Sunday, October 4, 2009


1975/USA/Directed by Jack Starrett


This effective little horror/action/road movie hybrid is the type of film that 1970s suburban drive-ins used to thrive on. However, despite its roots being planted firmly in the low-budget exploitation genre, Race with the Devil also manages to capture that distinct sense of ‘stranger in a strange land’ alienation and paranoia which also permeated some of the more mainstream Hollywood films of the time, such as John Boorman’s Deliverance.

After an atmospheric opening credit sequence (made all the more effective by Leonard Roseman’s sinister score), we are quickly introduced to our main protagonists. Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda) are best friends and partners in Cycle World, a rising company which manufactures racing dirt bikes. Together with their wives Alice and Kelly (Loretta Switt and Lara Parker), they decide to take off for the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado in Frank’s brand new, state of the art recreational vehicle.

Working their way through Texas on the first day of their journey, the couples pull off the highway and decide to set up camp for the night by an isolated and tranquil creek bed. Late that night, with a few drinks in the bellies, Frank and Roger inadvertently witness the execution and sacrifice of a young woman by a group of robed Satanists. When the coven discover they are being watched, it sets of a tense cross state pursuit, with the four holidayers not knowing where it’s safe to stay, or just who the hell to trust.

Apart from a couple of minor flaws (one of which is the rather flat, TV movie look which the film sometimes exudes), Race with the Devil manages to hit its mark on just about every required level. Director Jack Starrett (who reportedly came in at the last moment, after Two-Lane Blacktop helmer Monte Hellman pulled out) keeps the film pacey and tight, its 84 minutes racing by like the pages of a tacky paperback novel (of the type whose subject matter could easily have inspired Lee Frost and Wes Bishop’s screenplay). There are some effective moments of suspense, as well as an eeriness which pervades certain scenes, such as when Kelly gets the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is watching her and plotting against her while she is swimming in a trailer park pool.

Without doubt one of the finest American actors of the sixties and seventies (and sadly one not fully appreciated until after his premature death), Warren Oates delivers yet another finely drawn-out performance. Gruff, at times laconic and at others explosive, Oates had the ability to make his characters so believable and real, even when working with sub-standard material, and he interacts well with Peter Fonda, who also delivers one of the more enjoyable performances of his post-Easy Rider career. Although Loretta Switt (best known as ‘Hot Lips’ Houlahan on the long-running M*A*S*H television series) and Lara Parker also assimilate into their roles well, they are not really given much do do – women’s lib had yet to make its way into the horror genre as yet - and are relegated mostly to looking scared and screaming hysterically.

A rollicking piece of classic grindhouse fodder, Race with the Devil is nowhere near as well regarded by cinephiles as it deserves to be.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2009