Tuesday, July 12, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Race with the Devil

Rounding out an unofficial “six Satanic degrees of Sam Peckinpah” trilogy, ‘Race with the Devil’ – starring Peckinpah alumni Warren Oates and R.G. Armstrong – is pretty much the ne plus ultra of backwoods 70s devil-worship movies … even if the devil-worship itself is restricted to one scene and what follows is more in the nature of a chase movie informed by a city-types/rednecks mutual antipathy dynamic.

In other words, it’s more like ‘Vanishing Point’ (only with an RV instead of a muscle car) meets ‘Deliverance’ (sans riverside sodomy) with just a soupcon of Satanism thrown in to get the narrative underway.

Said narrative is simplicity itself: bike shop owner Frank Stewart (Oates) and his best buddy, dirt-track racer Roger Marsh (Peter Fonda), head off on a cross-country trip with their respective womenfolk – Alice (Loretta Swit) and Kelly (Lara Parker) – but make the mistake of spending the first night out in the wilds instead of at an RV park. They witness a Satanic ritual in which a girl is sacrificed. The Satanists twigged on that they’ve been spotted. Roger and Kelly and Frank and Alice (which sounds like a movie in its own right!) hightail it out of their. The local sheriff (Armstrong) undertakes a cursory investigation but tries to convince Frank and Roger they were mistaken. Our heroes get back on the road, but it soon becomes apparent they’re being followed. Not only followed, but targeted.

Jack Starrett – an always dependable director of unpretentious low-budget fare (‘Cleopatra Jones’, ‘The Gravy Train’, ‘A Small Town in Texas’) – judges the material perfectly. He spends no more than fifteen minutes setting up the characters and their cross-country drive, then cuts to the chase. Quite literally. With only two stops – the first, ill-advisedly, to inform the law; the second, before they full realize the extent of the Satanists’ influence, at an RV park – Starrett keeps his protagonists in the RV and on the move for most of the running time.

He also ups the ante on their paranoia. After Frank and Roger have their story pooh-poohed by the sheriff, and Alice and Kelly find a rune that’s been left on the RV as a warning, a two-book heist from the ‘occult’ section of the nearest library gives them implications a-plenty to ponder. What started out as a spot of schoolboy voyeurism – Frank and Roger watching exchanging magnifying glasses as they watch the ceremony from the opposite bank of a river and whoop it up when the female participants cast their robes off – darkens as they realize what they’re dealing with.

What gives the movie its crawling, nasty tension is that they’re never quite sure who they’re dealing with. Kelly in particular gets a bad case of the heebie-jeebies, imagining the minions of Satan at every twist and turn. Hatchet-faced old librarian? Satanist. The overbearing couple next mobile home along at the RV park? Satanist. Bunch of weirdos around the swimming pool checking out Kelly and Alice in their cozzies? Satanists. The ornery fella at the gas station (played by Starrett himself)? Satanist. The drivers of the various cars and pick-up trucks who try to run the RV off the road in the smash-’em-up finale? Definitely Satanists!

The idea that so many people are involved (the revellers at the ceremony probably number a couple of dozen, tops) is almost a flaw. So is the fact that for all of their communing with the Bad Dude, these backwoods Luciferians seem to rely on entirely earthly means of stopping Frank and Rog and the gals.

Or do they? The final scene, often written off as way too coincidental, actually suggests a late in the day manipulation of the protagonists’ actions by occult means. There’s a revelation that legitimizes Kelly’s concerns, then Starrett wraps things up with an image that’s as bluntly and abruptly effective as that of ‘The Devil’s Rain’. And equally contentious.

‘Race with the Devil’ is a terrific little B-movie. Tense when it needs to be, nasty when it wants to be. Worth watching, and one to make up your own mind about. It is pure coincidence that they make a certain stop in the almost sigh-of-relief finale, or has a higher, darker and gleefully sadistic power guided them there?

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