Two couples, Roger (Peter Fonda) and Kelly March (Lara Parker) and Frank (Warren Oates) and Alice Stewart (Loretta Swit) have worked hard and long at their business to finally afford a vacation, and they plan on having the best vacation of their lives.
Frank has just purchased a brand new RV motor home and they all plan on cruising along America's highways and byways (taking in some dirt biking along the way) until they reach Colorado for a nice spot of skiing.
Pulling off the highway into a lovely, secluded area the friends relax, drink and enjoy the freedom.
But the night brings a horrifying spectacle that Roger and Frank bare witness to. In the near distance, around a flaming bonfire, a group of robed and masked Satanists sacrifice a young woman before the men's shocked eyes.
Fleeing the scene in the RV, after they are spotted by the Satanists, the two couples drive to the nearest town and inform the local Sheriff (R.G Armstrong) and his Deputy (Producer/co-Writer Wes Bishop) of what they saw.
The Sheriff seems reluctant to believe their story and makes only rudimentary enquiries before telling them to carry on with their vacation and that he'll be in contact.
But the four friends are about to find out that the Satanist's reach is long indeed and their vacation has turned into a race for survival...
Wes Bishop and Lee Frost (on directing chores) had been working in the Exploitation business together for a good few years and had already made the groundbreaking Nazisplotation flick "Love Camp 7" and the controversial "Black Gestapo" before they began work (writing the screenplay together) on "Race with the Devil" for versatile'20th Century Fox' Executive Alan Ladd Jr. ("Death Line").
But not long into the shoot the footage Ladd was getting back was not to his liking and so Frost was removed as director, although Bishop stayed on and even played a role in the film, and so Executive Producer Paul Maslansky ("Sugar Hill") and director/actor Jack Starrett ("The Losers") were brought in to save the project and get it back on track.
We can't say what "Race with the Devil" would have been like if Frost (a 'Grindhouse' legend but not the world's most exciting director) had stayed at the helm but we can see what the finished film under Starrett (who also has a nice little cameo) became. And it became a true mini-classic of the Drive-In circuit and later a much loved staple of late night TV for many years.
The greatest strength the film has is it's cast.
Fonda and Oates, although now past their 'hip' and industry changing prime, were still well respected (and Oates in particular was much admired) and sure enough they both brought an edge and a realism to the fanciful story to make sure that the film never, ever, went off into camp or unintentional humour. Something that it could have easily happened.
Fonda in particular brilliant at portraying his character's grim determination to find out the truth and he plays off the more cautious Oates to great effect.
Despite Loretta Swit being 3rd billing, and very much a bigger name thanks to the colossal success of TV's "M*A*S*H", she actually has a far more subdued and less interesting role (though she is fine enough in it) than the lesser known Lara Parker (although she'd had a cult hit with "Dark Shadows") who gives a strikingly emotional performance as Kelly March.
Kelly has been shown to be the most perceptive, as well as nervous, member of the group and the film cleverly uses this trait to put over one of the screenplay's strongest elements
that of paranoia.
Let's look at this paranoia more closely as it truly is vital to the movie's success. That the reach (and power) of the Satanists is far, far greater than the couples initially thought, it can't be (from a purely logical standpoint) as big as they later perceive.
This is portrayed best in the superb swimming pool sequence. Kelly and Alice go for a swim in the crowded pool of a motor home park and it all seems a million miles away from the horrors they have experienced.
But then Starrett has Kelly treading water (astutely in a set-up that totally isolates her visually) and suddenly noticing the people around the pool. Faces look down at her, wrinkled faces, hard faces, grinning faces. She casts her fearful gaze around and sees nothing but hostile eyes and mocking smiles.
And yet it is never set in stone that what she sees is the truth. The film cleverly blows the sequence up to an unreal level, as the viewer is shown so many varied people and faces, that whatever truth Kelly perceives (if there is any there at all) is lost in total paranoia.
Are all these complete strangers really looking at her and do they really all know who she is? Obviously not and yet perhaps, hidden in her paranoia twisted perception, there are indeed one or two dangerous eyes upon her.
One more sequence in the RV park (featuring some stunning acting by Lara Parker), following a night-time discovery, uses the frayed nerves and fear of the couples to brilliant effect. Frank rages at the onlookers, who shuffle out of their RV's to see what all the fuss is about, that someone must have seen and heard something. And this view has certainly been put over to the viewer as totally accurate, as is the fact that the Satanists are indeed in the park, and yet it can't be on the level that the characters now perceive it to be, as we witness their paranoia now starting to swamp everything.
That all these people in a legitimate campsite are Satanists is ludicrous, and yet they probably did hear something. But this is far more likely to be a case of that oft told tale of the woman who is raped down an alleyway right next to a crowded street and yet no one goes to investigate her screams. It's fear, it's uncertainty and it's callousness
but it's not that they are all Satanists. And yet now the screenplay has so expertly twisted the legitimate fear of the characters into an all-encompassing paranoia that now no one can ever be trusted again.
As this is the 70's we of course have the customary mistrust of authority and the dogged dislike by that authority to anything that pushes against it. And given that it is Oates, and most especially Fonda, that's involved these aspects take on a more knowing form.
Sheriff Taylor (a typically solid turn by the always welcome R.G Armstrong) announces to Frank and Roger that their Satanists were probably just some drugged up hippie weirdo's, something that irks Roger not only because he knows it's simply not true, but also because (given his age and what we have seen) that he quite frankly does not approve of Taylor's views of the counter-culture and those in it. And given that Armstrong is saying this to Fonda, one of the counter-culture, hippie figures in 60's/70's cinema, the entire conversation is especially pleasurable.
In fact it's obvious that Roger and Frank, despite their mainstream, respectable business success, still have one foot in the 'tune in and drop out' camp.
Although the film keeps the main action for the final 25 minutes or so, Starret (after the admittedly halting start to the film) makes sure that there is always something on screen to keep the audience's attention, be it sinister warnings, creepy looks or just generally suspicious (and interesting) characters for the two couples to face up to.
And on top of that (as well as the already mentioned strong acting from all the leads) Starret is blessed with some outstanding Cinematography by Robert C. Jessup who delivers striking vistas, tense dialogue exchanges and highly effective night-time (and sunshine) visuals that all make the film a pleasure to look at.
He also has the use of a very strong score by Leonard Rosenman (orchestrated by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino) that punctuates the action well and is superbly effective during the highly atmospheric opening credits.
As for the action scenes they are well worth the wait and the high speed chases (or should that be battles!) are a testament to the skill of the stunt team (many of whom, like Phil Hoover, feature as Satanists) which Lee Frost put together before being fired.
6 years before the ultimate multi-vehicle road mania of "Mad Max 2", "Race with the Devil" gives us a truly thrilling and exceptionally well staged crash and bash chase between three trucks and the massive motor home in a sequence packed with metal crunching, shotgun blasting, action.
We also have a smaller sequence that has less vehicles but gives us a lot of human action as the Satanists jump onto the back of the RV and battle with Roger on the roof. And in all these sequences we are not only treated to some great vehicle stunts but also some very impressive human stunts as people are thrown, kicked and blasted off the moving vehicles.
Obviously going for a 'PG' rating to increase the potential market, the film does not embrace the increasing explicitness of 70's cinema (to it's advantage and slight disadvantage according to the scene) and although some brief nudity is glimpsed during the Satanic ritual (anything too clear is carefully fogged, using the fire to help hide the fact) the film otherwise contains no sex or nudity and very little blood. There are a few violent one on one brawls but nothing that would risk an 'R' rating and in fact the movie goes for a more TV movie stance as far as much of the content is concerned. But unusually, for a movie with this storyline, the lack of explicitness never really detracts from the film's entertainment value, or it's ability to hook the audience, purely because everything else that we do experience (artistically and technically) is quite frankly so good.
This all leads to the (hastily concocted by Starrett and Maslansky) ending that is justly famous and often criticised. But it works on a visual and emotional level within the restrictions of the story and most viewers should find it totally satisfying and memorable.
Recently released by 'Anchor Bay' on a great looking DVD (with some interesting extras) "Race with the Devil" is yet another example of why the 70's were the greatest decade in movie making history from a Cult, Underground, Exploitation and even mainstream/Studio perspective and is an essential purchase for those that like to be entertained by brilliantly made, suspenseful and astutely cast and acted cinema.