Race With the Devil

The 1975 film "Race With the Devil" begins innocently enough. Two couples on vacation in an RV decide to take a turn on a dirt road to spend the night away from the bustle. They park their rocking vehicle out in the wilds of south central Texas. They inspect the beauty of the desolate land, have a candle-lit dinner and a glass of wine, and toast the first night of a needed vacation. The sun sets and a full moon rises. But a funny thing happens.

Across the river they hear an eerie howl and suddenly, a mysterious bonfire roars to life. They grab a pair of binoculars and notice a group of people in black robes dancing around this huge fire. There's weird chanting, a man in a mask with a sword, and nude women at his feet. The dancing becomes more intense, and a woman is stabbed to death in an apparent sacrifice. At that moment, the wife of one of the stunned men turns on the RV light and screams at her husband to come inside. The Satanic cult realizes they are not alone, and furiously charge across the river. Thus begins one long and very creepy chase across the back roads of a Texas landscape.

We've been here before, whether it be with a cannibalistic family in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or Georgia hillbillies in "Deliverance." The setup is usually the same - a group of innocents, semi-lost, encountering horrid miscreants without a shred of help anywhere in sight. I don't think "Race With the Devil" is as good as either of the two previous films mentioned, but I will say in all honesty this flick scared me as a child.

"Race With the Devil" taps a primal fear we have of being stranded in unknown lands pursued by people with murderous intentions. The inspirations for this little 1975 horror opus are many, as Satan was quite the villain back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Where to begin? Perhaps Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," one of the most chilling films ever made. And then you have "The Exorcist," "The Devil's Rain" and such TV flicks as "Crowhaven Farm." Which brings us to "Race With the Devil," where you have robed Lucifer hippies clawing at an agonizingly slow RV rolling for the nearest stretch of cement. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates do their best to fight off this beer-bellied horde (I suppose with the exception of the occasional dancing, they get little exercise), using everything from vacuum cleaners to ski poles to hold off the possessed crew.

For a kid growing up in the suburbs of Texas (that would be me), Satanic cults existed out there, and they were waiting in the dark. Out there is an uneducated wilderness, and it's scary. To this day, I have moments of fear when camping alone, remembering that cult from "Race With the Devil." As our society grows each day into an urban setting with farming communities disappearing, what is rural becomes alien and evil. It's out there man! Who knows what shenanigans they're up to!

The Texas-born Jack Starrett directed this little drive-in horror/action hybrid, and he really didn't create much else. A few episodes of "Hill Street Blues," a couple of other B-movie excursions. He's probably best known as the tough cop with a billy club who drives Sylvester Stallone over the edge in "First Blood." He sadly passed on in 1989. Starrett has a funny cameo in Race With the Devil as a nosy gas station attendant.

Warren Oates, the greatest character actor in motion picture history, stars as the unlucky sod who makes the fateful choice to camp in the Texas boonies. He was really too good to be starring in this fare, but he does deliver the best line when the sheriff mentions a local hippie cult that kills cats. With a straight face, Oates replies, "Well, I guess they ran out of cats." By most accounts Oates tilted beers with film director Sam Peckinpah while they made such films as "The Wild Bunch" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." A huge Warren Oates cult has grown since his death in 1983, and this film is as good as any learn the greatness of this brilliant actor.

In "Race With the Devil," Peter Fonda has a good time shaking martinis while firing shotguns at hillbilly Satanists. And you even have "Hotlips" Loretta Swit as a perplexed wife. She likes to scream a lot and wear colorful bathrobes.

I suppose we could obsess over the stupid decisions our protagonists make before Satan closes in on the RV. We could laugh at the dialog as they marvel over the newfangled microwave and color TV. We could even snicker as by the end of "Race With the Devil," the trashed RV resembles Steve Martin's and John Candy's car in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." But our laughs are uneasy. When we travel to unknown lands, we are terrified of being preyed upon. In "Race With the Devil," these country folks are out there man, creepy and evil. Part horror, car chase and action, this film is one of the greatest drive-in flicks ever made.

-Chris Kent

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