[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
After witnessing a satanic episode of black rites and human sacrifice in some out-of-the-way Texas campsite and then trying in vain to get some action on the matter from the local police force, Peter Fonda remarks to Warren Oates, “Frank, they’re trying to screw with our brains.” Fonda’s face is dead earnest as he delivers the line, which seems like some wildly misplaced throwaway from a grade-Z science fiction flick, invested with about as much foreboding as an order for ham and eggs. It may be significant that he doesn’t say anything like, “They’re trying to fuck with our heads,” which might be edging a little too far in the direction of counter-kultcha lingo; after all, we don’t want to alienate anybody out there who might actually be getting off on Race with the Devil—an apt title indicating Starrett’s dual concentration on spooks and chases. Like a liberal politician, “screw with our brains” is restrained even in its most daring affectations of looseness, and its timidity is only accentuated by the ex-hip aura of Fonda, who’s getting a little older and a little safer than the free-spirited threat to conservative lifestyles Captain America represented in Easy Rider.
In Race with the Devil any lingering image of the quietly angry-young-something Fonda of the late Sixties goes out the window. Now he rides a sputtering trailbike on a circular racetrack and grins through a couple of martinis and a pair of binoculars at some bare-asses weirdos dancing around a fire across the river from their campsite. He’s just about middle class, complete with property, wife, a shaker of afternoon cocktails, and a two-week vacation that ends up as a prolonged chase sequence that has Fonda and Oates desperately fending off threat after threat upon their lives by successfully retaliating in kind, much to the glee of certain folks in the audience I sat with. The “they” Fonda mentions, if you haven’t guessed, are some people in cahoots with Satan, and the movie is about them following Fonda, Oates, and their women through Texas because they’ve seen too much. They exert some kind of psychic influence, I guess—it never is made any too clear—but mostly they’re just trying to snuff them out: once with some rattlers that pop out of a cupboard and hiss and sputter and strike during about five minutes of frenetic intercutting and a lot of screaming, and then by simply trying to run the camper off the road. That’s stuff it doesn’t take demons to do, and no matter how many of “them” stare mesmerizingly at Fonda’s wife (is she possessed?), we feel nary a twitter of fear at anything having to do with the unknown, while we do, or are supposed to, react to a conventional collision of good guys and bad guys with a lusty appetite for colorful crashes and spectacular catastrophes of the sort that marked the demolition-derby ending of Starrett’s previous film, The Gravy Train. In Race with the Devil there is at least no repugnant effort to elicit empathy after giving the audience a superior edge on dimwitted protagonists we were supposed to laugh at before they met their bloody ends, but there is a similar bit of logical absurdity in expecting people to grow frantic at Race‘s final, tacked-on image after ninety or so minutes of all-too-human antics. The best that can be said in Starrett’s defense is that he didn’t expect it at all and that he’s perfectly well aware of the lowly manipulativeness of this generically hybrid ripoff.
RACE WITH THE DEVIL
Direction: Jack Starrett. Screenplay: Lee Frost, Wes Bishop. Cinematography: Robert Jessup. Editing: Allan Jacobs.
The Players: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker, R.G. Armstrong, Wes Bishop, Clay Tanner, Phil Hoover.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann