The 1975 film Race With the Devil begins innocently enough. Two couples on vacation in an RV decide to take a turn on a dirt road to spend the night away from the bustle. They park their rocking vehicle out in the wilds of south central Texas. They inspect the beauty of the desolate land, have a candle-lit dinner and a glass of wine, and toast the first night of a needed vacation. The sun sets and a full moon rises. The two men sit in folding chairs outside the RV sipping whiskey, getting drunk, professing a life well-lived. But a funny thing happens.
Across the river they hear an eerie howl and suddenly, a mysterious bonfire roars to life. They grab a pair of binoculars and notice a group of people in black robes dancing around this huge fire. There’s weird chanting, a man in a mask with a sword, and nude women at his feet (and waist). The dancing becomes more intense, people writhing and screaming, and a woman is stabbed to death in an apparent sacrifice. At that moment, the wife of one of the stunned men turns on the RV light and screams at her husband to come inside. The Satanic cult realizes they are not alone, and furiously charge across the river to capture these vacationing (and extremely unlucky) out-of-towners. Thus begins one long and very creepy chase across the back roads of a Texas landscape.
We’ve been here before, whether it be with a cannibalistic family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Georgia hillbillies in Deliverance. The setup is usually the same – a group of innocents, semi-lost, encountering horrid miscreants without a shred of help anywhere in sight. And these miscreants want to do ugly things to them. I don’t think Race With the Devil is as good as either of the two previous films mentioned, but I will say in all honesty this flick scared the piss out of me as a child.
Race With the Devil taps a primal fear we have of being stranded in unknown lands pursued by people with murderous intentions. The inspirations for this little 1975 horror opus are many, as Satan was quite the villain back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Where to begin? Perhaps Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, one of the most chilling films ever made. The British flick Eye of the Devil, starred a doomed Sharon Tate as a member of a cult. And then you have The Exorcist, The Devil’s Rain and such TV flicks as Crowhaven Farm. There’s also references to the murders committed by Charles Manson and his freaky hippie cult. Which brings us to Race With the Devil, where you have robed Lucifer hippies clawing at an agonizingly slow RV rolling for the nearest stretch of cement. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates do their best to fight off this beer-bellied horde (I suppose with the exception of the occasional dancing, they get little exercise), using everything from vacuum cleaners to ski poles to hold off the possessed crew.
For a kid growing up in the suburbs of Texas (that would be me), Satanic cults existed out there, and they were waiting in the dark. Out there is an uneducated wilderness, and it’s scary. To this day, I have moments of fear when camping alone, remembering that damn cult from Race With the Devil. As our society grows each day into an urban setting with farming communities disappearing, what is rural becomes alien and evil. It’s out there man! Who knows what shenanigans they’re up to!
The Texas-born Jack Starrett directed this little drive-in horror/action hybrid, and he really didn’t create much else. A few episodes of Hill Street Blues, a couple of other B-movie excursions. He’s probably best known as the tough cop with a billy club who drives Sylvester Stallone over the edge in First Blood. He sadly passed on in 1989. Starrett has a funny cameo in Race With the Devil as a nosy gas station attendant.
Warren Oates, the greatest character actor in motion picture history, stars as the unlucky sod who makes the fateful choice to camp in the Texas boonies. He was really too good to be starring in this fare, but he does deliver the best line when the sheriff mentions a local hippie cult that kills cats. With a straight face, Oates replies, “Well, I guess they ran out of cats.” By most accounts Oates tilted beers with film director Sam Peckinpah while they made such films as The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Can you blame him for going to Texas to ride motorcycles with Fonda while toking a few doobes? A huge Warren Oates cult has grown since his death in 1983, and this film is as good as any learn the greatness of this brilliant actor.
Oates and Fonda would star in two additional films together including the excellent The Hired Hand and the mediocre 92 in the Shade. All of them had Fonda dying. He seemed to enjoy his death scenes following the fiery crash at the end of Easy Rider. In Race With the Devil, Fonda has a good time shaking martinis while firing shotguns at hillbilly Satanists. And you even have “Hotlips” Loretta Swit as a perplexed wife. She likes to scream a lot and wear colorful bathrobes.
Eventually our unlucky travelers discover they’ve stumbled into a nest of Satanic cults. These staring, wide-eyed folks can be seen hitchhiking on highways, swimming at local RV camps and playing steel guitar at the honky tonk. I’ve been to honky tonks in Bandera, Texas (where this movie was filmed) and can honestly say I never once saw a dead cat or folks in black robes. But that is lonely country, and it was even lonelier in 1975. The car stunts are memorable, to this day referenced by stunt men as being some of the best ever performed for a film. Hell, give a rural Texan a helmet and stretch of highway, there’s no limit to what he can do.
I suppose we could obsess over the stupid decisions our protagonists make before Satan closes in on the RV. We could laugh at the dialog as they marvel over the newfangled microwave and color TV. We could even snicker as by the end of Race With the Devil, the trashed RV resembles Steve Martin’s and John Candy’s car in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But our laughs are uneasy. When we travel to unknown lands, we are terrified of being preyed upon. In Race With the Devil, these country folks are out there man, creepy and evil. Part horror, car chase and action, this film is one of the greatest drive-in flicks ever made.