A film doesn’t have to be perfect to inspire fondness in a cult movie fan. In fact, there are a lot of movies out that fall short of classic status yet have enough strong elements to earn themselves a place in the b-movie pantheon. A good example of this kind of film is Race With The Devil, a memorably offbeat blend of horror, action and paranoia-thriller. Its blend of style and moods doesn’t cohere as well as it could but it still manages to offer the viewer a memorable little excursion into genre-bending territory.
One of the strongest elements of Race With The Devil is its premise, which combines familiar genres into a unique hybrid. The heroes are Frank Stewart (Warren Oates) and Roger Marsh (Peter Fonda), two friends who decide to take a cross-country trip to Colorado in Frank’s new R.V . With their wives, Alice Stewart (Loretta Swit) and Kelly Marsh (Lara Parker), they hit the road and spend the first night camping out in a rural location.
All seems peaceful until Frank and Roger accidentally witness a ritual Satanic sacrifice take place across the river from their campsite. The foursome barely escapes with their lives after being spotted by the cultists. They report the incident the local authorities but the evidence is gone by the time they get back. They continue on their trip but start to notice strange behavior in the townsfolk they meet along the way. When these situations turn violent, they arm themselves and try to make it to the highway before they wind up on the business end of a sacrificial blade.
Unfortunately, the execution is not as strong as the premise. The script – penned by erstwhile nudie-movie filmmakers Lee Frost and Wes Bishop – is a little too episodic in how it unfolds, resulting in a kind of stop-start feel to the proceedings instead of the consistent building of tension that usually defines this kind of horror. There’s also the occasional awkward flourish of humor and the unfortunate fact that the women in the film are consigned to acting like screaming ninnies while the men do all the heroic stuff.
However, if you can get past the visible seams in how it’s all put together, there is still plenty to like in Race With The Devil. Oates and Fonda make a good team, with the former’s gregarious nature and the latter’s natural low-key cool offsetting each other nicely. The shocks are well-conceived, particularly a skin-crawling scene where the travelers discover a few rattlesnakes have been hidden in the cabinets of the R.V.’s interior. There are also some spooky moments that don’t require shocks to get under the viewers skin. The best of the latter type of moment in this film is a scene where Parker goes swimming at an R.V. camp’s pool and finds herself unnerved by the stares and smiles of her fellow campers.
That said, the best thing in the film are the its big chase sequences. Each one is like is a mini-movie in itself, both running about ten minutes as they pile on shocks, plot complications and skillful stunts in equal measure. This is where director Jack Starrett really shines: he’s better known for action fare like The Losers and Slaughter but he is able to apply the skill for action setpieces he showed in those films to incorporate a strong suspense element. It also helps that stunts are beautifully choreographed by Paul Nuckles, particularly the explosive, car-crashing finale. The old-school style of those scenes – real cars and real stuntmen mixing it up with no visual effects tricks – ensures that they still pack a punch.
In short, Race With The Devil rises above the problems in its storyline because every reel of the film has an effective moment or nuance guaranteed to keep the audience involved. Even better, it has a great, distinctly 1970’s ending that will stick with you. In any event, it’s a lot more fun and inventive that most of what passes as horror at the multiplex these days – and anyone interested in old-school horror is likely to get a Satanic kick out of it.