At one point or another, if you are a film buff, you become a Warren Oates fan. For me, this happened around the time I moved home from college. I was looking for a job and didn’t know many folks in the Raleigh area which resulted in having a fair amount of down time* on my hands. Given my situation, Netflix seemed liked a good investment, certainly a decent way for a movie lover to help pass the time. I was able to run through all of Oates’ films that were available at the time on DVD, and I am here to tell you, Race with the Devil is up there with his best staring or ensemble efforts, films like Cockfighter, Two Lane Blacktop, and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It became readily apparent to me what Richard Linklater meant when he said, “There was once a God who walked the Earth named Warren Oates.” He seemed to be cut from a mold of actor that doesn’t really exist in today’s film universe; hailing from the same school as McQueen, Mitchum, and Marvin, a school in which you are impossibly cool, all the time; the particulars of the situation be damned. He took full ownership of a presence unlike any other actor, one that would occasionally display a viciously crude façade—yet somehow remain likeable, no matter how colossal an id his creations displayed.
That charisma is on full display in Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil, a low budget horror/action/thriller hybrid that pairs Oates with Peter Fonda, an actor that he had an inordinate amount of chemistry with (they also stared in 92 in the Shade that same year). The legendary B-movie actors play business partners who decide to take a vacation from their motorbike shop, rent a top of the line RV (it has all the top of the line 1970s amenities: a shower, microwave, stereo, what appears to be shag carpet etc.), and head out from Dallas to Colorado with their wives in tow (one of them played by Loretta Switt of M.A.S.H fame) for some much needed R&R. Everything is aces until they decide to venture off the beaten path to camp and run into a satanic**cult that is in the middle of performing a sacrifice. This starts a high speed chase as our vacationers search out authorities to protect them from the cult, who is in hot pursuit.
Starrett had spent a fair amount of time functioning in the low budget, drive-in circuit—starting with 1969’s Run, Angel Run, he had a string of profitable exploitation films including Cleopatra Jones and Slaughter which led up to his magnum opus, Race with the Devil. His experience with small budgets and time constraints show through; the direction is tight and he does wonders with the claustrophobic setting the RV provides, contrasting it with the vast open spaces it hurtles down. He also proves to be a solid director of action as the film’s breakneck pace starts after the first 20 minutes or so and never lets up until the end credits roll. And my God is this movie intense. Apparently, Starrett decided to use members of a real cult in the film, a decision that, while rather disturbing, pays of in spades. The knowing glances they shoot back and forth to each other somehow manage to be creepier than the sacrifice that kicks the movie off.
Race with the Devil is a movie that is very much a part of the 1970s milieu. The film is drenched in the paranoia and ambiguity that would mark most of the great occult horror films, starting with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and hitting a fever pitch after the release of The Exorcist in 1973. Its style is that of disquieting horror, not the hack and slash version that would come to rule the multiplexes of the 1980s. And when a director has the good sense to cast Warren Oates, well, that’s just the icing on the proverbial cake.
*This is a more than a slight reduction of the truth; I had A LOT of time on my hands
**They are TOTALLY into Satan. But the jury is still out on their feelings towards clogging and spinal piercings.