Anchor Bay // 1975 // 88 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 15th, 2005
If you're going to race with the devil, you better be fast as Hell!
After five years without a vacation, the Marches -- Peter (Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold) and Kelly (Lara Parker, Dark Shadows) -- and the Stewarts -- Frank (Warren Oates, Stripes) and Alice (Loretta Swit, M*A*S*H) -- are heading to Colorado to do a little skiing. Leaving their San Antonio home, they head out on the highway in a brand-new $36,000 RV. With a long day of traveling behind them, they avoid the local trailer park and pull off into a secluded area near a river to rest for the night.
One delightful dinner later, the boys head outside for some additional "liquid" refreshment. While shooting the bull, they hear a commotion. Turns out, a local cult of devil worshippers has set up shop across the stream, and the clan has killed a young woman as a human sacrifice. Naturally, the bloodthirsty bad guys spot the inadvertent spies. Barely escaping, the couples head into town to report the crime. But the local police don't seem very interested. In fact, the whole region appears determined to keep these people quiet. Thus begins a chase to the death, as the Marches and the Stewarts learn the deadly pitfalls one faces when they Race with the Devil.
Race with the Devil is the true definition of a drive-in classic, the kind of movie that really packed them in at the local passion pit. With its threadbare plotting, simplistic characterization, and action-packed chase scenes, there is not a great deal of depth to this production. The early to mid-1970s were certainly known for their obsession with Satanic cinema (The Omen, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby, just to name a few); Race with the Devil certainly falls within this entire Lucifer-leery concept. Of course, with a narrative like the one offered here, there is some reciprocal skepticism on the audience's part as well. The plot is creatively convoluted. After all, it's rather hard to believe that a good portion of the State of Texas is loaded to the localities with Beelzebub's brethren. Still, if Leatherface and the rest of the Sawyer clan can chainsaw their way to a human dinner without the authorities getting wise, those who want to participate in a little late-night ritualistic sacrifice probably won't raise much suspicion, either.
The casting is sensational across the board, with every character perfectly realized. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates may have been old friends by the time they made this movie (they had starred in two other films together), but there is still a sense of discovery in their bond, a tenuousness which gives the audience a chance to get to know them as well. Lara Parker, of Dark Shadows fame, is the other important role here (poor Loretta Swit doesn't have much to do except look mortified). Adding an element of prescience to the proceedings, she gives the viewer ethereal information that the vast majority of the movie's narrative avoids. Questions like how the Satanists can be so well organized, how they anticipate the RV's every move, and the true danger the couples face all get projected through Parker's piercing, empathetic eyes. You just know trouble is around the corner when Kelly gets her strange stare on.
In the ancillary roles, director Jack Starrett (who replaced Lee Frost after three days) uses local color, as well as a professional character actor or two, to amplify the menace. R. G. Armstrong walks the thin line between good and bad guy as the oddly named Sheriff Taylor (a secret Mayberry slam?). Elsewhere, the filmmaker installs amateurs, using an Italian horror ideal of visual idiosyncrasy for the look of his populace. The residents of this "Hellish" realm all seem forged from the freak show side of the gene pool, and they make for an unsettling backdrop to our story. As filmmaker, Starrett is really more of a stunt man. This means the action sequences sizzle with a kind of kinetic energy that wouldn't be seen on the big screen again until George Miller delivered his Mad Max films. His otherwise pedestrian handling of the exposition occasionally grinds Race with the Devil to a half-baked halt. We frequently wish that the film would be the non-stop chase epic it positions itself to be. But budgetary limits obviously required a greater attention to the non-road race aspects of the story.
Frankly, the horror is mostly ill considered. Covens crazy enough to sacrifice sexy blondes in the middle of an open field in plain view of anyone passing by aren't working with a well-stocked paranormal pantry to begin with. And since we only view the one violent act (the death of a dog doesn't count, because it occurs off screen), it's hard to feel the threat our characters keep complaining about. Yes, there are the attacks along the way, but we never know the Satanists' real intent. Maybe they just wanted to swap shop stories with Angelique, or blow a doobie with the original Easy Rider. All kidding aside, Race with the Devil doesn't take to its terror. Instead, this is a thriller in the most primal sense of the word. We have innocents, a perceived threat, and an attempt to avoid the consequences. That being said, there is still something grandly cheesy about this entire enterprise, a pleasant throwback atmosphere that will have you laughing at every illogical plot point with unbridled glee. Certainly this is a film ripe for a remake (we will see when the new version arrives in theaters in 2006), but in its original form, it's a superficial blast.
Anchor Bay, long a leader in bringing B-movie rarities to the DVD format, does a fine job with this disc as well. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean and mostly defect free. Certainly director Starrett frequently steered the film into TV-movie territory with his flat, medium shot compositions. But the overall aesthetic does lend a claustrophobic air to the story and suspense. On the sound side, the flat and thin Dolby Digital Mono is maddening. Lara Parker is a true scream queen (she's got literal lung capacity to spare), and when she gets those chops chiming, we tread precariously into distortion territory.
True to their tendencies, Anchor Bay also fleshed out this release with as many bonus features as possible. We are treated to a 17-minute interview with Peter Fonda that, while occasionally rambling and filled with insular observations, still offers up wonderful anecdotes and confessions. Equally informative is the full-length commentary featuring Executive Producer Paul Maslansky and actress Lara Parker (with DVD producer Perry Martin acting as moderator). Parker paints in the more performance-oriented aspects of the shoot, while Maslansky is a veritable encyclopedia of facts and figures. He has a near-photographic memory about locations and budget -- even certain logistical nightmares that arose during shooting. It's a sensational alternate narrative, and along with the trailers, TV spots, and two different galleries (one for poster art, one for behind-the-scenes snaps), Anchor Bay again delivers a quality digital package.
All its inherent flaws aside, there is still something eminently watchable about Race with the Devil. Maybe it's how serious the cast is taking this supernatural fluff. Perhaps it's the thrilling stunt work. It could be the movie's amazing ability to overcome its storyline inconsistencies to deliver a decent action-adventure buzz. Whatever the reasons, there is enough of it in this Fox release to entertain your studio schlock sensibilities.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Full-Length Audio Commentary Featuring Executive Producer Paul Maslansky, Actress Lara Parker, and DVD Producer Perry Martin
* "Hell on Wheels" Featurette: an Interview with Peter Fonda
* TV Spots
* Poster Art and Stills Gallery
* Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
* Lara Parker Official Site