Saturday, 31 March 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Race with the Devil (dir. Jack Starrett, 1975)

On vacation in a rented mobile home, two couples accidentally witness a satanic ritual in which a young woman is murdered. Fleeing the scene, the group alert the authorities and carry on with their vacation.

Soon they realise that their nightmare is just beginning: the members of the cult are following them and will not give up until all of them are dead...

Starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit and Lara Parker, Race With The Devil is a fine addition to the 'daytime nightmare' variety of 70s horror cinema. Blending elements of road movies, chase thrillers and 70s satanic horror, it is a surprisingly coherent concoction with plenty of pulse-pounding action and unsettling images.

The early scenes, in which we meet our protagonists and their transport/residence, feel like the set-up to a 70s sitcom: watch our kooky heroes as they road trip across America engaging in hijinks with locals, mechanical problems and Frank's (Oates) conflict with Roger's (Fonda) dog.

 The tone of the lighting and Leonard Rosenman's score feel like a dare, pushing the bland everydayness of the couples and their planned vacation (the casting of Swit, still famous today as 'Hot Lips' from Mash, reinforces the movie's televisual style.

This might sound like a slog, but the cast have good chemistry (Oates and Fonda feel like genuine buddies) and Starrett shows off his background in biker flicks by having the men engage in hi-octane antics on their dirt bikes (the characters are former racers who own a motorbike dealership).

Aside from the main titles, there is little indication during these scenes that you are watching a horror movie. Once the couples reach their camp site, the movie makes a shift - just as the couples are settling in for the night with drinks and banter, off in the distance a fire starts under a large dead tree and the sound of chanting echoes around the desert.

I have to say this movie could have been incredibly silly, but the cult are really well-drawn antagonists. There is nothing supernatural to them - we never understand why they were sacrificing the woman, or what they are worshipping. All that matters is that they are bad and they are literally everywhere.

The most unsettling part of the movie is the omnipresence of the cult. One of the great aspects of a lot of the more supernaturally-tinged horror films of this era is the emphasis on making the banal and normal uncanny: the coven of bickering middle-aged satanists in Rosemary's Baby; the hippy-like spectre in Let's Scare Jessica To Death; or the series of accidents in The Omen. With no monsters or magic to fall back on, the filmmakers here show a similar focus on making middle America seem as disturbing as possible.

Everywhere our heroes go, they find friendly people who are willing to help but provide nothing at all. For most of the first half of this movie, the horror is based on apathy. Every time our heroes are in need of rest or repairs or a phone, they find nothing.

By the time the movie enters the third act, it seems like everyone they meet is involved. While he is a dab hand at action, director Jack Starett does a great job milking the characters' paranoia, framing multiple sequences around people just silently staring at our heroes: Are they members of the cult? Or just bystanders aghast at the weirdos in the RV?

As the film continues, the cult's actions escalate (with a mobile home invasion, a dead pet and some rattle snakes) until the climax, which features a veritable convoy of vehicles attacking the beleaguered RV.

With this final car chase, the movie shifts gears and turns into a variation on Duel and other highway-set thrillers.  Featuring a variety of vehicles, and a series of piratical assaults by cult members leaping onto the RV, it feels like a dry run for the final sequence of Mad Max 2.

And after all of this great stuff, we get one of the great horror endings.  

Featuring great performances from its cast (Oates is awesome) and fine direction from Jack Starrett, Race with the Devil is a really fun flick that is worth checking out for its savvy juggling of different genres. It is somewhat obscure outside of genre circles, but if you can find it, Race with the Devil is totally worth checking out. 

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