Monday, August 22, 2005

It Came From Netflix! Race with the Devil

I hadn’t seen this film since I was a teen (I believe I saw it playing on a late night CBS movie slot), and had only spotty memories of it. However, it has recently joined the official ranks of Hollywood’s new commitment to Remake Every Horror Film of the 1970s. The redo is expected next year.

Having just reacquainted myself with the original, I can now say that it’s pretty decent. More heretically, however, I think it could actually be improved upon in the remaking, if they do it right. (Which they won’t, but anyway.) Even so, Race with the Devil is a solid candidate for an update because any version of it made now would almost certainly be markedly different in approach than the old one. So one can, at least, see the point of it all. Aside from making money, that is.

Two married couples, Peter Fonda and Lara Parker (a veteran of the gothic soap Dark Shadows) on one hand, and Warren Oates and Loretta Swit on the other, have plans to take an extended road trip vacation together in what was in that era a pretty swanky RV. Early on, Oates parks them in a beautiful and remote tree-filled canyon, and they all sit back and enjoy Nature’s Splendor.

Sadly for everyone concerned, however, Fonda and Oates stay outside that night getting tipsy. Seeing a fire across from where they are parked, they make their way through some trees and espy what they at first believe to be an outdoors orgy. (It was the ‘70s, after all.) Unfortunately, it turns out to be a Satanic ritual, and the men are literally flummoxed when they witness a human sacrifice.

As they stand there befuddled—both because it’s hard to believe what they’ve seen, and because they have been hitting the sauce—the coven’s attention is drawn their way. I won’t go into how they get spotted, but it’s a nice horror movie moment, in which someone who doesn’t know what going on just obstinately refuses to do what they are told by someone who does.

The campers are chased, but manage to escape in their RV. The next day, Fonda and Oates return to the scene with the local police. Neither man is much impressed with the investigation, and they decide to stop at the first big city they come across and alert a higher level of authorities. Sadly, they’re not overly covert about these plans, and soon they are engaged in a highly deadly roadside pursuit with a swarm of Satanists.

Well, not soon exactly. And there’s the rub. After they leave the small, ominous town behind, the movie detours for a good thirty or forty minutes. On the one hand, they do so to slowly build the mood, and the other, no doubt, they wished to marshal their budgetary resources for the big chase finale. Still, if Race with the Devil is a horror/action film, which it is, one could definitely see how at least the action elements could be severely ramped up.

Now, in execution this means the remake could well turn out to be a Michael Bay-ian exercise in witless cinematic Elephantitis. However, the first film left some weird holes that could logically be exploited this time around. When we meet Fonda, for example, he’s introduced as a professional, highly skilled dirt bike racer. Moreover, the campers take a couple of dirt bikes with them on vacation. Oddly, though, neither the bikes nor Fonda’s skills are ever used during the chase scenes. That just seems strange, and will presumably be rectified in the new version.

Race with the Devil is certainly worth a look. However, modern horror fans might find its pace and discursions offputting (the best horror part of the film is the truly creepy opening credits). In pretty much the entirely middle third of the picture, nothing much happens. To some, this serves to lend the film more verisimilitude, but others will no doubt wish somebody would just, you know, do something. Also, the way the leads nonchalantly putter around hither and yon after just narrowly avoiding being murdered by Satanists will strike many viewers as manifestly unlikely. Maybe the characters in the movie just didn’t watch a lot of horror films.

Assuming that the low-key horror stuff was written with a mind towards keeping the film grounded in reality—nothing really occurs that necessarily smacks of the supernatural—that makes the often silly and exaggerated action scenes even odder. A good part of the film’s final half hour is a Mad Max-like chase scene, and it’s pure ‘70s hokum, with vehicles inexplicably exploding at the drop of a hat, and a truly unlikely sequence where a guy manages to drive on two wheels for way too long a time.

The 2006 version is to be directed on a novice helmer, but one who worked as a producer on the road trip horror flick Joyride. Presumably that provides some indication of what the remake will end up being.

7 Comments:

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

I just happened to write a small article on this movie for a local paper. I think it's a lot of fun, although I agree that the pace slacks a bit in the middle and that a remake could conceivably be a good thing. The Anchor Bay DVD has a neat commentary where the producer reveals that he and director Jack Starrett were brought in two weeks into filming to replace the originals, and that the memorable ending (which is what everyone remembers about the movie) was cobbled together in the editing room.

 
At 10:01 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Marty, I'm sure we both believe that a sequal could equal or even be better than the original.

However, I also you that are also, like myself, less sanguine that this will prove to be the case.

Also notable on the DVD is an extended interview with Peter Fonda. The disc's producer really did a good job on this one.

 
At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Sarah Brabazon-Biggar said...

My dad is always telling me about this movie but could never remember the title. Now it's in my queue; thanks.

Our citified family is always somewhat uncomfortable when we're out in the wilds (ie, in a state forest picnic ground half a mile from a highway) and we're always half-jokingly pointing out evidence of satanic cultists in the area.

Race with the Devil is the scenario that's always lurking in the back of my mind when I'm way out somewhere at night.

 
At 9:58 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Yeah, during the whole Viet Nam / Watergate era, horror films (and exploitation films in general, hence the hicksploitation movies) often featured city folks or young, with-it kids finding themselves endangered in some rural, "all American" setting. These range from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Macon County Line to Jackson County Jail to Deliverance to Race with the Devil, and naturally were partly meant to exploit the loathing amoung segments of the youth market for Amerikkka at large.

 
At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Sarah Brabazon-Biggar said...

You have to admit, though, that there was a rather strong gun rights message in the movie. Oh gosh, Peter Fonda riding on the roof of a Winnebago and blasting buckshot into Satanic motorists was the best action sequence I've seen in a while.
I wanted to know more about the Satanists. What made an entire county of Texans change religious teams? The lack of any kind of backstory left the villains kind of flat and goofy. And I think the ending was ridiculous.
Still, I certainly liked the movie---anything that affirms my Satanists-lurking-in-the-woods worldview is OK by me.

 
At 7:48 PM, Anonymous tam1MI said...

Yeah, during the whole Viet Nam / Watergate era, horror films (and exploitation films in general, hence the hicksploitation movies) often featured city folks or young, with-it kids finding themselves endangered in some rural, "all American" setting. These range from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Macon County Line to Jackson County Jail to Deliverance to Race with the Devil, and naturally were partly meant to exploit the loathing amoung segments of the youth market for Amerikkka at large.

You forgot the progenitor of 'em all, Ken - EASY RIDER, where are three young "with-it" heroes are, respectively, bludgeoned to death, shot, and blown up by country hicks.

Of course, considering that just a few years previously three young college boys had been forced off the road in rural Mississippi and brutally murdered by 'fine, upstanding' country folk, the paranoia becomes a bit more understandable...

 
At 8:20 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Sarah --

You know, I almost commented on my favorite scene in the movie. Fonda and Oates walk into a roadside store and just plunk down some cash and buy a shotgun from an array of gun the store has hanging on the wall.

Man, those were the days.

 

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