Friday, June 19, 2009

Running down a dreamhome: Race with the Devil

After reading Susan Compo’s
Warren Oates: A Wild Life I found myself hungry for more Oates and tracked down a copy of Race with the Devil (1975). Written by Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, who had collaborated before on some fabulously intriguing genetic thriller called The Thing with Two Heads (72), and directed by Jack Starrett, who cut his teeth on Hell Angels on Wheels (67) and would later helm First Blood (82), this road action-heavy variation on the hillbilly horror flick finds Oates on holiday with his pal Peter Fonda, their lady friends Loretta Swit and Lara Parker, and a little pooch. On the maiden voyage of their newly purchased recreational vehicle, with Fonda’s requisite dirt bikes in tow, the happy campers cruise un-abused until an unfortunate choice of parking spot puts them in harm’s way. All hell breaks loose, and soon they’re careening down tumultuous stretches of Texas highway with Satan hot on their heels.

“It’s not a barbecue,” Oates deliciously quips as he and Fonda spy innocently on some exotically groomed strangers mingling around an enormous bonfire and wearing a conspicuous lack of clothing for a January night sufficiently frigid to inspire Oates to don a toque. Oates’ face lights up under his goofy headgear as he and Fonda get to figuring they’ve stumbled across some crazed hippies having an orgy, but any hopes of enjoying a free show are dashed when a dagger is crammed into the torso of one of the coven’s supply of naked and nubile blonde automatons. The crafty coven of rural Devil worshipers quickly realize they’re being watched and a chase ensues that will consume much of Race with the Devil’s remaining 70 or so minutes, though a sequence where the girls finish vacuuming up the first act’s damage and opt to hit the local library to do a little research into human sacrifice makes a pretty delightful detour in the otherwise driving narrative.

Surprisingly well-crafted and featuring utterly game performances from all involved—including R.G. Armstrong as a placating mustachioed sheriff—the Scooby-Doo premise makes for solid, often eccentric entertainment, with the relentless—and shirtless!—Southern Satanists leaping onto the exterior of the protagonists’ speeding fortress with Cirque du Soleil prowess and flamboyant Mexican wrestler garb. Setting some sort of precedence in sub-subgenre, Race with the Devil is surely among the few home invasion thrillers where the home in question is mobile. The novelty takes on extra resonance in early scenes where Oates’ character, with disarming earnestness, takes pains to establish just what this RV means to him, which is pretty much everything. Things are further imbued with meaning when you account for the extra-filmic factor that the geographically restless Oates was himself deeply enamored with his own RV, which he christened the Roach Coach. It must have pained him to have to witness the accumulative wear and tear done to the deluxe model they used for the movie.

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