Thursday, October 18, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 17: Race with the Devil

October 17th: Race with the Devil (1975)

Jack Starrett's Race with the Devil is a trim, confident road-thriller. RwtD simmers for the first two thirds (the way good thrillers often do), establishing rhythm between characters and creating tension, simply by not alluding to any terror to come. This provides necessary context for an extended series of scares in the final act (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This model may be named "endurance cinema": the payoff is going to be big, going to be great, only patience is required. And the payoff in this film is fantastic; Race with the Devil really cooks in the final third.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as two old friends on a skiing trip with their wives in a brand new RV, whom stop over in a small Midwestern (I presume) town for some shut eye. Putting a few beers away outside the RV, Roger (Fonda) and Frank (Oates) notice something a bit strange just over the hill. It seems a black magic ceremony is underway, robes and all. Frank and Roger have a great time checking the action out with binoculars, until things get ugly: it seems a human sacrifice is needed to complete the ritual. From here the Satanists pursue the men across the film, on and off the road.

While Starrett claims he cast real Satanists for this early scene, the film is not concerned with the supernatural. Its not really even about the practice of Satanism. We never see these specific people again; there is no villain, there is no mastermind. The threat in the film comes in the form of the automobile, as anonymous trucks pursue the RV Ala Duel.

Oates and Fonda play the only real characters in the film. Loretta Swit and Lara Parker play their wives, yet are completely decorative in function. While many chase movies mythologize the male speedster at the expense of any strong female characters, Race with the Devil is really remarkable in its blatant sexism. The wives here are constantly weeping, and utterly unable to defend themselves or even think rationally in the face of any obstacle. Wives Alice and Kelly are in constant need of consoling from their heroic husbands, and only require that they assert themselves, rather than include them in any strategising or defensive action. In this capacity women are presented merely as cinematic trope, as necessary props.

In fact, male assertion is the theme of the film. In one scene, Fonda stands reluctant with a shotgun before a Satanist climbing through the RV's rear window. Oates, driving, barks, "Do it!" and Fonda fires. The idea, I suppose, is that post-hippie city-boys must regain their manhood via a test, a quest through the unknown wilds of uncivilised America. It always struck me as odd in films like Deliverance that the "city-folk" presented acted pretty much exactly like the hicks they faced off against (except with better teeth, of course).

Alas, this stuff comes with the territory. I'm willing to overlook this particular nastiness out of respect for the excellently choreographed final chase. This sequence is plainly the film's raison d'etre, and it must have been great on the big screen. While the "gotcha!" final reveal I saw coming a country mile away, I was left quite satisfied by this well-dressed, expertly-paced bit of genre filmmaking. Liked Death Proof? Give this one a queue.

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