Race with the Devil (1975) is a real surprise, a modestly-budgeted, action-packed horror film that's really quite suspenseful and, at times, very scary by mid-1970s standards. I first saw it (I think) when it made its network television debut, probably around 1978, and again a year or two later in syndication. I hadn't seen it in the 25-odd years since, and was surprised at just how well I had remembered it. To the filmmakers' credit, more than a few scenes had been burned permanently into my brain.
Part of the film's charm is its simplicity. Two couples: business partners Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates), and their respective wives, Kelly (Lara Parker) and Alice (Loretta Swit), begin a long-overdue vacation aboard a brand-new 35-foot Vogue, a behemoth of an R.V. with all the trimmings: shower, microwave oven, and a killer "stereo - four channels!" Along with Kelly's dog, Ginger, the merry-makers leave San Antonio bound for Aspen, guzzling extra dry martinis all the way. "We are self-contained, baby!" Frank gloats.
On the rural, lonely Texas plain, the four camp out far off the beaten path, and as it turns out just across the river from pack of devil worshippers whose late night activities include a human sacrifice. Halfway through their satanic ritual, the devil-worshipers realize that a shocked Roger and Frank have witnessed the stabbing of a young woman from afar, and from here on out the film becomes a slam-bang race across the country, with the vacationers madly trying to reach authorities in Amarillo who can protect them.
Part of what makes Race with the Devil so scary is its creepy paranoia, the suggestion that a good chunk of rural Texas has become overrun with Satanists, from a school bus full of children to granny in her rocking chair. The film anticipates the ambiguous, singularly disquieting horror fully capitalized by Philip Kaufman in his excellent remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
Screenwriters Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, whose collaborations include the surprisingly smart The Thing with Two Heads (1972), also do a good job writing the four leads, efficiently fashioning them into admirably three-dimensional characters in the opening reels, so that once the action starts the audience already has a good handle on how each might react to the crisis. Oates's Frank, for instance, is more introspective and cautious, and it's hinted that he admires Roger's slightly more freewheeling approach to life. Roger, by contrast, has a stronger personality but he doesn't know when to shut up and lay low, and this gets him into trouble.
The wives are less fully drawn, but have separate personalities all the same. And each fits their male counterpart quite well; both pairs are very believable as a married couple.
The action, when it starts, is relentless and extremely well filmed. The second unit work, from a motorcycle race at the beginning to dirt bike hijinks in the middle and all the R.V. vs. Satan stuff that follows, is superb. Director Jack Starrett and editors Allan Jacobs and John F. Link's integration of this material belies the picture's meager $1.7 million budget. (Domestically, the film made three times its cost and was apparently a big hit overseas.)
Leonard Rosenman's score, though somewhat derivative (it sounds a lot like his music for the Planet of the Apes films) is appropriately creepy and pounding, Paul Knuckles's stunt team does an outstanding job, and even the title design is memorable.
Indeed, the film hits almost every note exactly right. (One of the few flaws is the decision to show the Satanists' ritual in standard medium and close shots. It's much scarier at the beginning of the scene, when what's going on is viewed from a distance or through binoculars, where what's going on isn't exactly clear.) Nevertheless, it's still one of the best horror films of the 1970s, and a model of lower-budget filmmaking.
Video & Audio
A Fox title licensed to Anchor Bay, Race with the Devil is in great shape, and its bright 16:9 anamorphic transfer makes the most of Robert C. Jessup's confident 1.85:1 lensing. The mono audio is clean and free of age-related defects. There is no subtitle or alternate audio options. One minor concern is the optical hazing used to obscure some (but not all) of the nudity during the satanic ritual. This was probably done back in 1975 to secure the film's PG rating, but this critic was initially concerned that a TV version might have been sourced.
Anchor Bay's Race with the Devil is packed with extras, beginning with Hell on Wheels a 17-minute featurette in 16:9 format. Peter Fonda discusses the film ("It's wild shit!" he says) and his frequent teamings with Warren Oates, who died too soon in 1982 at age 53.
An Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Paul Maslansky, Actress Lara Parker, and DVD producer Perry Martin is unusually good, with a lot of nuts and bolts information and amusing stories about the film's production. A Trailer is 16:9 and complete with text and narration, and it looks as if Anchor Bay may have gone and replaced some battered shots with clean ones from the new feature master. Three Radio Spots are also included.
As usual with this label, the Poster & Still Gallery and Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery are extensive and interesting. A trio of trailers for other Anchor Bay releases round out the supplements.
The inevitable remake of Race with the Devil has been announced, but it seems unlikely that it could hope repeat the simple good fortune of the original, where 30 years ago a talented bunch of actors and filmmakers converged on the outskirts of San Antonio and despite a tight budget, everything seemed to click.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.