren Oates...