Peter Fonda made his mark in low-budget, independent films and, in a way, he never really left the cinematic underground. Although 1969's Easy Rider, Fonda's star-making role, is lauded as a watershed moment in filmmaking, it's worth remembering that the film itself was made for next to nothing (an estimated $400,000 budget with a gross of $60 million), with actors who, at the time, were relative nobodies. It was a minor production at all levels, which only became seminal after the fact, with its tremendous impact on an entire generation of filmgoers. That spontaneity and ability to improvise on the fly, inherent in low- or no-budget filmmaking, seems to suit Fonda, who went on to become something of a counter-cultural icon - the grandfather of independent film, if you will.
What makes his decision to continue pursuing low-budget projects after the smashing success of Easy Rider can be found in the deceptive, laissez-faire attitude Fonda has about his life and, by extension, his art. As an actor, he's never less than totally committed, albeit to roles that don't appear to push him much beyond his natural comfort zone. Had Fonda pursued a career in big-budget Hollywood projects, he might've burned out much faster. Instead, he drifted along, working in the fringes, and only recently finding himself in higher-profile films (the 3:10 to Yuma remake, Nicolas Cage's godawful Ghost Rider) which don't really require much in the way of stretching himself. Hey, Fonda's Fonda and damned if any filmmaker is going to ask him to be anything but.
At any rate, the laconic Fonda is the connective tissue for this newly released "double feature" of 1974's Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and 1975's Race With the Devil. It's a bill fit for a drive-in (which, indeed is where both these films found a most receptive audience) and one that will appeal tremendously to fans of cult cinema. (Quentin Tarantino famously excerpted portions of Dirty Mary for an extended scene in 1997's Jackie Brown.)
The set-up for 1974's John Hough-directed Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is simplicity itself - indeed, all three main characters are glimpsed before the film is even five minutes old. Laid-back Larry (Fonda), who yearns to be a professional race car driver, and his mechanic buddy Deke (Adam Rourke) are a pair of automotively-inclined thieves who appreciate sweet rides almost as much as they enjoy knocking over grocery stores. Mary (Susan George), a one-night stand that Larry leaves behind without a second thought, decides to join the fellas on the lam after they rob the local grocery store and terrify its manager (Roddy McDowell, in an uncredited role).
As soon as the rubber meets the road, it's a car chase extravaganza punctuated with moments of character building (such as the extended car repair interlude, where Larry and Mary trade barbs about each other) and a lawman (Vic Morrow) hellbent on capturing the trio, using any means necessary. But, mostly, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is built for speed; the set pieces, many of which appear to have been done with the bare minimum of safety considerations, still provide a tremendous adrenaline surge over 30 years after their initial creation. (Again, speaking of Tarantino, it's not difficult to see where he drew inspiration for Death Proof.)
As efficient as it is brutal, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry doesn't overstay its welcome - although, sorry, but Susan George's performance still makes me nuts; who wouldn't just kick her to the curb? - and overcomes its irredeemably cheese ball dialogue (too much to quote; a personal favorite: Vic Morrow's utterance of "This ain't no dirt track, roundy-rounder.") with scenes of vehicular mayhem that no amount of soulless CGI in the world could replicate. It's a giddy blast of vintage B-movie merriment, with a startling conclusion that has shades (likely deliberately) of Easy Rider.
Race with the Devil, directed by Jack Starrett and which hit theatres in 1975, is a slightly different beast, at least in its main narrative. It's also got a bit more meat on its bones; Hollywood has been circling a remake, at least since 2005 and, according to IMDb, a remake will reportedly make its way to multiplexes this year (although I couldn't find any substantial information about who's directing, starring or writing the project).
In Devil, Fonda again stars as a relatively easygoing guy, Roger Marsh, who along with his wife Kelly (Lara Parker) and another couple, Frank and Alice Stewart (Warren Oates and Loretta Swit, respectively), are vacationing in a RV from Texas to Colorado, for a spot of skiing, when they just happen to witness a gruesome murder during a Satanic ritual. The cops don't believe 'em and the quartet is forced to defend itself against repeated attacks from the cult. Swap motorbikes, RVs and bloodthirsty Satanists for Dodge Chargers, blonde floozies and determined cops and you've got roughly the same formula as Dirty Mary. That said, Devil does seem to have slightly more ambition than merely titillation - although it has that in spades too.
It's really the relationship between Roger and Frank (and Fonda and Oates's chemistry) which propels the film forward, along with its kinetic action sequences and, surprisingly, palpable tension. Although most would consider Race with the Devil a schlocky B-movie, it's remarkably polished and, a few period details aside (for example: Oates's giddy description of the stereo system in the RV: "Stereo - with four channels!"), holds up pretty well, particularly in this era of torture porn-splattered fright flicks.
(One quick aside: I'm not sure if this is the case in all retail copies of this two-disc set, but the finished version I received for review had one pretty glaring flaw: the discs were mis-labeled. When I went to put in the DVD labeled Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, I was greeted with the menu screen for Race with the Devil, just as the disc labeled Race with the Devil contained Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. If Shout! Factory hasn't addressed this error, they might want to get on that.)
From what I can tell, based on my research, both Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Race With the Devil sport the exact same 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers as found on previous DVD versions (see the "Extras" section for more information). Given each film's low-budget origins and advanced age, they look quite good. There is the occasional speck or fleeting instance of softness, but overall, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Race with the Devil appear very crisp, well-saturated and not at all like the trailers or TV spots included as bonus features (i.e., rough and murky).
Again, as with the previous DVD releases, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Race with the Devil are outfitted with either Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo tracks or remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Larry sounds as good as it looks, although, curiously, I found the 2.0 track to be sharper and less muffled than the 5.1 track, which I had to turn up quite high to understand clearly. Nevertheless, dialogue is heard without distortion or drop-out and the sweet, sweet revving of every engine feels sufficiently weighty. Race with the Devil carries only a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, which conveys every scream, gunshot and bit of satanic spookiness with clarity and warmth. Of the two, Devil sounds cleaner and clearer. Neither title has any subtitles options.
Each film has been previously released on DVD, in June 2005 by Anchor Bay; both discs are now out of print. In essence, this "new," two-disc set merely repackages the previous Anchor Bay offerings with nothing new added. (DVD Talk reviewers Ian Jane and Stuart Galbraith IV took a look at Race With the Devil here and here, respectively, while Jane also reviewed Dirty Mary Crazy Larry here.) So, if you haven't picked up either of these cult classics, this is an exceedingly cheap way to get 'em (MSRP is $14.93), but if you're satisfied with the existing releases, then just keep on truckin'.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry's supplements include the 30 minute, 27 second retrospective featurette (presented in anamorphic widescreen) "Ride the Wild Side," which includes interviews with director John Hough and actors Peter Fonda and Susan George. The trio, filmed separately, reminisces about the freewheeling shoot, the script and its place in pop cultural history. Hough also sits for a commentary track, moderated by Perry Martin, which also provides ample behind-the-scenes information about the film, as well as its context within the go-for-broke '70s. A pair of TV spots, a few radio spots, a photo gallery and four trailers (Race With the Devil, Sky Riders, Fighting Mad and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) complete the disc.
Race With the Devil's bonus features include the 17 minute, 51 second retrospective featurette (presented in anamorphic widescreen) "Hell on Wheels," which is built around an interview with Peter Fonda. He fondly remembers working with his dear friend Warren Oates, as well as the loopy nature of the screenplay and his reasons for taking the role. Executive producer Paul Mastansky and actress Lara Parker sit for a commentary track, again moderated by Perry Martin, which delves into the making of the film, as well as their reaction to the material, among other things. A TV spot, a handful of radio spots, a photo/still gallery and four trailers (Race With the Devil, Moving Violation, Fighting Mad and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) completes the disc.
Peter Fonda made his mark in low-budget, independent films and, in a way, he never really left the cinematic underground. Although 1969's Easy Rider, Fonda's star-making role, is lauded as a watershed moment in filmmaking, it's worth remembering that the film itself was made for next to nothing (an estimated $400,000 budget with a gross of $60 million), with actors who, at the time, were relative nobodies. It was a minor production at all levels, which only became seminal after the fact, with its tremendous impact on an entire generation of filmgoers. That spontaneity and ability to improvise on the fly, inherent in low- or no-budget filmmaking, seems to suit Fonda, who went on to become something of a counter-cultural icon - the grandfather of independent film, if you will. The laconic Fonda is the connective tissue for this newly released "double feature" of 1974's Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and 1975's Race With the Devil. It's a bill fit for a drive-in (which, indeed is where both these films found a most receptive audience) and one that will appeal tremendously to fans of cult cinema. Those who purchased the individual 2005 releases of Larry and Devil won't need to race out and pick this two-disc set up, but if you've held off, for whatever reason, this affordably-priced "double feature" is a no brainer. Highly recommended.