Thursday, February 2, 2017

In short: Race with the Devil (1975)

Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda) and their wives Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker) set off for a tour through the USA to Aspen in Frank’s and Alice’s hypermodern RV. Alas, quite early on in their travels, somewhere out in the sticks, our protagonists witness a satanic ritual including human sacrifice and a bit of mild nudity. Thanks to some ill-advised shouting, the satanists witness them right back. After some excitement the vacationers escape to the nearby sheriff’s department, but as it quickly turns out, spilling the beans to these officials just gives the bad guys more information and probably convinces them that it would be much better to get rid of this meddlesome quartet.

This starts the protagonists off on an RV chase through much US backcountry, where our heroes encounter many a broken phone line (there was a strong wind up north, you know) and a huge amount of satanists. Seriously, turns out there’s basically none but satanists out and about in the country.

Despite the satanist angle, Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil is a horror movie in name only. Mostly, this is a fine low budget action movie in a style that could only have been used in the 70s, with some excellent car stunts, a handful of crude but highly effective suspense scenes and a huge dollop of very 70s style paranoia. Even though the writing suggests something of an upmarket TV movie, Starrett’s direction is highly energetic, the stunt work is quite wonderful, and the pacing spot on. Add to that Fonda and Oates being Fonda and Oates in their respective primes, and I can’t imagine anyone not dead not enjoying the ride at least a little.

The film moonlights as an incredible time capsule, a living embodiment of the mid-70s, every moment and every detail in it soaked through with the taste and smell of the time it was made in, be it in the portrayal of the satanists (who by the way have Aztec roots as a helpful library book our heroines steal explains), that darn RV and the beatings it takes, the fashion (oh, the fashion!), and even the particular kind of horror movie bullshit ending it features. Unfortunately, 70s machismo does rear its ugly head too, with the female characters mostly relegated to screeching, whimpering, book stealing and in Parker’s case to making frightened eyes at the camera while the menfolk fight around them. There’s a reason I introduced the characters the way that I did.

However, I’m not going to blame a time capsule for being one – you gotta take the awesome with the annoying with this sort of thing.

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