“They followed us all the way from Bandera. They’re here right now. Watching us.” – Kelly Marsh
This one takes me right back to my mid-teens and chancing being able to watch horror movies under age at the local cinema. I’d walk to the ticket box calmly, politely and with all the detached cool that a nervous fifteen-year-old could muster. Happy days.
This film, while not especially scary, made an impression on me. What it lacks in shock value, it makes up for generously in menace and paranoia. And to be honest, then, as now, I’d rather have tension, unease and the subsequent paranoia built up in a story than a sudden quick jump scare. (Okay there’s one jump scare – but they’re allowed that one, because it’s a good one)
Back in the early and mid-seventies, horror was changing. Though it took horror specialists like Hammer a while to catch up with this evolution and it cost them. Cosy cliched gothic horror with Dracula and Frankenstein was out of vogue, and had been fading since the release of Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby both released in 1967. The final nail in the coffin being The Exorcist (1973). (No, I didn’t even TRY to see that one at the Palladium back then). But The Exorcist being the success it was, begat a plethora of similar themed films. Suddenly horror films were mostly themed on demonic possession, satanism and so on. Some were good, some weren’t.
Race With the Devil was an interesting hybrid. It combined satanism with a road/chase movie and I always enjoyed a good chase movie. Plus, it starred Peter Fonda, who I associated with road movies having seen him in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry the previous year and in Easy Rider on its re-release prior to that (The first X-rated film I ever saw at the cinema).
So, to the story. Roger March (Peter Fonda) and Frank Stewart (Warren Oates) own a motorcycle dealership in San Antonio, Texas. And with their wives Kelly (Lara Parker) and Alice (Loretta Swit) they head out on their first holiday in years. It’s a well-deserved break, and they’ve got a top-of-the-line motorhome with all the modern conveniences - colour TV, stereo AND a microwave oven for the trip from San Antonio to Aspen, Colorado.
But things go wrong on the first night. Deciding to go a little off the beaten track, they park their massive house on wheels by a river for the night. While the womenfolk are inside, doing women things like knitting (because this was the 1970s) the menfolk are sitting outside doing manly things like drinking. Now, on the other side of the river, and up a short rise, there’s the gnarled remains of a dead tree – and as they’re sitting there in the dark (because the curtains have been drawn on the motorhome because the ladies are getting ready for bed) the tree is suddenly lit up in flames, and there’s a full-blown satanic ritual going on. As Roger and Frank watch through binoculars, a young girl is ritually sacrificed. (I’ve often wondered how these cults attract nubile young women to their ranks, knowing they’re going to be stripped and gutted, but it takes all sorts, not for me to judge).
Just then, Alice decides to call the men in. Loudly. Bathing their clearing in light. So, the coven is now aware of their presence and come swarming down the hill, while our vacationers try to get the hell out of Dodge. What a time to get stuck in the river, eh? Their back window is smashed by the chasing Satanists as they make their escape in the dark, heading for the nearest town to report a murder.
The town sheriff (R.G Armstrong) is a little too keen to blame the whole incident on drugged up hippies (again, it was the seventies) but decides to take a look at the scene of the crime. Roger becomes suspicious when the sheriff and the deputy drive them to the tree – without being given directions. Uh-oh. And they find the remains of a dead dog hanging from the tree. Well, it’s case closed as far as the dodgy lawman is concerned and the party can enjoy the rest of their vacation. (Really? I’d have gone straight home, locked the door and vowed never to go outside again)
But while the husbands have been off with the law to the murder site, the wives have been cleaning up the mess and the broken glass. They find a piece of parchment hanging from the broken window – a rune, warning them that if they don’t keep quiet, vengeance will come for them ninefold. (I assume this was placed there after the cops were dusting for prints.)
Incredibly, they’re STILL going on vacation. They’re determined to get to Aspen, as they meet an assortment of weirdos in a trailer park, their poor little dog is discovered gutted and hung from the motorhome door and the jump scare. As they’re driving along, the men are in front while the women are in back preparing food (because, y’know – seventies) and a rattlesnake jumps out of one of the cupboards. Literally, it leaps out of the cupboard. Springs, even. And while rattler number one does that, despite the fact both women are cooking, they suddenly notice that there’s a second vexed serpent rattling its tail on the hob of the cooker. How they didn’t notice it earlier, I have no idea. But through all this, Frank keeps on driving, ultimately crashing and destroying the motorhome’s headlights on one side.
But they still aren’t going home (?????)
Pressing on, they stop for gas and to call for help, but the phone lines are down due to high winds up north. All this time, the coven is never far away, following. Eventually, we get to a full-blown car chase, where our vacationing couples kill more people than the coven ever did. Running them off the road, blasting them with shotguns – it’s carnage on the road. But despite them reporting the occultists for murder, and rightly so, they themselves seem to be able to shoot people down albeit in self-defence, with no consequences.
Eventually, they run out of people to kill and as dusk is approaching and they have no headlights, they pull over, off-road for the night.
Bad decision, a tree is lit up, the coven come out of the shadows and surround the motorhome in flames… Freeze frame, roll credits.
It’s an effective film, made stronger by the downbeat freeze frame ending that stopped just short of showing you the death of the heroes, (but you knew they’d croaked) that was typical of a lot of films of that period.
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