In A Really Red State: RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975)
I just can't escape this movie - it burns white-hot in my mind just like the first time I saw it. It's a lightning rod of a flick, a film that separates two stages of my watching life (a designation few films share with it): things seen before, and things seen since. Unwittingly, I have succumbed to its power.
When I think of Warren Oates and Peter Fonda witnessing the satanic ritual that will endanger their lives from their campsite in the woods, it still gives me a chill, a rarity among those magical 70s horror films that I've become so familiar with, and even rarer still that it completely holds up to this very day. When they slowly realize they've been spotted, and flee in their motor home only to be pursued by the cultists, it's horrifying, exhilirating, enthralling and just a wee bit gleefully hokey, in that way the best of these genre films can be.
And that's just the beginning.
Oates and Fonda (and their wives, the fantastic Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) are pursued throughout small-town Texas, encountering members of the cult at every turn and in every strata of society. This is classic horror movie stuff, and it gets my rocks off. And I haven't even mentioned the crazy 70s road movie part of it all yet; a genre with which both Fonda and Oates are synonymous with. Let's not forget this is RACE WITH THE DEVIL, after all.
The chase scenes, in which the boys must fend off assailants as they attempt to board the RV, attack them with guns and sharp objects, and sometimes threaten to run them off the road (successfully, finally), are thrilling and suspenseful. True to form, the movie also starts out with a couple of stressless dirtbike/motorcycle sequences for good measure - to please the real gear-heads in the audience, no doubt. If there's one flaw in all of this, it's there is no scene in which Fonda is pursued while on his bike. That would be movie heaven.
The ending is also ballsy, even if reminiscent of other endings from the time - a freeze frame that allows us to assume the worst as the RV (and the heroes inside it) is surrounded by the flames that signaled the beginning of the first sacrificial ceremony. And it's satisfying. And unexpected. And still horrifying.
Watching RACE WITH THE DEVIL, I realized how life-changing movies could be all over again. I've loved Oates forever (especially as GTO in Monte Hellman's superb TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and as the title character in over-looked gem COCKFIGHTER), but he was pitch-perfect for me here, and I re-learned the many charms an actor like that posesses for a viewer. Like film critic Kim Morgan's other rough-guy heroes (among them both Oates and Lee Marvin, another similar screen-love of mine to hers), Oates plays to his physical strengths, which are definitely not those of a matinee idol. He's all real, all tough, and all American male. And despite co-billing, Fonda's a supporter. This is truly Oates's show.
And what a show, guys. What a show.
(For Kim Morgan's brief write-up on RACE WITH THE DEVIL as well as a bit about Peggy Cummins in GUN CRAZY and how amazing The Runaways are, check out her piece at Sunset Gun).