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Race with the Devil (1975)

Review

Author
Date
11-30-2007
Comments
Race with the Devil poster
Runtime
88 minutes
MPAA Rating
PG
Countries
Cast and Crew
Director

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...

Comments

I think your review is

I think your review is accurate for the most part, Joseph. I tend to like this film more than other people. It is a mish-mash of the chase meller and horror genres. But Starrett handles the action scenes fairly well, and there are a few scenes that manage a heightened level of creepiness. I have to completely agree that Swit and Parker are saddled with dull housewife characters, though Swit manages slightly better than Parker here. It's Fonda and Oates' show here and they do have a good rapport. R.G. Armstrong manages to be chilling as the coven leader. A mixed bag but still fun for me.

Kevin Nickelson "Suffering!? Sometimes I wonder if you know the meaning of the word!" (Peter Cushing-"House of Long Shadows"/1982)

I'm sorry I don't agree! I

I'm sorry I don't agree! I love this movie! It's well made with a great story and incredible acting by

Oates and Fonda! The opening with them going on vacation with the great scenery and the

motorcycle race gives it a good start but then they witness the sacrifice and the chase starts.

The mystery of who is one of them is great. This was before cell phones and computers so

they are stranded out on the highway. The car chase scenes are incredible! some of the best

I've ever seen. When I first saw it as a kid it scared me to death and I didn't like the ending but

I've had in my collection for many years and it's one of my favorites I watch once a month!

I highly recommend this as a cut above most horror devil movies without all the gore and

no story or acting! This is a horror classic.

It is a fun film, if a mixed

It is a fun film, if a mixed bag. Still, I enjoy it very much for what it is.

Kevin Nickelson "Suffering!? Sometimes I wonder if you know the meaning of the word!" (Peter Cushing-"House of Long Shadows"/1982)

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