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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Race With the Devil (1975) review


Peter Fonda (Roger Marsh), Warren Oates (Frank Stewart), Loretta Swit (Alice Stewart), Lana Parker (Kelly Marsh), R.G. Armstrong (Sheriff Taylor), Paul Partain, Jack Starrett (gas station attendant)

Frank and Roger, along with their wives, head off on a vacation in Frank's new Recreational Vehicle. Spending the night at a secluded location, both Roger and Frank witness the death of a young girl, a sacrifice in a satanic ceremony. The four manage to escape after being attacked by a group of the satanists and go to the police. When the cops prove useless, the group decide to investigate a bit for themselves. After ignoring a warning, their lives are put in danger once more. They try to leave, but the devil worshippers aren't about to let them escape alive.

Director, Starrett (left) often makes cameo appearances in his movies

Jack Starrett, one of my favorite 70's action/exploitation filmmakers, is at the wheel of this taut and risibly suspenseful action-horror classic from 1975. The melding of both horror and action was a natural marriage of styles for Starrett who had several accomplished films to his credit prior to this job. He was also a very good actor judged by his performance as the drunkard, Gabby in BLAZING SADDLES (1974) and later, as the cruel policeman in FIRST BLOOD (1982) that briefly menaces Sylvester Stallone. Some of Starrett's choice big screen releases are the blockbuster biker flick, RUN, ANGEL, RUN (1969) and the Bikers vs. Vietcong action spectacular, THE LOSERS (1970). Both star celebrated screen heavy, William Smith.

Starrett also helmed the blaxploitation classics, SLAUGHTER (1972) and CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) as well as FINAL CHAPTER-WALKING TALL in 1977 among many other credits including television directing gigs on such shows as THE DUKES OF HAZZARD and HILL STREET BLUES. RACE WITH THE DEVIL was one of the directors biggest moneymakers.

Clay Tanner (left), a regular of Starrett's, had the perfect look for his role here as one of the more sinister looking personalities. Oddly enough, he plays Jack Henderson, yet the end credits list him as 'Delbert'. He was also memorable as the abusive moonshiner, O.Q. Teal in FINAL CHAPTER-WALKING TALL (1977).

The original director, Lee Frost, was let go and Jack Starrett came in and he and producer, Paul Maslansky reshot the film from scratch. Frost worked around 3 to 4 days before being replaced, although he did retain a writing credit on the film. It took a bit of time to get Fonda to warm to both Starrett and Maslansky as both he and Oates were a bit stung that Frost had been replaced. Frost had directed such films as CHROME & HOT LEATHER (1971), THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972) and THE BLACK GESTAPO (1975) among some others.

The budget was a little over 1.3 million and it was finished a bit under that number according to Producer, Maslanksy, who had a great career in genre pictures even directing the blaxploitation horror flick, SUGAR HILL in 1974. He was a producer on such movies as DEATH LINE (1972), HARD TIMES (1974), and the science fiction film, DAMNATION ALLEY (1977). He became most famous with his association to the long running POLICE ACADEMY movies throughout the 1980's.

The beautiful Lana Parker (pictured; DARK SHADOWS) joins Loretta Swit (M.A.S.H.) among the cast

As for the film itself, the filmmakers are very successful in creating an atmosphere of dread. Once the vacationers have had their initial run in with the satanists, everywhere they go, there is a genuine feeling of unease. Whether it be a local swimming pool, or a rest stop, everyone has the creepiest faces with very sinister grins and threatening eyes. It drives home the frightening (and all too true) revelation that the devil worshippers are all around them. As the film progresses, the suspense is heightened and the violence increases culminating a string of dangerous altercations with a lot of explosive stunt work.

Peter Fonda was a danger seeker and loved doing as much of the risky stuff as possible. He does all his own riding including some of the stunts at the finale. In an interview on the disc, Fonda states everyone had a great time shooting this picture. One of the main reasons he agreed to do it was to be able to work with his good friend, Warren Oates again after two prior motion pictures, THE HIRED HAND (1971) and 92 IN THE SHADE (1975).

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda

RACE WITH THE DEVIL was the first time Fonda had done a horror film (although the previous years, OPEN SEASON comes close). It would be around six years before he'd do another one. Fonda co-starred with Oliver Reed in the troubled production of SPASMS (1981-83) about a gigantic killer snake captured in Asia and being loosed in America. Fonda had also appeared in the stunt filled car chase favorite, DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974) co-starring Susan George and Vic Morrow.

Not only was Fonda fond of doing stunts, he also had little reservations about laying next to a rattlesnake during the tension filled attack inside the RV. The satanists have hidden two rather large snakes inside their house on wheels. Fonda is trapped on the floor right next to one of the venom filled creatures. Even though the snake was defanged and its mouth tied shut, it was no doubt a harrowing moment for the actors and especially Fonda who was mere inches from the rattler.

Warren Oates was one Hollywoods most distinguished character actors and a favorite of Sam Peckinpah. Oates can be seen in such movies as RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1966), DILLINGER (1973), the hilariously offensive sequel to MANDINGO, DRUM in 1976 and the comedy classic, STRIPES in 1981. He played the role of Sgt. Hulka, one of many memorable portrayals the actor would undertake during his long career.

Genre fave, R.G. Armstrong

R.G. Armstrong, had a similar career in Hollywood and is of particular interest to genre fans considering the wealth of horror films he appeared in. Everything from the spaghetti western, MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973), to BOSS NIGGER (1975), to THE PACK (1977), to EVILSPEAK (1982) to CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984), this is but a small sampling of Armstrong's dozens upon dozens of credits.

The score by Leonard Rosenman is another attribute that makes this film so enjoyable. It accentuates the growing sense of horror experienced by the characters. His score recalls the soundtracks he did for several of the PLANET OF THE APES sequels as well as the magnificent horror score he did for John Frankenheimer's silly, but suspenseful monster flick, PROPHECY (1979). Fans of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) will spot Paul A. Partain among the cast. He played Franklin Hardesty in Hooper's seminal horror movie. Originally to be called CIRCLE OF FIRE, RACE WITH THE DEVIL suits the film a bit better considering its tone as it encapsulates both the action and horror aspects inherent in the script. The film has also been tapped for remake status over the last few years and it looks to become a reality by next year.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) is a hugely enjoyable chase/horror movie loaded with a growing air of tension and stunt filled action. It was a big hit for 20th Century Fox during the summer of 1975 and has enjoyed a cult following over the years. It benefits from assured and confident direction by the great Jack Starrett as well as some fine performances from everyone involved. Those who haven't seen it, should go the extra mile to catch up with this runaway cult horror favorite.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD


Samuel Wilson said...

It's a definitive Seventies B movie (with more like a B+ cast). It's got car chases, devil worshippers and a typical period ending. Your review admirably spotlights all the film's virtues. Race is virtually worth seeing for the cast alone.

venoms5 said...

Thanks for stopping over, Sam, and commenting. It's a great 70's flick. I am not looking forward to what the remake will be like, if it ever gets made, that is.

Sean M said...

I love this film which i saw on tv but unfortunatey didn't record.But thankfully i caught it again quite recently on youtube.The cast is top notch,Fonda and Oates are a great double act and all in all this is easily one of the best US made devil worship movies and probably the most fun!

venoms5 said...

The DVD is awfully cheap now. It's under $10 now if I'm not mistaken. There's a featurette with Fonda and commentary track (sans Fonda) as well as a generous stills gallery.

J. Astro said...

Nice write-up of a quiet, worthy little Devil pic. RACE WITH THE DEVIL always stands out in my mind both for the Oates/Fonda combo and for the general sense of doom throughout the whole movie. You just get the feeling that no matter where they run to or who they ask for help, they are pretty much BONED. That interview you mentioned on the Anchor Bay disc with Fonda is kind-of a trip... dude LOOOOOVES to talk about himself, don't he? :)

venoms5 said...

Yeah, he does, J. Although it doesn't come off as TOO self serving. More like a guy that had a ball making movies, especially movies with people he liked working with. I'm not a huge Fonda fan, but love the few genre flicks he appeared in.

Starrett was a great director and all his movies need the special edition treatment...well, maybe not CRY BLOOD, APACHE (1970).

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