Film Review: Race with the Devil (1975)

Back in the days of ace late-night film season show Moviedrome (in this case the era of the show hosted by Alex Cox), Race with the Devil was the kind of exploitation feature that would get a comfy screening after 10pm on a Sunday, the kind of piece that might not have necessarily been a cult film, but with showings like this, probably developed a cult following as a result. When I was maybe 10-12 years old, I caught Race with the Devil with my sister and my mum. We loved it. Now before I get literally thousands of e-mails bemoaning the lack of TV censorship in the Fletch household, I must emphasise that in the US Race with the Devil was, astonishingly, rated PG. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the films that got PG certificates in the US back then. The most insane example still has to be Poltergeist, a film which contains a bit where a guy rips his own face to pieces over a sink, got a PG. A PG! Over here, Race we got a seemingly more sensible AA (the equivalent of today’s 15, which Poltergeist obviously got back in 1982).

The film was made in 1975, and inbetween that and the night we first watched it, there had been that whole thing called the eighties, where horror, to us at least, had become more modern, gross and full-on, and as such the 1970s stuff was likely to have been regarded with more trusting eyes. As long as it wasn’t The Exorcist. Of course, the 1970s is where the best horror ever still comes from, but in th early nineties, a film like Race with the Devil was likely to have been considered far more harmless that Freddy or Jason and whatnot. And you know what? It’s kind of a perfect horror film for a pre-teen, in that it’s proper flippin’ scary, but mostly free of explicit violence (there’s no sex and only good ol’ ‘son of a bitches’ and ‘shits’ on the profanity front). It’s likely to inspire nightmares and the serious late-night chills in any ten-or-so year old, as it did with me, but it’s a horror film, what do you expect? I totally endorse the presence of scariness in children’s films, and Race with the Devil is kind of the next step before becoming a teenager and working your war towards the really scary stuff.

The film’s an effective blend of tyre-burning chase thriller and Satanic horror – two best buddies (Peter Fonda and Warren Oates) take their wives for a journey in their top-of-the-line RV to Aspen, but long before they get there (if they ever get there….) they secretly witness a dancing-naked-round-the-fire spectacle in front of the scariest tree ever which ends horribly when one of the party seems to willingly allow themselves to be stabbed to death by the group’s leader. The guys, properly freaked out, have their cover blown by one of the wives who’s shouting loudly at them to ask what’s going on. Now this bit really, really infuriated my mum and sister back on that night – they were both like ‘SHUT UP! IDIOT!’, but even though in the context of the horror they have pretty much sown the seeds of their own destruction, the film does make it clear that she couldn’t have had the slightest clue as to what was going on. Yeah, I said one of the wives – I think it was Hot Lips from the TV version of M.A.S.H, it could have been the other one.

The wives are pretty standard characters – they are exceptionally tolerant of their husbands’ recklessness, adopting a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude, only proving their independent worth when they investigate the bizarre witches’ rune that has been left as a warning on the back of the RV. This bit’s pretty funny because they visit the small local library in Nowherestown and actually manage to find the right kind of book that translates the heirogyphics. Weirdly, despite not being members of the library, they try and check the book out! They’re on the road, when were they thinking of returning it? Told that it’s a reference copy, they steal the book (tut, tut and TUT) and promise to each other that they’ll mail it back some time. Given the context of the horror, this is understanable as they are desperate people in a desperate situation, but this bit annoys me more than the bit earlier when Hot Lips can’t keep her mouth shut. Don’t steal from libraries! Don’t steal from charity shops, either.

Anyway, paranoia sets in and it seems like everyone on the road doesn’t like our happy campers, who decide to toy with them just long enough to sustain the length of an hour-and-a-half film – the police don’t seem to be taking any of the guys protestations seriously, there’s a creepy bit where the other wife, during a public swim, is ogled at by every ugly, dodgily toothed and leery old man in the vicinity (the film’s not every subtle in its insistence that anyone outside the big city is a wrong ‘un), and yes, the family dog is killed. Oh, come on, that’s not a spoiler – back in the day, if there was a cat or a dog in a thriller, it was dead. It’s true, and we expect it. Even today this seems to be the case – David Fincher knows this and knows we know this, which is why watching Gone Girl after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is particularly satisfying. Pity, because the dog in this one is ridiculously, heartbreakingly cute. The tension mounts and mounts as we move on – there’s a really good bit with a couple of unwelcome rattlesnakes which hasn’t dated because it looks real (I suppose that’s why the BBFC doesn’t like it) and everything builds to a terrific action sequence where the bad guys just go for it and try to drive our heroes off the road.

Then there’s the ending.

I won’t reveal it, but it’s the kind that will linger in the mind of a naive ten year old viewer. All I’ll add is that the directorial/editorial decision to freeze the frame and let the credits roll over the final image is a surefire way to give the younger version of me the proper midnight terrors. Well done.

Race with the Devil contains casual references to feline slaughter, what passed as a state-of-the-art mobile home back in the mid-seventies, a properly chilling opening credits sequence and the kind of normal, everyday filming locations that make the outrageous horrors that take place there all the more freaky.

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