Title: Race with the Devil
Year of Release: 1975
Director: Jack Starrett
Length: 88 minutes
Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Switt, Lara Parker, RG Armstrong
Race with the Devil is the rarest of things; an action/horror/road movie mash-up of epic proportions. American audiences loved their car chases in the seventies. For a while, that was the whole point of making films and often, any plot or storyline was aimed primarily at manufacturing situations where people got behind the wheels of cars (or in this case, motorhomes) and chased each other around. Just look at that poster. They witnessed an unspeakable act! It screams, stopping just short of adding, “And that’s why they got in the ve-hicle so we could have us a good ole chase!”
After some suitably ominous music, we are introduced to motorcycle dealership owner Frank Stewart (Oates) who, along with his friend and keen motorcross racer Roger Marsh (Fonda) is preparing to head out to Aspen, Colarado, on a ski holiday. Along for the ride are their wives (Switt and Parker) and a belligerent little dog called Ginger. After being on the road for a while they find a quiet, secluded place to spend the night. While drinking beer and shooting the shit outside the motorhome, Frank and Roger see a fire burning in the distance. On going to investigate, they find a bunch of people dressed in robes, dancing around said fire and chanting which is all very reminiscent of Maiden’s Number of the Beast (“I feel drawn toward the chanting hordes, they seem to mesmerize, can’t avoid their eyes”).
When half the Satanists get naked, Frank and Roger settle down to watch what they anticipate will be a vast, open-air orgy, but things take a sinister turn when one of the naked women is stabbed to death by a dude in a mask, and apparently offered up as a human sacrifice. Just then, the interlopers are discovered by the newly-naked Satanists and lo and behold, we have our chase. Frank and the gang drive the motorhome through a river, up a hill through a forest, and then cross country (it’s a motorhome, not a fucking tank!) before eventually winding up in a small town where they report the unspeakable act they witnessed to the local sheriff (Armstrong). But isn’t there something slightly off about that sheriff? Of course there is. You know the drill. In fact, everyone they meet seems a little ‘out there,’ from the librarian to the mechanic fixing their window, which riffs off the whole generational hippy paranoia thing that was going on at the time. Vietnam, Watergate, race riots, Jesus Christ Superstar, post-Woodstock America was a deeply troubled place.
Things escalate when the group leave town and spend the night at a camp site populated by yet more iffy individuals where Ginger comes a cropper and they find rattlesnakes in the cupboards. That’s enough to ruin anybody’s holiday. Before long, they really are engaged in a race with the Devil. Or, more accurately, the Devil’s mates. The last quarter is one long adrenaline-filled smash ‘em up as the increasingly frustrated cult members try their hardest to prevent the Frank and company making it the real police leading to some pretty impressive stunt driving. At one point, a Dodge pickup truck pursues them for about three miles on two wheels. I shit you not. The supernatural elements do feel a bit tacked on, giving you the impression that these people could be being chased by anybody – cult members, rednecks, bikers, hippies, rogue penguins, aliens. But nevertheless, it’s thrilling, and sometimes chilling, stuff.
Race with the Devil was directed by Jack Starrett (perhaps best known for his roles in Blazing Saddles and as asshole deputy Art Gault in First Blood) who made his name acting in a slew of biker movies in the late sixties and early-seventies. Conveniently, this dove-tailed with Fonda’s appearance in the legendary Easy Rider and several other notable contributions to the genre. It could have been preordained that these two were going to work together at some point, and when they did, motorcycles were going to be involved. Starrett even has a cameo role here as a gas station attendant. Interestingly, he later claimed to have hired actual, real-life satanists as cult member extras, though this statement may have been a publicity stunt. I mean, how the heck would he find them? You can’t just put out a call for satanists who wouldn’t mind being in a Hollywood movie. If it was a publicity stunt, it worked. Though it received mixed reviews, the movie tapped into the American psyche and was a huge success, drawing over $12 million at the Box Office from a modest budget of $1.75 million. It was released just when home video was taking off, bringing in another $6 million-plus in rentals, and was re-issued as a double feature in 2011 with another Peter Fonda film, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. It isn’t often talked about these days, which is a shame as it’s definitely worth a punt.
According to IMDB, some of the chase scenes involving the motorhome and its steadily degenerating condition were used as stock footage in eighties TV classic The Fall Guy.