For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: Race with the Devil, directed by Jack Starrett, 1975
Race with the Devil is the story of adventure-seeking thirty-somethings who decide to take a road trip together in the world's most 70's-ian RV. Our protagonists are a pair of couples (or a couple of pairs if you'd rather) who are about as rugged as a cashmere sweater. But in an effort to assert their outdoorsy proficiencies, they turn up their noses at the idea of spending the night in an RV park and instead opt for parking amidst the trees and rocky shores of the wilderness. All of this seems idyllic until the men folk spot a strange gathering across the creek. Seems like little more than a swinging party until a young girl ends up dead; ritualistically sacrificed. When the hapless honeymooners are spotted by the Satanists, what follows is a cross-country chase wherein our vacationing boobs are besieged by the minions of Beelzebub. Will they survive this terrifying ordeal? How massive is this diabolical cult? Why does Warren Oates always appear as if he just got through crying?
Race with the Devil is a great movie. But its degrees of greatness far exceed the typical, dubious criteria for such distinction from a Terror Tuesday film. It is not just entertaining, though it is that, nor does it fit within the so-bad-it's-good stratum. Race with the Devil is a simple film with a fantastic concept and spot-on execution that would qualify it as quality cinema even by stuffy, more conventional standards of film criticism. All that being said, it's also a badass Satan cult film. The more of this subgenre I see, the more I enjoy it. It also gives me even further appreciation for the genius that is 2009's House of the Devil; a beautiful homage to one of the more esoteric branches of the horror movie tree.
Before I go any further, I have to acknowledge how proud I am that Race with the Devil was filmed in Texas. The film opens with a gorgeous tracking shot that follows the RV as it cruises right past the Alamo. No, not the best movie theater in the entire world wherein this glorious weekly ritual takes place, the actual Alamo...you know, from history and stuff. The whole film is littered with classic Lone Star beer ads and creepy old folks left over from the pioneer days. I'll tell you one thing, I will never be able to listen to country music again without thinking of Mephistopheles; take that rock-n-roll.
A fair portion of what makes Race with the Devil so great is the talent attached. The film was directed by Jack Starrett who, in addition to rocking John Rambo's world as one of the more sadistic police officers in First Blood, also directed one of my absolute favorite blaxploitation films of all time: Slaughter. This has to be Starrett's most accomplished work and any director would be fortunate to have a film like this in their cannon. And if I really need to tell you why a film featuring both Peter Fonda and Warren Oates is awesome, I honestly feel bad for you. The two have such an honest back-and-forth as to create phenomenal onscreen chemistry. Not only that, but these guys are so damned likable that you desperately want them to escape their Satanic pursuers. The film also features character actor extraordinaire R.G. Armstrong whose resume reads like a Cult Film Hall of Fame roster: White Lightning, The Car, White Line Fever, Evilspeak, Children of the Corn, and Terror Tuesday alum The Beast Within just to name a few.
What I love so much about Race with the Devil is how it takes the dark menace of such an evil cult out of the shadows of old houses and flaunts it across an entire interstate highway. Suddenly just getting out of the basement where the painted freaks are slaughtering goats is not enough to save you from their wrath. In a lot of ways, Race with the Devil is like North by Northwest. I can hear your various heads turning sideways and your eyebrows cocking, but hear me out. The reason North by Northwest was so unique and effective is that Hitchcock defiantly took horror out of the claustrophobic environments that constituted the genre's norms and created real suspense in a wide-open expanse. He made the once guaranteed safe zone just as dangerous as the locked rooms and dank dungeons that were more obvious with their ominousness. Race with the Devil takes that idea, sticks a couple of horns to its head, and puts it on wheels. Awesome!
The ending of this film is truly terrifying. It's not only a shock when we discover just how many people are involved in the cult, but it pulls into focus an interesting subtext of the film. The whole movie centers on four people literally running from the worshipers of the devil, but on a metaphorical level the film is a statement about the innateness of evil within us all. We do everything we can to outrun the darkness that lies dormant inside of us but sometimes the effort proves futile. For me, that's what the ending of this film represents. The travelers make a valiant effort but in the end they cannot escape the evil. I may be reading far too much into this, but I like to think this is what the writers had in mind.
Apparently a lot of people were informed of the greatness of this film because the house was absolutely packed. I was thrilled to see so many people who, though Terror Tuesday regulars, had not attended in quite some time. The mood was electric during Zack's intro; replete with his donning of pagan robes in honor of the prince of darkness. This was definitely an audience favorite and the incredible car chase nearly brought the house down.