FANGO Flashback: “RACE WITH THE DEVIL”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
They really don’t make them like they used to, do they? With changing times and changing landscapes, Jack Starrett’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL is not a film that could be easily replicated for today’s audiences. In fact, the film is such a product of a very specific time and place in American History that there are very few films quite like it, even from it’s own era. And yet, even in its dated gestation, RACE WITH THE DEVIL is still a thrilling film that resonates and frightens to this day with the power that few modern films can.
In concept, RACE WITH THE DEVIL isn’t the most groundbreaking or compelling film, combining aspects of stunt-heavy chase films of the ’70s with the era’s equal Post-Manson fascination with cults and Satanism. But what the film does do well is create a believable and foreboding atmosphere, allowing the horror to operate on many different levels. And in doing so, RACE WITH THE DEVIL not only elevates its script and story, but also creates an unpredictable sense of action that especially pays off in its shocking closing moments.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why RACE WITH THE DEVIL would be difficult to pull off today would be it’s terrific and near irreplaceable cast, all of whom work off each other with genuinely realistic chemistry. Fans of ’70s cinema know just how well Peter Fonda and Warren Oates deliver on their own, but together, Fonda and Oates have a believable rapport that makes their Americana-embracing antics simultaneously endearing and goofy. Likewise, Loretta Swit and Lara Parker bring their own chemistry to the proceedings that inform the quiet, brooding moments just as much as they do the loud, intense sequences.
But what really sets RACE WITH THE DEVIL apart from any film from its era or otherwise is how director Jack Starrett composes the script from Wes Bishop and Lee Frost. Starrett knows that the chaotic climactic chase sequence is what will define the film, and pulls no punches to make it work, but Starrett also knows how to maintain the various other genres that flow their way through the film. Paranoia, tension, discomfort and terror flow through the scarier sequences, especially before the true reach of the Satanic cult is exposed, but the film also lands moments of quiet romanticism and funny character-building with equal effectiveness. Starrett approaches the film as a whole rather than a lead up to its final showdown and twist ending, and for that, RACE WITH THE DEVIL gains a timeless power within its story.
While we’re on the subject, however, the final showdown of RACE WITH THE DEVIL is definitely all that is promised from the film’s poster and promotional material. The driving stunts are top notch, the suspense as our heroes approach each potential obstacle is palpable and every small victory over the cult is guaranteed to incite cheers from the audience. As much as it’s a story about a Satanic cult and a band of vacationers, the “Us vs. Them” underdog story still resonates effectively today, especially when the “Us” is comprised of the likes of the always-awesome Warren Oates and Peter Fonda. Bullets fly and cars burns in the climax of RACE WITH THE DEVIL, and it’ll likely leave you missing the old days of badass road films.
Yet RACE WITH THE DEVIL is indeed a horror film at heart, and one that truly explores the depths of horror. Claustrophobia, vulnerability and futility all run wild throughout the film, and the gut-punch that makes up the final seconds of the film is truly what nightmares are made of. The film lives up to the promise of its stylized and frightening opening titles, all the while spinning a thread that makes you root for these trapped commoners every step of the way. If you haven’t seen RACE WITH THE DEVIL, that’s something you should rectify ASAP (and on film, if possible). It’s THE WICKER MAN on wheels, and even today, it’s one hell of a ride.