Thanks to Wrenage for contributing this retro review to LMO!
I often have the Heroes and Icons Channel on when working. Every morning I see Steve McQueen in Wanted Dead or Alive, Richard Boone in Have Gun – Will Travel, Cameron Mitchell in High Chaparral (and Henry Darrow who recently passed away) and Clint in Rawhide. Such shows are actor factories. A lot of familiar faces pop up, including George Kennedy, Jack Lord, Leslie Nielsen and Warren Oates.
Oates got me thinking, I should watch Race With The Devil (1975) again, so I did…
The premise: two couples want to take a road trip in their state-of-the-art RV (microwave included!) to the skiing paradise of Aspen (where the beer flows like wine!). It all goes south when they witness a satanic ceremony while camped out in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. At that point, they must be eliminated by the cult members before they can make it to a city and tattle.
Well, I Don’t Want To Overload This Dinner Party With Cinnamon…
Warren Oates got second billing in Race With The Devil. He gets first mention in this retro review because he was in The Wild Bunch, which I consider one of the greatest films ever made.
Oates started out in TV westerns as Guy On Horse Number Four. He eventually worked his way up to Guy On Horse Number One. Oates also got to know Sam Peckinpah on the set of The Rifleman, which is how he ended up in The Wild Bunch. Oates had a nice little career with a smattering of other classics mixed in like In The Heat Of The Night (1967), Stripes (1981) and Blue Thunder (1983).
Oates died about seven years after making Race With The Devil. I felt like I could see his demise coming from the way he looked onscreen. He had the look of a guy from that generation who drinks and smokes too much and exercises too little.
What do you mean go for a walk? I keep my heart rate up with the smooth stimulation of Marlboros, and I keep my organs greased with the finest of gin.
Peter Fonda: I’ve never gotten the Fonda mystique. Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen Easy Rider. It’s one of those movies that has slipped through the cracks. I could be wrong, but my impression of Fonda is someone who had a famous dad for an actor and rebelled by showing us how we are all slaves to the system, man, and he is here to save us with LSD. To me, Fonda will always be the drunken helicopter pilot battling lizard people with Deborah Raffin in Dance With The Dwarfs (1983).
Loretta Swit: does anyone associate Swit with anything but M*A*S*H? Probably not, but that’s a solid legacy at the end of the day.
Do you know what chaffs my hide, though? That name — Swit. It sounds like an incomplete name, like Burt Reyn or Arnold Schwar. Loretta Swith sounds better. Loretta Swithen sounds better still. Loretta Swithenhouse nee Dondondinger sounds best of all.
Laura Parker: Parker plays the scared, pretty girl in Race With The Devil. She’s good in the role because she’s pretty, and her big eyes lend themselves to being scared. Other than Race With The Devil, Parker’s best-known work was on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Parker and Swithenhouse (nee Dondondinger) do not have a lot to do in Race With The Devil. It’s a bit jarring after watching modern movies where women are portrayed as behemoths of strength and strike hero poses after taking out seventy-five men thrice their size.
When Parker and Swithenhouse (nee Dondondinger) aren’t scared, they make sandwiches, literally. The most they get to do is visit a library to supply exposition to the proceedings. The only moxy they display is stealing a book from said library. Don’t worry. They plan to mail it back.
R.G. Armstrong: this is the guy who sent Arnold to fight the Predator. I wonder if Armstrong ended up in Race With The Devil because of his connection to Oates. Both of them were Peckinpah guys. Armstrong appeared in Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
In Race With The Devil, Armstrong plays a yokel sheriff who slanders hippies. Hippy haters in movies are always portrayed as yokels, but seriously, does anyone like hippies? It doesn’t matter if you’re a yokel, a trust fund baby, a brain surgeon, a baker, a plumber, possibly even a clown. Nobody likes hippies.
Race With The Devil features an RV that must have been quite the dy-no-mite luxury item back in the 70s. The wood paneling has wood paneling. The only thing shaggier than its carpet is Gloria Hendry’s wig in Live And Let Die. If the RV was anymore orange and brown, it would be quarterbacked by Baker Mayfield.
The RV also has a TV — color. Its reception — perfect. We are talking 17 inches of all the ABC and CBS your eyeballs can take in. The RV’s drink mixing set looks like something the parents in Time Bandits would have owned. If that’s not enough, this RV can off-road through six-inch streams with all the grace of a brick on metal roller skates. In 1975 that RV could be yours for a measly $36,000. Adjusted for inflation, that is $176,000 today.
I Don’t Drive Too Well When I’m Asleep…
This retro review of Race With The Devil is a bit hard to pin down. It’s kind of a horror movie. It’s kind of a suspense movie. It’s kind of a conspiracy movie. It even takes a few minutes to be an animals-amok movie and a barfight movie. Lastly, it’s kind of a driving movie.
The 70s had a lot of driving movies: Convoy, Smoky and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, Duel…the list goes on. Did gas shortages put driving in everyone’s subconscious? Was it because of drive-in theaters? I have no idea, but Hollywood had driving on the brain during that era.
In Race With The Devil, Oates and Fonda play motorcycle racers/dealers, and a decent chunk of time is spent showing them with two-wheelers. Fonda races a motorcycle around a track (with a terrible time of 17 seconds). The two of them then squat beside the motorcycle and mull something over about grinding cylinder heads to get more speed, with all the gravity of two guys puzzling out the Treaty of Versailles. Race With The Devil also has a motorcycle race sequence between the two that ultimately serves no purpose other than the filmmakers and actors maybe wanted to drive dirt bikes around the countryside and try out their handlebar-mounted SnorriCam.
Despite having a made-for-TV feel, Race With The Devil is known for a chase sequence that almost serves as a rough outline of the climatic chase in The Road Warrior. This is interesting because Race With The Devil preceded The Road Warrior by about six years.
What is even more interesting is the man responsible for staging this sequence. Jack Starrett directed Race With The Devil. Starrett was both an actor and a director. His best known acting roles were Gabby in Blazing Saddles and sleazy deputy Galt, the guy who triggered Rambo’s PSTD in First Blood.
I found this bit of trivia surprising. I always hated Galt, which is a testament to Starrett’s portrayal of him. I had zero idea that same guy directed Race With The Devil. Like Oates, Starrett passed away at a relatively young age. Both men barely got into their fifties.
Well, This Time They Ran Out Of Cats…
I mentioned yokels awhile back. As Race With The Devil is kind of a driving movie, it’s kind of a yokel horror movie, as well. Shady yokels pop up everywhere. The movie visits a yokel bar. Is there a yokel band? Yep. Is there a yokel barfight? Double yep.
The movie visits a yokel RV camp. You can practically see the polio in the pool. A yokel husband/wife RV couple stopover with drinks to compare RVs. Their RV has real wood. The wife polishes it floor-to-ceiling once a week. If that scene went on thirty seconds longer, I’m pretty sure the next line of dialogue would have been –
“Speaking of wives, want to swap?”
Oates and Fonda walk into a yokel store and buy a shotgun in about two minutes. It’s not quite as easy nowadays, nor is finding ammo. I don’t know about other places, but where I live the guns and ammo shelves are bare and have been bare for months. The rioters basically motivated everyone to go out and buy guns and ammo, even the hippies…
Basically, no matter how far the heroes drive in Race With The Devil, they run into yokel Satanists who are in on the conspiracy. It’s a bit far-fetched, but I don’t really hold movies like Race With The Devil to excessive levels of logic. Movies like this are basically dark fairy tales.
Speaking of yokel movies, you know a yokel movie that unnerved me, even though it has zero horror elements? Wake in Fright (1971).
Wake In Fright is about an Australian school teacher who loses all his money and gets stuck in a town full of yokels. He is dragged along in endless yokel debauchery: drinking, fighting, shooting kangaroos, and eventually finds himself in a wrestling match with Donald Pleasance that turns amorous. It’s difficult to put my finger on why exactly this movie unsettled me. Probably something about being trapped in an alien culture with no comfort zones. Generally, yokels themselves don’t bother me because I’m basically a yokel myself at the end of the day.
Most folks’ll never eat a skunk, but then again some folks’ll, like Wrenage, the slack-jawed yokel! In an odd coincidence that I must mention, Ted Kotcheff directed Wake In Fright. Kotcheff also directed First Blood, so he knew Starrett. It’s all connected!
Get Out There And Stomp A Little
When it comes to 70s horror, one basically has three choices of subject matter: the devil, animals amok and conspiracy. Race With The Devil has all three. There’s a shot in Race With The Devil that sums up 70s horror to me. It’s a shot of a rattlesnake on an orange shag carpet. It is an animal amok, placed there by a devil worshipper, in a conspiratorial way.
To a degree, Race With The Devil reminded me of Cobra (1986), where you got a group of cultists trying to kill people who saw too much. It is claimed Race With The Devil also inspired Drive Angry (2011). I’ve seen Drive Angry, but I don’t remember enough about it to recognize any comparison. I’d say Race With The Devil may have also inspired Breakdown (1997) to a degree.
One more fun fact: Race With The Devil is one of the movies on TV that Tom Hanks flips past in The Burbs when he is wondering if his neighbors are Satanists.
I wonder what a Race With The Devil remake would look like today. The cult members wouldn’t be Satanists because Hollywood wouldn’t want to offend any non-trad religious groups, plus it would be a little close to the mark since Hollywood has sold its soul. For those reasons, there is really only one safe choice for Hollywood to make regarding the villains: Christians!
Premise: a group of millennial humanists are on a road trip to Burning Man in their electric car. They stop in a small down to pick up some organic vegetables.
“Excuse me, sir, would you like a pamphlet on how to be saved?”
“Your words are violence against our world view!”
“I just want to give you a pamphlet so you don’t go to hell!”
“Stop assaulting me!”
Then throughout the movie, the heroes would do things like stop for gas, go into the store for vitamin water and when they came out, there’d be a pamphlet under their windshield wiper. They’d stop to eat, and when they go to the bathroom and come out of the stall, there’d be a pamphlet on the sink. On the road, they’d drive by billboards with John 3:16 on them. It culminates with the heroes driving back to the church and burning it down.
Finally, we can live in a world that is one big safe space for all…
It writes itself!