Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Race with the Devil (1975)

Country: USA

Race with the Devil is a hugely enjoyable and interesting independent production which manages to conflate a number of the thematic preoccupations of 1970’s American cinema into its form. Firstly we have an exploration (albeit rather unsophisticated) of satanic cults. The most disturbing aspect of which is the lengths such sects will go too in order to maintain the anonymity of its members. This film appeared in cinemas before the commercial battering ram of The Omen (1976), and continued to prove that the devil had significant commercial draw in the 1970’s. The director Jack Starrett exploits Satan to the fullest, even though the horned beast fails to put in an appearance. The film also draws on a cinematic current which sought to find horrors within the alienated populations of rural America. These ‘rural horrors’ such as Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) set the trend by having the feeble faces of urban modernity facing primeval fights for survival against fellow Americans forgotten and rejected by modernity. With its wide open landscape, empty and desolate roads, and lifeless towns Race with the Devil fits smoothly into this thematic terrain. The film is also a road movie, it venerates the automobile as a gadget for masculine expression, but challenges preconceptions of motor vehicles as a conduit of pioneer spirit. Our protagonists do discover something in the American outback, but it is something terrible and nightmarish. This is a film with generic hybridity, and by expanding the generic remit it is able to put its finger on a number of the ‘phobic pressure points’ that Stephen King so eloquently described in his work of non-fiction Danse Macabre (1981).

In the capable hands of Starrett and the writers Wes Bishop and Lee Frost the sublime landscape of rural Texas becomes a frightening space riddled with mistrust and paranoia. This is an inversion of the techno/political conspiracy films which were very popular at the time, the conspiracy here is created by people with a much simpler way of life, and a belief in the arcane rituals of black magic. The method in which they cover their tracks and extend their tentacles into all spheres of rural existence however gives them the omniscience of a governing force. It is this seeming omniscience, which extends to figures of trust and authority that generates the greatest horror. At the same time however this is also one of the films major weaknesses. It feels like an incredibly contrived plot device and at times stretches credibility to breaking point. The atmosphere of paranoia lends the film a certain post-Watergate resonance, but the film shies away from any overt political statement in favour of action and excellent stunt work. The city slickers are played by Warren Oates and Peter Fonda. They bring with them an iconic baggage of past exploits which Starrett uses to good effect. Both Oates and Fonda had experienced intimate cinematic encounters with the symbolism of the American landscape in search of the elusive ‘American Dream’. The outcome in both cases was tragedy and violent death. The social status of the two characters is a reflection of a certain counter cultural ‘sell out’ on the part of the actors. At this point they were no longer radical counter-cultural icons , but instead complacent representatives of suburban and middle class conformity.

The film opens with much macho posturing from the two male leads, whole sequences exist simply to show Oates and Fonda competing. Their holiday to the Texan outback is really a means to show off a new expensive motor home, a bloated symbol of a success that has left them flabby and slow when facing danger. When they find themselves under attack though Frank and Roger switch with little effort into the role of killers. Its hard to know whether their anger derives from the violation of their shiny new motor home, or the terror of their screaming wives. The film overflows with blustering masculinity and testosterone filled action scenes, the women little more than screaming gnats gaping incredulously at each new event, before being reminded there is coffee to be made. They are an irritation and a distraction to the real business in hand; kicking some devil cult ass.

We are never allowed the opportunity to explore the motivations of the Satanic cult, they exist very much at the periphery of the action. A briefly glimpsed band of bearded hippies who lurk in the shadows until the final moments of the film. The screenplay resolutely avoids any supernatural trappings, and likewise refuses to moralise on the beliefs of the cult members; they exist and they want to kill the odious city folk who have unwittingly been witness to a blood sacrifice, that’s is all there is too it. Starrett saves everything up for a superbly orchestrated climactic chase sequence as our protagonists head desperately for the state border. This is a finale worth waiting for, though the final twist is rather predictable and downbeat in a typically 70’s manner. There are a lot of interesting ideas in Race with the Devil, but they never totally coalesce into a satisfying whole. There are too many thematic avenues, and a multiplicity of generic signifiers, and it creates an imbalance which this low budget picture fails to redress. The ambitiousness of the filmmakers however is to be saluted…which ever way you dress it up Race with the Devil is tremendous fun.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Another great and perceptive post on what seems like a throwaway B-movie. This was a big hit with my family back in the day... *long* before the age of VHS!

  2. Been meaning to check this out for the longest time. I've heard others describe it as Vanishing Point meets The Devils Rain.

    In Vanishing Point (same as in Easy Rider) the rebels end up dead. This is a common HOllywood thing, if you are a rebel, and are willing to follow with your subversive behaviour to the end...you will most likely die. Rule of HOllywood.

  3. I have great memories of watching this with my family on early HBO, back when you'd only get 3 or 4 new movies a month.

  4. Great flick, great write-up!

    Warren Oates and Hotlips...you can't go wrong with that combo. And I'm particularly fond of that wicked Man Vs. Snake fight scene.

    My Review (if you're interested)

  5. Thanks for the comments gentlemen - I'm glad to see I'm not the only who likes this hidden gem. I havent seen 'Vanishing Point' Franco, but I shall endeavour to look it up. Thanks for the link Johnny, I shall be sure to check out your review.

  6. Ooh, good pick. I love this movie. And the ending... wowser!

  7. Another great movie and review, Shaun. I reviewed this one, too, along with DEVIL'S RAIN back to back in February. I love both of them for different reasons. Starrett is one of my favorite 70's directors. He really had a good feel for exploitation. He also chose some great sinister faces in this one. Clay Tanner especially, who also turned up as the child abuser in FINAL CHAPTER-WALKING TALL (1977).

  8. Thanks for stopping by CDM - much appreciated.

    Cheers Brian! - I haven't seen 'Devil's Rain' of 'Final Chapter-Walking Tall', I shall look into those titles. I'll be sure to check out your review for 'Race with the Devil' - many thanks.

  9. That's why I keep coming back to 'The Celluloid Highway': terrific critical observations matched by real genre fandom. It's a rare feat to be able to speak both intelligently and enthusiastically without ever falling prey to the excesses of either approach.

    I totally agree, Shaun: 'Race With The Devil' doesn't coalesce into a satisfactory whole, but is an enjoyable romp nonetheless. And it's great to hear Peter Fonda speak so enthusiastically about 'Devil' and 'Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry' (on the recent Shout Factory double bill disc) - he says he made more money on 'Dirty Mary' than on 'Easy Rider' (!), and 'Devil' was a solid box office performer, too.

  10. Thank you for the generous praise Johnny I truly appreciate it :-)

    I haven't actually seen DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY...but I did recently view Fonda's brief turn in SPIRITS OF THE DEAD, and more impressively the subtle revisionism of his western THE HIRED HAND. I will be sure to make a note of DIRTY MARY...many thanks!

  11. Greg Stuart Smith24 November 2011 at 09:26

    Great review, Shaun, of a real gem. I actually checked this one out after you brought it up in a discussion we were having about Warren Oats. Though much of it is indeed just mindless fun, the fact that it does tackle (as you pointed out) some of the more aptly explored conceits of 70's genre films, elevates it to what is in my mind: a true classic of the era.

    I just bought the Shout Factory Double Bill disc that Johnny brought up (he recommended the double bill disc of Halloween II & III once, and I bought that, too), and DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY is a lot of fun as well, though not as good as R.W.T.D. I actually like DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY a lot more than VANISHING POINT, which never did it for me - not enough story. Anyway, I've got a big hard on for Susan George. She's in another Starrett film I checked out recently on a DVD bootleg (a knock off of a shitty VHS transfer unfortunately) called A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS, that had some really nice elements to it.

    Anyway, thanks for turning me onto RACE WITH THE DEVIL - one of my new favorites for sure. And yes, while it is totally ludicrous to think that there are vast stretches of Texas controlled by Satanists (I'd know, I'm a Texan), it's still one hell of a fun time. The last thing I'll say, is that the production actually shot on location during a Texas winter, and it does the look and feel of the state during that time of year great justice.

    Anyway, great work, amigo.

  12. Good to hear from your Greg :-)

    I thought you'd get a kick out of this one. I have yet to have the pleasure of DIRT MARY, CRAZY LARRY. But somebody else recommended it to me some months back, so I should give it a watch.

    A hard on for Susan George? Who doesn't? :-) No self respecting fan of 1970's genre cinema can avoid the sultry allure of Miss George. My personal favourite is the Pete Walker film DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE. It's a rather dour and dull little film save for the remarkable title sequence - check it out at that link. I think you might like it...a lot!


  13. Good Lord, man! The single greatest 2:17 of my relatively young and fairly eventful life! A perfect follow up to my revealing the hard on I harbor for Miss George. Alas! Were I to have a time traveling phone booth at my disposal, I would go back to 1970's London, somehow take the place of David Hemmings or Oliver Reed (maybe Kieth Moon in a pinch), and somehow bed Miss George in her prime! Preferably only an hour or two after she shot this title sequence... in her trailer... if they had those then... or in my phone booth... it'd have white shag carpeting... and a robot dog that talks and makes martinis...

  14. I can picture you in a white turtle neck jumper and a crisp navy blue blazer! If there was space for two in your time travelling phone booth, I would prefer to return as Roger Moore circa 1973. The year he did battle with voodoo gangsters on the streets of Harlem. I don't think Miss George would be able to resist the eyebrows and the one liners!

  15. Oh, no, as Moore, you'd take the cake, for sure... and, if I may be so bold, eat it to, I hope... in a manner of speaking, of course! This in keeping with Roger Moore's very... unique... brand of diction.

    As a matter of fact, I've been watching bits and pieces of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY these last few nights. A great one out of that ear to be sure. One of my favorites in fact. When Bond races up those series of flights of stairs to cut off the egress of that bespectacled assassin, and then helps him out by kicking his car off that cliff to avenge his Greek friend, fantastic! Moore, in one fell swoop saved the franchise from doom, in my opinion.

  16. Before, by the "oh no," I meant: of course there is room for two in my time traveling phone booth - many more than that, of course, what with this being the 70's and me having a robot dog that makes martinis! What I was trying to say, is: that you'd take the prize (i.e. cake) that is Miss George as Moore, because let's get serious here, Hemmings and Reed are no Roger Moore. And then to think that he would be wielded through you, good Sir! Deadly to say the least. Very deadly indeed.

  17. I love FOR YOUR EYES ONLY chiefly because of that utterly absurd, almost surreal, pre-title sequence in which a wheelchair bound Blofeld gains control of the helicopter Bond is travelling in..."Good afternoon Mr. Bond, welcome to remote control airways!" And then of course in a desperate bid to save his neck Blofeld utters perhaps the most bizarre line in Bond history "Mr. Bond we can do a deal! I'll buy you a delicatessen! In stainless steel!"

    Yes the bespectacled assassin is played by Michael Gothard who began his career with the truly strange avant-garde British art film HEROSTRATUS...which I reviewed last year. I believe Roger, ever the pacifist, felt uncomfortable with the scene where he boots the car over the cliff, feeling it wasn't quite in keeping with his portrayal of Bond.


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