Frank Stewart (Warren Oates) sells and modifies motorcycles, and Roger Marsh (Peter Fonda) races them at the track. As they prepare to head out with their wives (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit) on an epic cross-country vacation to a Colorado ski resort, one imagines they’ll be kicking up dust on their choppers over every hill and dale in-between with blissful fly-splattered grins. But Race with the Devil posits that if you’re going to enter into a war with a coven of Satanists, you can’t depend upon motorcycles. No, it’s the fully-equipped RV that will be your armored tank against evil. In the opening of the film, Fonda, in racer’s uniform, hops off his bike and strides toward the ginormous moving house which will become the principal setting of the rest of the film. His jaw drops in wonder: “Hot damn!” Oates proudly responds, “Thirty-two feet and gleamin’!”
In a scene roughly equivalent to the key moment in The Shining when Jack Torrance and his family are shown every nook and cranny of the Overlook Hotel, Because It Will Be Important Later, Frank leads Roger through all thirty-two feet of the RV. Color TV (with “perfect” reception). Four-burner stove. Microwave oven. Even a dog, cute as all get-out, sporting a little white bow upon its head, and a sign around its neck that says: “I will not survive the film, obviously.”
Though nearly every other spec is scrutinized and fawned-over, Roger doesn’t ask how many miles per gallon the RV gets. It’s his crucial mistake. The multiple pit stops which the group makes on their subsequent journey through Hell will balance their lives upon a razor’s edge.
As they head down a highway in the wilderness, Roger suggests stopping at a resort for the evening. Frank balks: they have everything they need right here, in the RV. So he heads off-road, at one point fording a wide but shallow creek, until they can set up camp with no other humans in sight. That evening, after some requisite motorcycling around the empty landscape, Roger and Frank sit outside the RV drinking under the stars. Suddenly, at the top of a nearby hill, a fireball ignites a bonfire next to a barren tree, and eerie cloaked figures emerge, dancing around it and chanting. Frank fetches the binoculars.
Satanists! The two are somewhat disturbed, until cloaks start to drop and naked females begin cavorting. While Roger hogs the binoculars, Frank asks, “An orgy, maybe? Whew, let me look.” But then out comes the sacrificial knife, down it plunges into trembling virgin flesh, and it’s clear that this is not your typical harmless occultist orgy. Almost simultaneously, Frank’s wife Alice (Swit) blows their cover by kicking open the RV door and screaming, “Frank!” Their wives will continue to be as useful for the remainder of the film.
Piling back into the RV as the cultists come sprinting down the hill, they race back toward the road, but their vehicle gets a tire stuck halfway across the creek. Although we can see the Satanists wading into the river (topless men sporting black capes and looking like they got lost on the way to Dragon*Con), Roger announces, “I’ll go get some brush!” – and promptly disappears into the woods. But he’s back a moment later, and as the two men pile the brush under the tire, it gains traction and pulls loose. The cultists hop aboard the back of the RV and smash the window, and the campers battle to shake them off. At last they safely gain the nearby town, and appeal to the sheriff. Although he seems helpful at first, incredulity begins to mount as he takes Roger and Frank back to the scene of the crime: a dead dog has been strung from the tree, and he’s convinced that the local “hippies” have just given the two outsiders a fright; it was only their imagination, coupled with alcohol, that made them think they witnessed a human sacrifice. But that’s not dog’s blood on the dirt, and those weren’t hippies, insists Roger. Back in town, cleaning the RV while waiting for their husbands to return with the police, the women discover an ominous note near the broken window…
In an attempt to interpret the note’s meaning, it’s decided they’ll head out to the local library. In a tome on witchcraft, they discover a full-color image of an Aztec sacrifice (presumably the author was digressing from the main topic quite a bit). The men have to see this, they decide. Thwarted by the rather polite and reasonable librarian (it’s a reference book – you can’t check it out), they steal it and hurry on back to the RV.
From there, Race with the Devil takes on the form of a mystery and race upon the open highways. As they pass from one grim-looking Exxon station to the next – and perhaps the most sinister RV park in motion picture history – the question turns from “Who amongst these gentle yokels is a Satanist?” to: “Really? Everyone’s a Satanist?” Briefly they are lured away from their RV to enjoy some country music at the local bar, but return to find their dog murdered and two rattlesnakes secreted away inside. (And these are spring-activated rattlesnakes, the worst kind, that can jump out of cupboards at you.)
While Parker and Swit spend the entire second half of the film screaming hysterically and acting generally useless, Fonda and Oates do a nice job splitting the role of the sympathetic protagonist. Oates, who was excellent in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), here gets to take his good-ol’-boy persona through several gradual shades of nervous breakdown, his slow-burning paranoia eventually reducing him to gunning his RV straight through a road blockade where a bus has apparently crashed – because why would a school bus be out on a Sunday? (He’s right; it’s another trap from the absurdly resourceful Satanists.) Fonda, too, is enjoyable to watch, underplaying each scene, guardedly observing every stranger, until he finally gets to violently let loose on the cultists during one final, desperate siege of the RV.
That last action scene, though perhaps a bit too brief, still offers a satisfying finale. Anticipating the climax of The Road Warrior by six years, it serves up a complex stunt sequence in which the Satanists join the RV in high-speed pursuit, leaping from their vehicles to climb aboard, as Oates, at the wheel, tries to shake them off, and Fonda chucks molotov cocktails from the roof and then blows them away, one at a time, with his rifle. There’s even a suspense scene involving those ridiculous little hand-cranked skylights which every RV has. It was obviously a joy to shoot these stunts. At one point a rooftop dummy standing in for one of the cultists gets thwacked by a low-hanging bridge; and as the RV swerves desperately to avoid a “wide-clearance” house being trucked down the center of the road, in the same shot you can see Fonda (or his stuntman) atop the RV firing blanks from his rifle.
The denouement, which the new Shout! Factory disc describes as “one of the greatest twist endings in drive-in movie history,” ain’t all that. It’s very typical downbeat 70’s horror, and as such – if you’re the kind of person who enjoys this sort of thing – it will likely bring a smile to your face anyway. It does provide an interesting and memorable visual, if nothing else. But in every way, Race with the Devil is the kind of film which could only have been made in the 70’s, mixing black magic and tire-squealing action as though such things belonged together.
And, of course, they do.