Made in 1975, this low-budget thriller surprised many when it became a hit. Since its release, Race with the Devil has become a cult classic in some circles, although admittedly the film has little to offer hardcore horror fans. However, fans of the car-chase genre and B-movie horror will find that Race with the Devil delivers the goods.
One year after making the car-chase action flick Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Peter Fonda popped the clutch on another actioneer, this time teaming up with Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, and Lara Parker. Given the names here, it’s easy to understand why 1975’s Race with the Devil works, despite mediocre writing and lackluster direction. These four actors make for an ensemble cast that take the material seriously and do their best to entertain an audience from start to finish.
The story is straightforward. Two couples leave San Antonio, Texas, in a recreational vehicle and head toward Colorado, where they intend to take an extended ski vacation. Things go awry when Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) witness a satanic ritual in which a female is sacrificed. They are pursued by some of the cultists but manage to escape. The following morning, they report what they have seen to a local Texas sheriff (genre veteran R.G. Armstrong), who has the two men take him and his deputies to the location of the incident. Although at first the cops seem to sympathize with Roger and Frank, they soon realize that the sheriff and his deputies are subtly mocking them. While the cops are otherwise occupied, Roger collects a blood-spattered clump of dirt with the intent of delivering it to a big-city police department.
The couples elect to spend the night at an RV camp, and after a night of dancing and eating at a local watering hole, they return to their RV to find that their dog has been murdered and rattlesnakes have been strategically placed in cubbies inside the RV. Once the snakes are dispatched, the couples find that they are being pursued by more cultists, with some of them becoming more aggressive than before. While the wives do some research at a library, the men secure a shotgun and some buckshot.
What comes next is an exciting climax in which the couples in their RV engage in a high-speed chase with cultists in various vehicles. Roger and Frank use the shotgun to good effect, but the cultists also have firearms, and soon the battle become a free for all in which the cultists begin to slam into the RV. The couples manage to prevail, either killing cultists or running their vehicles off the road.
The film’s ending is perhaps the weakest element of Race with the Devil. As dusk falls, the couples pull the RV over and celebrate momentarily their victory over the cultists. As they celebrate, they hear some noise coming from outside the RV. When they look out, they see that they are surrounded by cultists, and that many of them are people that they have encountered during their horrid trek (including the sheriff and a couple they encountered at the restaurant). The cultists light a ring of fire around the RV, apparently trapping the couples inside.
The core group of Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, and Lara Parker make Race with the Devil the ultimate guilty pleasure. Both Fonda and Oates are considered icons of car/motorcycle and action films. Fonda of course is remembered best for Easy Rider, but he also made a reputation on underground classics like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Wild Angels, and The Last Movie. Oates, who is best remembered for The Wild Bunch, also contributed to films like Two-Lane Blacktop, The Hired Hand (also with Fonda), and The Border. Genre fans remember Oates from his work on The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and even Lost in Space. Swit is best remembered as Hot Lips on M*A*S*H, and Lara Parker remains a horror genre favorite (she was Angelique in Dark Shadows and played a witch in The Night Stalker episode “The Trevi Collection”).
Although Race with the Devil has very little horror value (the cultists are not that scary and there are no supernatural elements), the film does deliver a key action sequence and offers earnest performances by all, including the supporting cast. The writing is wonky, the ending is horrible, and the direction sometimes drags a bit, but for me Race with the Devil remains a guilty pleasure.
Race with the Devil is available as a double feature with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. It is worth noting that each film does get its own single-sided platter.