Wednesday 18 July 2012

Race With The Devil
(Jack Starrett, 1975)

Having inadvertently formalised the concept of “70s Backwoods Satanist Movies Inexplicably Featuring Great, Sam Peckinpah-Affiliated Actors” (or 70sBSMIFGSPAA, if you will) in my Borgnine obit post last week, I thought the least I could do was undertake perhaps the first ever deliberate overview of this much overlooked sub-genre, beginning with what is probably its commercial and creative high water mark, 1975’s ‘Race With The Devil’.

Before we begin, I’d suggest having a good look at the UK quad poster art reproduced above. Imagine walking past a cinema and seeing THAT outside!* I’m sure we can all agree that there would be no possible option but to go in and buy a ticket immediately. Clear the diary, family commitments be damned – I am going to see this movie in which Peter Fonda and Warren Oates fight hooded Satanists with shotguns and drive a tooled up camper van off an exploding bridge, and I am going to see it now.

Such is the kind of reaction ‘70s exploitation distributors seem to have been banking on through much of the decade, and so my feeling of having been born several decades too late increases. I mean, fuck Batman, y'know? I know where my hypothetical dollar is going. Not that ‘Race With the Devil’ is exactly an exploitation film in the strictest sense guess, being bankrolled and distributed by 20th Century Fox… but, well, I’ve always been a little confused as to what precisely it is, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s got a totally stupid horror plotline and a mind-blasting, action-packed poster that would put Roger Corman or Crown International to shame, but at the same time, it’s got big studio money behind it and… Peter Fonda? Warren Oates? I mean, those guys maybe weren't A-grade marquee names in ‘75, but they were still proper actors, y’know? Men who picked their projects carefully and tried to make sure they ended up in quote-unquote good films – that being a very definite distinction back in the pre-Spielberg ‘70s, and one that did not tend to embrace crazy-ass scripts about rampaging Satanists and exploding camper vans.

So what happened? How did they both end up doing this film? Did Fox throw their weight behind producers Wes Bishop and Lee Frost (whose Saber Productions brought us the unforgettable mad scientist/race relations extravaganza The Thing With Two Heads in ’72) before or after the talent was on-board? I have no idea, but I bet there must be a good story behind it.

One thing I do know is that Fonda and Oates were good buddies in real life, so maybe that had something to do with it. The pair played out a close, borderline homoerotic, friendship in Fonda’s excellent directorial debut ‘The Hired Hand’ (which I reviewed here), and as the legend has it they spent much of the early ‘70s palling around off-screen as well, buying land next door to each other in Montana, enjoying a relaxing lifestyle of huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, and no doubt male bonding like crazy.

So with its rural location shooting, rip-roaring action scenes and broadly similar tale of two happy-go-lucky dudes enjoying each other’s company, perhaps the script for ‘Race With The Devil’ simply offered them a fun way to collect a pay cheque whilst continuing to have a good time together (and without requiring them to really knock-one-outta-the-court acting-wise, the way they’d have been expected to do in a ‘serious’ film)..? Pure speculation of course, but who knows. I mean, this was the ‘70s. Maybe they just had Bishop & Frost round for dinner one night, busted out the coke, got talking about this great idea they had for a movie and hey…. y’know how these things go. Before they know it they’re sitting in the camper van, taking direction from biker movie/blaxploitation veteran Jack Starrett, wondering how all this might affect their hopes for an Oscar.

And as to the movie that resulted? Well in spite of the talent and studio backing, Bishop & Frost’s script remains pure boilerplate exploitation, reheating some Satanist paranoia from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, mixing it up with fresh “rich city folk run into trouble in the country” riffs ala ‘Deliverance’, adding last reel car chase appeal and simmering til lukewarm. With correspondingly bland direction and lesser actors in the lead roles, ‘Race With The Devil’ could easily have been rote schedule filler of the William Girdler / William Grefe variety, but thankfully Starrett steps up to the plate with some surprisingly accomplished filmmaking, and Fonda and Oates can’t help but remain as charismatic as ever, irrespective of their intentions in taking on the project.

With a keen eye on the clock, the movie doesn’t spend a great deal of time on “getting’ to know the characters” type set up, but the stars ease into their roles so naturally it feels like we’ve known them for years. Perhaps drawing on their real life friendship, the dynamic between the two is established with scarcely a word needing to be uttered: Pete is the young(ish) hot-shot pro motorcycle racer, Warren his slightly older, crankier mechanic/garage owner buddy, and all is right with the world.

Oates is boastful and belligerent (bringing back a touch of his character from ‘Two Lane Blacktop’), but also sorta down-at-heel and self-deprecating – he realises he’ll never be as handsome or physically capable as his younger buddy, but that’s damn well not going to stop him trying, bringing his greater wealth and experience into play where necessary. This contest for alpha male status occasionally leads the two to bicker, but they always pull back from a full-scale argument, realising that their friendship is more important than their egos. Isn’t that sweet?

Of course, despite the focus on close male friendship, the film would also like to make clear that there’s nothing funny going on here, ya hear?, and to that end, both men have naturally brought their wives along for the ride. And this sadly is where the movie falls down as a potential character piece or small cast survival drama, simply because neither wife is really ever given the opportunity to develop much of a personality. It’s not that the script paints them as inept or empty-headed or anything, and it’s not the fault of actresses Loretta Swit and Lana Parker, who do a perfectly credible job; it’s just that whilst the men are granted fully fleshed out characters with a believable and interesting relationship, the women remain just.. their wives, sidelined to the extent that by the time we reach the end of the movie it’s still hard to tell them apart – a definitive example of the kind of ‘invisibility’ of married women in babyboomer-era culture that Fonda critiqued so thoughtfully in ‘The Hired Hand’ in fact. Oh well. Can’t exactly blame him for not learning his lesson here I guess, as he’s going to work solely with his ‘actor’ hat on. And like I say, this was the ‘70s. Presumably Swit and Parker’s real life equivalents were busy making sandwiches and rolling joints whilst the boys were yakking up a storm about this crazy movie they were gonna make?

Just as poorly served by the script are the film’s Satanists. Admittedly, the central sacrificial ritual that kick-starts our chase / flight narrative is pretty cool and effectively surprising / violent / chilling (plus I just can’t get over the genre-shredding surreality of seeing Warren Oates in an ill-fitting bobblehat inadvertently stumbling across a black mass – “ooh, they got, uh, some robes, and they’re havin’ themselves a dance..”). Beyond that though, the idea of an omniscient Satanic cult controlling a remote Texas county never quite convinces.

If, as if strongly implied, the cult covertly exercises control over populace and law enforcement within their domain, why do they spend most of the movie playing sneaky ‘cat & mouse’ games with the outsiders who have witnessed their sacrifice, rather than just killing them at the first opportunity? I mean, what’s their game-plan here? Do they think that if they just *scare* these people enough, they won’t bother to mention all the sinister goings-on to anyone once they’re safely over the county line? And also, if the cult exerts such omniscient power in a community of well-fed rednecks and ‘regular folk’ (presumably encompassing local officials, politicians, business leaders etc), how come their big ritual gathering is just some threadbare get together on a bare hillside, attended by a few scrawny hippie types?

Going further, we could also ask why the clerk in an apparently Satanist-affiliated gas station happily sells our heroes a shotgun and ammunition whilst they’re on the run, but… such are the questions you’ve got to contend with when you let the guys who came up with ‘The Thing With Two Heads’ write your script, I suppose.

I guess there probably wasn’t much Jack Starrett could have done to patch up weaknesses in the writing (not really your bag when yr a hired director and your producers wrote the script), but thankfully his work here is solid throughout, keeping things tense and well paced, with imaginative mise en scene, plenty of camera movement, tight cutting, bright colours and effective night shooting, plus lots of incidental local colour and period charm - everything you could ask of a no nonsense bit of commercial cinema really. Along with the quality lead performances, it’s this technical professionalism and directorial suss that goes furthest in helping ‘Race With The Devil’ live up to its unique concept, somewhat transcending its origins as a drive-in timewaster in spite of the script’s inconsistencies.

One element I thought worked really well was the ambiguity of the situations our characters encounter in the aftermath of the ritual. In particular, the scenes in which Fonda and Oates report what they’ve seen to the local sheriff are excellently played. Clearly something is awry with the cops’ flippant attitude and shoddy procedures, but to what extent are they implicated? Are they fully paid up cultists, are they just following the orders of some local bigwig who’s told them to keep clear, or are they simply lazy and inept? Even by the end of the film, we’re not quite sure.** A lot of horror stories tend to overplay their hand when it comes to stuff like this, throwing in some obvious giveaway (Lovecraft did so in just about everything he ever wrote, much as I love him), so to encounter a tale where it’s genuinely difficult to judge the trustworthiness of characters or surroundings is refreshingly unnerving.

As paranoia grows, the uncertainty that results from a mixture of incidents that could maybe, possibly be imaginary (broken phone lines in gas stations, creepy, starin’ locals) and threatening intrusions that are clearly NOT imaginary (snake in the cupboard, murdered pet dog) is well-managed, creating a sense of ever-present threat that would have been immediately dissipated if they’d filled the movie with hooded cultists running around at all hours and dudes with highly suspicious pentagram necklaces and so on.

All such subtleties are out of the window as we approach the high octane conclusion however, and, uh, yeah – the whole car chase sequence is pretty nifty, rip-roaring pre-‘Road Warrior’ fare, delivering on the posters’ promise of some wonderfully gratuitous vehicular destruction. This is the part of the movie that could really have been improved by having some red-robed cultists leaping about the place, but still… I ain’t complaining. Rednecks will do just fine. The ending that follows is a little abrupt - I could easily have gone for another fifteen minutes or so of wanton Satanist bashing – but then, I guess it’s meant to be surprising and abrupt, so, mission accomplished.

In conclusion, ‘Race With the Devil’ might not quite be the heavenly Peter Fonda / Warren Oates Satanist-blasting extravaganza of your dreams, but it’s still a lot of fun, and well worth a look as an example of an unusual, well-made mid ‘70s b-flick. Face it, It’s one of those film you’ve gotta see some time, so might as well grab some beers and get on with it.

*Although it cops out on the Satanist angle, this better known American poster for the movie is perhaps even cooler, and this alternate horror-themed effort is great too.

**Actually that’s not quite true – rewatching the movie to get some screengrabs, I noticed that there’s a brief shot of the sheriff amongst the cultists who surround the motorhome at the finale… but my point still stands I think.


Gregor said...

’Such is the kind of reaction ‘70s exploitation distributors seem to have been banking on through much of the decade, and so my feeling of having been born several decades too late increases’

You and me both!

Interesting review, quite fancy watching it, especially for the theme of paranoia. I’m curious about how this reappears and is treated differently in American horror through the decades. Oddly enough, I had some similar questions when I rewatched Messiah of Evil; were the police and normal people on the side of the cannibals or just confused/afraid or bone idle? Is it an attack on the motives of authority or just its perceived ineffectiveness?

In terms of back-wood horror (though sadly no Satanists or Wild Bunch actors) have you ever had the good fortune to come across High Desert Kill on your VHS trawls? I seem to remember watching it in the 90s and thinking it had some interesting ideas but was a bit odd.

Judging from the only clip I could find on youtube, it’s even madder than I remembered it:

I didn't actually remember the title but asked the British Horror film forum if they recognised a synopsis I wrote. I was so grateful it wasn't all a figment of my imagination.

Temple of Schlock said...

Frost and Bishop got the project set up at Fox with Fonda and Oates as the stars, and everything else fell into place -- for a while. I co-wrote an article about the making of this movie for Fangoria about 10 years ago, but have done a lot more research on it for a book I'm working on about Jack Starrett. It's a very interesting story. In a nutshell, Fox (1) couldn't believe Frost and Bishop could make a movie as cheaply as they claimed, so the budget ended up getting inflated by the two filmmakers in the most insulting, wasteful and contemptuous manner imaginable (much to the amusement of their low-budget peers still working in the drive-in/grindhouse trenches), and (2) forced an expensive and unnecessary rewrite of the script -- by John D.F. Black -- down the Saber team's throat; Black's contributions were thrown out by Frost/Bishop right before shooting began. These and other factors (like the fact the team was making and distributing porn movies on the side) contributed to their dismissal several days into shooting.

Ben said...

Thanks for the info - that's really fascinating. Would love to read the whole story sometime (maybe I'll be able to when your book emerges - hope it's going well).

Perhaps I was too hasty in blaming the film's faults on the Lee/Bishop script... I guess some of the finer points in the writing might have just fallen by the wayside in the midst of all the disagreements you mention?

And yeah, I thought the name Lee Frost had something to do with the porno industry, but wasn't sure a)how I know that in the first place, or b)whether it was the same guy.

Ben said...

Oh, and hi Gregor - good to hear from you!

I've never heard of 'High Desert Kill', but maybe I'll have to check it out.

And yes, you're right about 'Messiah of Evil' - that plays the paranoid uncertainty angle very well - there are a lot of really good "can I really trust these people? Are they evil, or are they just weird?" moments there...