If you mixed two parts Smokey & the Bandit with one part Rosemary's Baby, and added just a pinch of Duel, you'd concoct a movie like Race with the Devil. It's not exactly a horror movie, but has at its core a violent satanic ritual. When two vacationing couples witness this ritual, they are subsequently terrorized on what becomes a road trip from hell. It's not scary, but is nevertheless an edge of your seat action thriller.
If their characters were written today, Frank and Alice (Warren Oates, Loretta Swit) and Roger and Kelly (Peter Fonda, Lara Parker) would be stereotypical NASCAR fans. They're good American people who enjoy their liquor and the great outdoors. They're the kind of folks I imagine sitting under the stars with their friends, feeling more than a slight buzz and posting on Facebook, "Life is good." They're also the kind of folks who would be more likely to believe they're watching an orgy than a human sacrifice.
In a state of the art RV (by mid-1970s standards), the four travelers have everything they need. As Frank states, "We don’t need anything from anybody. We are self-contained." They drive down their "own private road to seclusion," oblivious about what's at the end of it. But they're soon speeding back up the road, with cult members in hot pursuit. Explaining to the wives what they saw, Frank says, "Murder. No joke, no kidding, no bullshit. Murder."
From here through the end of the movie, everyone they encounter is a potential cult member, from the sheriff who wants to write off the incident as a result of the men's irresponsibility, to the elderly patrons at the swimming pool of an RV park. No gas station attendant or mechanic is above suspicion (and no telephone works). The cult is relentless, climbing all over the moving RV, planting rattlesnakes inside it and (spoiler alert) killing poor Ginger, Kelly's cute little dog.
I find great pleasure in Race with the Devil every time I watch it. Recently, I got a smile from a particular scene between the two women. Lara Parker played the witch Angelique in Dark Shadows. So, when Loretta Swit asks her what a "rune" is and she is able to instantly explain, I think it's funny. Of course, she of all people would know all about witchcraft! (That's not part of the movie, though. Parker's Kelly is the one most traumatized by the experience.)
The stuntmen in Race with the Devil must have had a huge payday after filming the last part of the movie. As the RV gets pinned between a box van and a tow truck on the highway and a detour takes our heroes to meet their fate, vehicles crash, burn and fly over bridges. While catching their breath at the end a desolate road, Frank says, "Lighten up. It's all over." Famous last words, I guess. There are two minutes left in the movie, plenty of time for a twist.
Not a great movie by any means, Race with the Devil is inexplicably entertaining for me. There are bar fights, explosions and car chases. Absolutely no thought is required. Watching it makes me want to sit back, relax and crack open a Busch Lite. Boy howdy, I mean to tell you, there ain't nothin' wrong with that. Life is good…
Written by Lee Frost and Wes Bishop
Directed by Jack Starrett
Starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker, R.G. Armstrong
Released June 27, 1975
RT 88 min.
Home Video Shout! Factory (Blu-ray)