Thursday, August 30, 2018

Cult Movie Theatre: Race With the Devil

I miss drive-in movies. Sure, you can still watch a movie at a drive-in, but no one shows drive-in movies anymore. I'm referring to the teen musicals, biker flicks, chase pictures, and fright fests that dominated the outdoor theatres of the late 1950s through the 1970s. These low-budget exploitation films are largely forgotten today, but some have acquired small loyal followings over the years. One such example is Race With the Devil (1975), which combines the thrills of a road race drama with the creepiness of Rosemary's Baby.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as Roger and Frank, two hardworking friends who decide to take a long-deserved vacation to Aspen, Colorado with their wives (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit). Their plan is to drive a new $36,000 RV across Texas to reach their destination.

Warren Oates in the driver's seat.
On their first night, they park their van in a secluded meadow far off the highway. As their wives huddle inside the RV, Roger and Frank share booze and conversation under the stars. Their peaceful interlude is interrupted when they see what appears to be an orgy in the woods. As they move closer to investigate, they're stunned to witness a young woman being sacrificed. At the same time, Roger's wife Alice (Swit) calls out to her husband...and the noise attracts the attention of the Satanic cult. A chase ensues in which the two couples barely escape with their lives--but that's just the beginning of their problems.

Race With the Devil is probably best-remembered for its two action set pieces: the race through the woods at night and the high-speed pursuit climax. Indeed, the former scene is a tense nail-biter that reminded me of a similar night attack in the made-for-TV classic Gargoyles.

Loretta Swit and Lara Parker.
However, on the whole, Race With the Devil works best as a paranoid thriller. Lara Parker (Dark Shadows TV series) gives a nicely nuanced performance as Fonda's wife Kelly. Although her initial fear subsides, Kelly gradually begins to suspect that everyone she meets may be a member of the cult. Even in the apparent safety of a large commercial RV park, she sees people "watching" her. Is Kelly starting to lose her grip on reality or she the only one who realizes how much trouble they're really in?

Peter Fonda takes aim.
Race With the Devil was the second of three films that Fonda and Oates made together. It was sandwiched between The Hired Hand (1971) and 92 in the Shade (1975). The actors' careers, though, were going in different directions. With his appearances in Sam Peckinpah films and critical acclaim for Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Oates was near his career peak. In contrast, Fonda was stuck in 1970s drive-in fodder like Fighting MadFutureworld, and High-Ballin'. Of course, to his credit, he also made one of the best chase movies with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and the comedy Outlaw Blues (with Susan Saint James) is a lot of fun.

Race With the Devil isn't an undiscovered gem, but it's a well-made, exciting drive-in movie. It's the kind of picture that will have you shouting advice at the TV screen. I mean, I kept telling them to drive about 400 miles before reporting what they saw in the woods. But no...they stop at the little nearby town the next day and R.G. Armstrong appears as one of those condescending sheriffs that you just can't trust. No one listens to me in these movies....


  1. I remember seeing "The Wild Angels" at the drive-in a million moons ago. That was pure drive-in fare of its day - 1966? I haven't seen "Race with the Devil," but it sounds like one of "Angel's" evil offspring :)

  2. I love these 60’s era chase/terrorize movies. We’ve talked about Hot Rods to Hell before. This is another great one with one of my favorite girlfriends, Lara Parker!

    1. I remembered from DARK SHADOWS, of course, but had forgotten she was in RACE WITH THE DEVIL. As I wrote, she gives a fine performance. She deserved more film roles, though she had a long successful career in television.

  3. Some years back, this epic came up at Mystery*File, where I got to reminisce about how I first got to see it at an indoor theater in Chicago - which in later years was repurposed as a Baptist church.

    I also observed that the director, Jack Starrett, had made a semi-anonymous splash a few years before, playing Gabby Johnson (he of the "authentic Frontier gibberish") in Blazing Saddles.

  4. My family was the quintessential drive-in family. My parents seldom took us to theaters but from May until October we piled into our Ford station wagon and crammed in as many movies as we could at the three drive-ins our city was graced with. "Gone With The Wid", "Bambi", "The Ten Commandments", even "2001: A Space Odyssey" were all poured into my eyeballs above the silhouettes of car roofs and sandwiched in between ads for mosquito coils and "Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!!". Luckily my Mom took me to see "2001" again a few later on another revival run in 70 my on an actual giant, curved Cinerama screen. Sadly, a few TOHO films aside, we saw few bonafide drive-in movies and absolutely no horror fare. I did catch "Race With The Devil" when one of the networks aired it a couple of years later and remembered being pretty engrossed. Like everyone else I rolled my eyes and hollered at the screen when the RV rolled off the highway to camp for the night at film's end. It's a pity that VCRs helped finish the drive-in movie. Seeing even a cruddy summer popcorn movie at one of the few remaining drive-ins just isn't the same.

    1. The drive-ins were a great way to discover movies that just didn't make it to most theaters, like SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD (with Errol's son Sean) and even Hammer's later movies.

  5. Whoa – this sounds like a tense, paranoid flick.

    Warren Oates is an actor I know next to nothing about, and you've prompted me to learn more.