The late 1960s and early 1970s broke new ground with high-end supernatural/occult-themed films, such as “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Exorcist” (1973). That wave continued into the mid-1970s, but it devolved into a slew of exploitation flicks made primarily for drive-in theaters, such as 1975’s “The Devil’s Rain” and “Race with the Devil,” which I had the (mis) fortune of seeing together (gotta love the days of double-features) at a drive-in when I was all of eight years old (yes, my sisters and I were raised by wolves). Having already reviewed “The Devil’s Rain” a few years ago, I decided to review the other one this time. The one with an Easy Rider, an off-duty Major Houlihan and a big damn RV.
“Race with the Devil” sports a game cast, consisting of Peter Fonda (“Easy Rider”), Warren Oates (“Blue Thunder”), Loretta Swit (“MASH”) and an over-the-top Lara Parker (“Dark Shadows”). The story could be best described as “Rosemary’s Baby” meets “Two Lane Blacktop” (which also starred Oates), with a side-order of “Duel” (1971) thrown in for good measure. A tight-knit community of devil worshippers in a small Texas town are mobilized when a group of RV-driving vacationers stumble across their ritual human sacrifice deep in the woods. Hate it when that happens…
This 88-minute flick saves the titular race for the final act, as the unhappy campers try to outrun a makeshift armada of pickup trucks and cars fully committed to stopping them.
“Race with the Devil” (1975)
The movie opens with motorcycle shop owners and dirt-bike racing partners, Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda), planning a cross-country vacation to Aspen, Colorado with their respective wives, Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker). After tweaking their latest racing motorcycle, Roger is introduced to Frank’s newest toy; a 32 ft. Vogue ‘Villa Grande’ recreational vehicle. We’re even given a tour of the massive vehicle’s amenities, which include a color TV, a bathroom with shower, and a full kitchen, complete with a microwave oven (microwaves were fairly new and pricey back in 1975, I can vouch). It’s America on wheels.
Forget fancy hotels, Frank assures everyone, we have this big bad boy, right here. What could possibly go wrong? Before you can answer that, we learn that Kelly has brought her little yapping support dog, much to Frank’s annoyance. Roger also remembers to take two motorcycles on the back of the RV for he and Frank to race in the mud with, of course. On this so-called ‘vacation,’ Alice and Kelly are relegated to cooking, cleaning, and occasionally driving the rig—in other words, a vacation spent doing all the stuff they do at home. Yeah, sooo nice to get away from it all, Frank (extra sarcasm sauce…).
Note: It’s ironic seeing the late counterculture icon Peter Fonda (“Easy Rider,” “The Trip”) riding shotgun with Warren Oates’ super-establishment character, Frank. Peter Fonda (1940-2019) and Warren Oates (1928-1982) collaborated on two prior films (“The Hired Hand,” “92 in the Shade”) and were good friends. In the Anchor Bay DVD/BluRay featurette and commentary track, we learn that costar Peter Fonda signed onto the film to work with Oates again, and for the great profit points deal he got in his contract.
Driving through rural Texas, the four vacationers (sans any kids) decide to find a nice woodsy area and camp for the night. They don’t drive to an RV park, or any other designated rest area. Nope—they drive straight through a creek to a remote spot in the middle of nowhere. Once there, the women stay inside the RV while the men go outside and get s#!t-faced on beer. Noticing what looks like a wild campfire party across the creek, Roger breaks out the binoculars. Frank excitedly (and creepily) wonders if it might be an orgy. They see a group of oddly costumed folks singing and dancing with a naked young woman perched near a large pyre. Suddenly, a man in a “Wicker Man”-style animal mask stabs her.
Note: This movie was released only a few years after the Manson Tate-LeBianca Murder trial in Los Angeles, and there was still a lingering fear of ‘deadly hippie cults,’ even though Charles Manson himself was not actually a hippie (hippies were largely anti-war pacifists). Manson was a failed musician and two-bit prison conman who learned to weaponize the hippie movement for his own personal racist megalomania. In the movie, Frank, Roger, Alice and Kelly firmly represent white, middle-class America, while the film’s pseudo-Pagan/Satanists represent the various factions of counterculture (however poorly depicted) under one all-purpose tent of fear.
Realizing they’ve just witnessed a murder, Frank is incensed when Alice innocently, but loudly, calls out to Frank from the RV. As Frank desperately tries to shush her, the cult’s leader and his wild-eyed followers are alerted to their presence, and begin running across the river to permanently silence these four eyewitnesses. Frank and Roger rush back into the RV. Still more than a little drunk, Frank fires up the engine. As they try to escape, the RV gets stuck in the muddy creek. Roger manages to rig pieces of driftwood to create traction, but not before several of the devil worshippers catch up to the vehicle. The cult members cling to the sides of the RV, while Roger manages to knock them off with whatever weapons he can improvise. Frank is finally able to shake the rest off when he drives the rig out of the creek. After putting some distance between themselves and the crazed killers, the RV speeds back into town…
Note: Kudos to director Jack Starrett and cinematographer Roger C. Jessup for depicting the shadowy, ill-defined cult members in the red glare of tail-brake lights, or as silhouettes against the dark forest in quick cuts (well, quick by 1975 standards, anyway). We rarely see the cultists’ full faces or entire bodies. This has the effect of making them seem more like wild animals than people.
The following morning, Frank, Roger, Alice and Kelly arrive at the local police station. Wanting to call authorities in the nearest city, the passive-aggressive Sheriff Taylor (R.G. Armstrong) tells the four vacationers that a strong wind has knocked out local phone lines (of course). Taylor then offers to take the vacationers back to the scene of the crime, but a traumatized Kelly refuses to return, and Alice agrees to stay with her in the RV, which is parked outside the station. Frank and Roger volunteer to return to the scene with the sheriff. As he and Frank ride in the back of the sheriff’s car, Roger is increasingly suspicious at how the sheriff poo-poos their accusations, while insinuating that the two may have just been drunk. Soon, they arrive at the campsite, which Roger finds odd, since they never gave the sheriff exact directions on how to get there…
Note: Frank, who is a good decade or more older than Roger, too easily accepts the word of authority, while Roger still retains a healthy youthful mistrust; I wouldn’t expect anything less from “Captain America” (see: the mother of all indie films, 1969’s “Easy Rider”). I also can’t help wondering is the name “Sheriff Taylor” is an in-joke referencing the popular 1960s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sadly, this Sheriff Taylor has no wild-eyed deputy named Barney Fife.
Arriving at the scene, Frank, Roger and the cops look for the girl’s slain body, but find nothing—the entire campsite, save for a smoldering remnants of the ritual pyre, is cleaned out. Looking further into the woods, Frank comes across a slain dog’s corpse, strewn across the trunk of a tree. Once again, Sheriff Taylor dismisses this as some crazy hunting stuff, but promises to make a full report of it, blah, blah, blah… the usual platitudes to make a disgruntled civilian happy. Even Frank is beginning to share some of his buddy Roger’s distrust at this point.
Note: Of course, the audience is already 500 steps ahead of just about everyone else in this movie (except for Roger), and we know the downed phone lines are sabotage, and that the vaguely sinister-looking sheriff is in on it, too. That’s one of the problems with movies like this; if you’ve seen “Rosemary’s Baby,” you already know that devil worshippers in movies always come across a ‘nice, everyday folks’ in an attempt to bait naive, gullible protagonists. At least the movie doesn’t draw this out for too much longer, since the ‘mystery’ is hardly sustainable for anything more than a few minutes of screen time.
Meanwhile, Alice and Kelly are cleaning out broken glass and other debris from the previous night’s escape, when Kelly finds a note attached to the shattered glass of the rear window; it’s written in what appears to be pagan runes (that’s right—always blame the poor pagans). Anxious to translate the note, the two leave the RV and walk to a nearby library where they decide to research the occult. They learn that the symbols match those used in ancient satanic ceremonies which resemble the human sacrifice that Frank and Roger saw. Alice tries to check out the books, but the librarian refuses, explaining that the books are reference materials which can’t leave the library. Not content with a simple “no,” (Oh, Karen…) Alice then arranges for her accomplice Kelly to smuggle the books out of the library in her purse—promising Kelly they’ll mail them back, of course.
Note: I’m surprised Alice didn’t ask to speak with the librarian’s manger…
Trying to find a working phone and a service station to repair the RV’s shattered rear window, Roger is unable to find a single working phone anywhere in town, because of that same nasty north wind which knocked out the Sheriff’s phone (naturally). However, Roger does find a service station attendant who rigs together a crude substitute for their shattered rear window. Meanwhile, an increasingly-irritable Frank decides it’s high time to buy a shotgun, of course (yeah, because what’s a dream vacation without firepower, right? This movie is so American, it hurts). For some reason, Frank is able to buy a working gun without any hassles at all.
Note: I find it curious that the locals (who are all in on the cult, apparently) try to keep the four vacationers from making a simple phone call, yet have no problem selling them a working shotgun with ammunition (?). Maybe the guy selling shotguns didn’t get the memo, or perhaps the writers realized there’d be no final act without some gunplay…
Needing a place to relax their nerves and try to enjoy what’s left of their vacation, the vacationers find an RV park. Once there, they assume their troubles are behind them, as everyone there seems to be having a great time with the communal swimming pool. However, the people at the park act very odd. Frozen smiles, fixed stares and other creepy behaviors. A married couple acting as the park’s unofficial welcoming committee invite themselves aboard Frank’s RV and begin making smalltalk with the vacationers. With all the sincerity of a bad Sunday morning televangelist, the perpetually smiling strangers invite Frank and the others to dinner that night. With no reason not to trust them (beyond every ounce of intuition in all of their bodies), Frank and the others accept—though Kelly has deep reservations.
Note: The other patrons at the RV park seem to be a cross between the devil-worshipping Manhattanites of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the townsfolk of Mayberry. I wouldn’t trust any of them with the correct time, let alone a dinner invite. Maybe I just watch too many movies like this…
Until dinnertime, Alice and a nervous Kelly decide to give the community swimming pool a try. Enjoying the cool water, Kelly almost immediately begins to feel seen as all eyes in the park are soon staring at she and Alice. Not the usual kind of creepy leering one might anticipate when clad in a swimsuit, but something else. Everyone is staring—young and old alike—with the same eerie, vacant, frozen grin. Kelly, who’s still unsettled from the previous night’s harrowing escape, wants to get out of the pool. Picking up on her discomfort, Alice agrees, and they leave.
Note: Once again riffing on “Rosemary’s Baby,” the seeming innocuousness of strangers vacantly smiling or seeming too eager to please is a clear sign you’re in a deadly devil-worshipping cult movie. Hey, I don’t make the rules…
Returning to the relative safety of the RV, Alice tells Frank it’s time to go home. Frank, who’s poured a lot of money into his hotel-on-wheels, is pissed. He’s determined to have his dream vacation; devil-worshippers be damned (again). Agreeing to stay just for the night and leave in the morning, the hungry group decide to take the creepy locals up on their offer of dinner and hospitality at a nearby country music bar and grill.
Note: Yeah, I think I’d prefer to take my chances in Hell, thanks all the same. As both a non-fan of country music and an introvert by default, such a dinner would be just as bad. I’m with Kelly on this one…
After less-than-comfortable dinner at the noisy bar & grill, the four return to their RV to find it’s been broken into. Roger and Kelly’s little dog has been killed and hung on the open door. With Kelly screaming hysterically, Alice calms her down as the men seek a spot to bury to poor pooch. At this point, even Frank has had it with ‘small-town hospitality’ and fires up the rig to get the hell outta Dodge. Late at night, they roar out of the RV park, blasting the vehicle’s horn to get conveniently inconvenient bystanders out of their way. Once underway, Alice offers to make everyone coffee. Opening a cabinet, she discovers another surprise left in their ransacked RV—several deadly rattlesnakes. Distracted by everyone’s screaming, a panicked Frank rolls the RV off the road and into a tree. Roger uses their newly-purchased shotgun to try shooting the snakes, but it doesn’t work. As everyone panics, coolheaded Roger is able to grab one of the snakes and fling it outside—far away from a screaming Kelly. He then trips and lands within striking distance of another rattler. Alice and Frank help him out, and soon the rattlesnakes are rounded up, killed, and tossed out of the RV.
Note: Because the rattlesnakes in the sequence are almost entirely real, save for a single rubber prop used on Peter Fonda (by his own admission in the bonus features), this sequence is, by far, the most unsettling in the entire movie. To anyone who’s ever tried to evict an unwelcome snake, large spider, wasp’s nest, or who-knows-what-else from inside of their home, this scene is very relatable. Seeing this at the tender age of eight, it may have cost me a night of sleep or two, I won’t lie. Even in my bachelor days, I still remember many a late-night war with the random wasp or large spider that would crawl its way into my little apartment (including a nasty black widow spider that once left my forearm swollen like Popeye).
The morning after that nasty little bit of serpentine business, Roger and Frank manage to patch up the damage to their crashed RV; enough to drive away, at least. Roger also notices that their twin motorcycles have been sabotaged, as well. With part of the RV’s front grillwork knocked off, Frank’s once-pristine hotel-on-wheels now looks like something even Walter White and Jesse Pinkman would be embarrassed to cook meth in. Getting back on the road, the vacationers are making their way for the city—far away from this hive of rural devil cultists. On the only major road out of town, they are suddenly met with curious obstacles, such as a stranded school bus. Frank, realizing that there’s no school on Sundays, roars past the staged ‘accident,’ plowing into other vehicles with abandon in his haste. Soon, the vacationers are met by a makeshift armada of townsfolk in various vehicles, including pickups, a commercial truck and even sedans—all determined to stop the fleeing foursome from escaping and tipping off the authorities.
Note: So begins the titular ‘race with the devil.’ Fasten your seatbelts, please… you’re about to see where a huge chunk of the film’s budget went.
With Frank briefly taking back the wheel, Roger daringly climbs outside to the rear of the rig and cuts their two motorcycles loose—creating a nice obstacle for several of the sedans to crash into (and in action movies, every car crash automatically equals a fireball). Climbing back inside, Roger takes the wheel. The rest of the cult’s improvised armada is in hot pursuit, attempting to box the RV with a large commercial truck. Thanks to some balls-out driving on Roger’s part, the commercial truck is sent crashing into the other vehicles, throwing them off the road. With most of these would-be Mad Maxers destroyed or disabled, the vacationers are now left to deal with a single, very tenacious red pickup…
What Frank’s RV lacks in maneuverability, it more than makes up for in sheer bulk, and Roger uses that to maximum effect when he finally rams the pickup hard, causing it to spectacularly burst into flames as it’s sent flying off a bridge. The last of their satanic pursuers is officially toast.
Note: With modern-day digital FX making movie vehicle chases more ‘pretty’ than nail-biting, it’s oddly refreshing to see old-fashioned, all-steel vehicles knocking the living crap out of each other in less-than-idyllic settings (rural Texas is hardly New Zealand, or the Australian outback). While “The Devil’s Rain” is predictable, B-movie, drive-in hokum for the most part, the caliber of its stunt-work is amazing for such a low budget film. Some of it could take the Pepsi challenge with the work done in better-known cult car-chase flicks like 1974’s “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (another Peter Fonda movie) or “Gone in 60 Seconds,” also from 1974 (not the 2000 remake, which I’ve never seen).
Finally reaching outside the city limits, the four exhausted, traumatized vacationers are free and clear. With the sun going down on another interminable day in their nightmarish ‘dream vacation,’ Roger pulls the rig over to another remote patch off the side of the road, hoping for all of them to get a little rest. Their victory celebration is short-lived, however, as Alice looks outside of a window to see their RV encircled in a freshly made moat of fire, with an army of the town’s devil worshippers surrounding them…
Note: The final image of the movie is haunting and cinematic, with the RV surrounded in a diabolical ring of fire (apologies to Johnny Cash), but it’s utterly preposterous, even for this silly, coincidence-based story. Just how did the devil worshippers know the RV was going to stop at that exact point, let alone have such a well-coordinated trap waiting for them if and when they did? Not to mention that we’ve seen Frank’s RV plow through cars, trucks and even people—you mean to tell me he wouldn’t risk running over a little fire, too? Yes, the rig might roast a bit, but it wouldn’t just spontaneously explode (contrary to movie physics). And gunning it full throttle might’ve given them just enough time to put some distance between them and the occultists. Oh well; it’s a dramatic final image, at least…
Summing It Up
“Race with the Devil” was directed by actor and movie/TV director Jack Starrett (“Cleopatra Jones,” “The Dukes of Hazzard”), and was written by Lee Frost and Wes Bishop, the writing duo known for “The Thing With Two Heads” (1972). Music for the film was composed by Leonard Rosenman, who came from and went on to (much) better things (“Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”).
The stunt work for the movie is quite impressive for its budget, and all-practical, too; no miniatures or other cheating, let alone CGI (which was decades away). These were all real vehicles exploding and getting the crap knocked out of them, right before our eyes. A nice vibe of paranoia is also created, as the vacationers don’t know whom to trust in the rural Texas town where they find themselves. However, the trick overstays its welcome after we clearly realize the whole damned town (literally so) is in on the conspiracy. Even less successful is the film’s razor-thin story, and the occasional bouts of overacting (looking at you, Lara Parker).
Another issue with this movie is that the vacationers aren’t very nice people, either. Frank is almost Clark Griswold-like is his grim determination to have a ‘fun’ vacation at all costs, even if Roger’s wife Kelly has been clearly traumatized. Ugly American Frank seems hell-bent (excuse the pun) on taking their battered ride all the way into Aspen, and having a ‘good’ time, even if it’s kills them—which it presumably does. The film’s final image of the captured RV surrounded in a ring of fire (insert Johnny Cash joke here) seems typical of the nihilistic, downbeat endings we often see with these kinds of movies.
For its game cast, a few genuine scares, and some ballsy stunt-driving, this 88-minute serving of demonic bunk isn’t a complete waste of time (though it begs for a “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-treatment someday). All the same, the movie might tax the patience of modern audiences, since anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex will quickly figure out the great ‘secret’ of the town. Unless, of course, you’re one of the clueless campers in the movie.
“Race with the Devil” is best taken with a grain of salt—and perhaps a couple brewskies. You might very well have a much better time for yourself than the movie’s characters.
Where To Watch
“Race with the Devil” can be streamed for rental via Amazon PrimeVideo, YouTube and Redbox ($3.99). The movie can also be purchased on DVD and BluRay through Amazon (prices vary by seller); the Anchor Boy DVD/BR release has a 17-minute featurette, which interviews the late Peter Fonda on his participation in the film, and his long friendship with costar Warren Oates. Worth a look for hardcore fans of this cult film.