Throughout the seventies, the subject of "cults" was a ripe source for filmmakers.
Perhaps as a result of the Charles Manson murders in 1969, and Manson's subsequent trial at the start of the decade, there was mass apprehension - paranoia, even - about the dangers of these types of groups. Countless exploitation movies were made, especially for television, about families dealing with and trying to rescue their brainwashed hippie kids.
Towards the end of the decade, the world watched in horror as the Reverend Jim Jones led as many as 900 followers of his People's Temple on a suicide mission in Guyana, South America.
What does this have to do with Race With the Devil? Nothing, really. The film simply combines the fear of cults with the tried and true formula of Steven Spielberg's Duel to give us one of the decade's most underrated, fun chase movies.
The cast included Peter Fonda, typecast nicely as a biker in his Easy Riders mode, and Loretta Swit, then in the middle of her successful television stint in M*A*S*H* as the irrepressible "Hot Lips."
Veteran actor Warren Oates, star of countless features including The Wild Bunch and Badlands, co-starred.
The director was Jack Starrett (1936-1989), who had previously helmed episodes of the Planet of the Apes TV series, Starsky and Hutch and the blaxploitation "classic" Cleopatra Jones. In fact, he has a small role in Race With the Devil as a gas station attendant, as does one of the writers, Wes Bishop...who plays a deputy.
Frank Stewart (Oates) runs a motorcycle shop with his partner Roger March (Fonda) in San Antonio, Texas. It's January and they've been planning a much-needed vacation...to avoid the summer crowds. On the day they're set to leave, Frank, his wife Alice (Swit), and Roger's wife Kelly (Lara Parker) pick Roger up at a racetrack where he's been honing his skills.
Roger is thrilled to see their mode of transportation, a new motor home that the Stewarts have purchased. It's equipped with all the modern conveniences to make their trip a success. Roger and Kelly's pooch Ginger is also along for the ride. They take off immediately for Aspen, Colorado to take in the skiing.
Towards the end of their first day, the women want to stop and get some rest. Frank tells Roger they don't need to spend the night in a trailer park because their home is self-contained. He sees the perfect spot to pull over in...calling it a "private road to seclusion" and they settle in for the evening. The area, situated next to a river, is beautiful.
While it's still daylight, the men race each other on their bikes and the women go for a walk. Kelly notices that Ginger seems agitated by something in the area. She looks out across the river but doesn't see anything.
Alice says that perhaps the dog is cold. Regardless, the women are spooked and they go back to the RV. Roger and Frank end their race when Frank falls off his bike and lands on his behind in the water.
Night falls and the two couples have dinner and enjoy a glass of wine. Frank makes a toast to, among other things, "the best damn vacation we may ever have in our lives."
The guys continue drinking outside as their wives go to bed. Tipsy, Roger and Frank hear something across the water. They look over and witness a huge fire suddenly ignite. Frank grabs a pair of binoculars to get a better look.
They see a group of people decked out in robes, chanting and engaged in some kind of ritual. Their leader is wearing a mask and brandishing a sword. Upon closer inspection, they notice that some of them have dropped their clothing and are naked.
Some members of the group hold a woman in the air and Frank and Roger's amusement is cut short when Frank sees the girl stabbed with a dagger. The two can barely believe their eyes.
Alice steps out of the motor home and tells them to come inside and go to bed. Frank yells at her to turn the lights out and the leader of the cult hears him. The other Satanists immediately descend on the two couples.
Alice and Kelly have no idea what's going on and Roger explains that they saw a girl murdered across the river. As they try to drive away through the water, the vehicle stalls. Alice gets behind the wheel as the men try to free the motor home using some brush. They get it going - but as they try to go up a hill, their pursuers pounce on them and smash the windows with logs.
Roger fights them off as the wives scream in terror. Finally, they're able to drive to the nearest police station. Sheriff Taylor (R. G. Armstrong) apologizes for their ordeal and tells Deputy Dave (Wes Bishop) to do a check to find out which townsfolk may have been injured.
The sheriff also informs Roger and Frank that they need to go back to the area to look for any evidence before it's removed.
The women are left behind in the motor home while their husbands drive back out with the two officers. Sheriff Taylor asks them where they're headed and Frank says Aspen. The sheriff tells the men that the problem with this particular area of town is that "a bunch of hippies" moved in and are doing drugs all the time.
When they arrive at the spot where they had camped, there's no sign of anything...not even the couple of hundred dollars of equipment they left behind. On the other side of the river, Sheriff Taylor and his deputy find remnants of a fire and a few drops of blood, which they take back for testing.
Frank comes across the mutilated body of a dog hanging from a tree. Driving back in the squad car, the sheriff tries to convince Frank and Roger that they only imagined having witnessed anything out of the ordinary.
At the motor home, Kelly notices a note attached to one of the broken windows as she and Alice are cleaning up. It's some kind of witchcraft message, which they can't decipher.
While their husbands are still with the police, the two women head out to find a library. There, they peruse two reference books, one of which has a photo of a ritual similar to what their husbands saw. When the librarian tells them they can't take them out, Kelly hides the books in her bag and they quickly leave.
Frank and Roger are driven back to the RV and Sheriff Taylor tells them to go on with their vacation and leave the investigation to him and his department. Franks asks him if there's a place they can take the vehicle in for repairs and the officer recommends a mechanic in the north end of town.
The repairman (Phil Hoover) is less than enthusiastic. He attempts to patch up the back window, while Roger tells Kelly and Alice that he noticed something odd about their experience with the police...Deputy Dave knew exactly how to get to the camp area without directions.
Frank dismisses any conspiracy talk but becomes unnerved by a passage in one of the witchcraft books that Alice reads from. It describes a ritualistic setting exactly like the one he and Roger witnessed, even down to the full moon. Frank notices the mechanic overhearing the conversation and he closes a partition for privacy.
Roger reads part of the message the cult members left on the motor home. It includes a warning as follows: any evil you cause will be returned to you nine fold. "They're trying to screw with our brains," he says to Frank.
Not wanting to leave it alone, he comes up with an idea. He shows the rest of the group a blood sample he secretly picked up himself and says they should take it to the first big city police department they find.
They head out towards Amarillo, Texas but first stop at a "five star" recreation vehicle park to spend the rest of the day and evening. The women go for a swim in the pool.
But Kelly gets an uneasy feeling from the other vacationers when she notices several of them staring at her. She tells her husband she wants to go home and Alice is sympathetic to her wish. Frank insists they go on with their vacation so they can enjoy the skiing in Colorado.
A friendly couple stops by the motor home. Jack and Ethel Henderson (Clay Tanner and Carol Blodgett) welcome the new faces and invite them to dinner. Alice declines, saying they were already planning to go out that night. The pushy Hendersons recommend a place in town for some steaks and country music.
Over a couple of beers, Frank tells Jack and Ethel about what happened to them. "Witches? That's the damndest thing I ever heard," Jack says. Temporarily forgetting about their troubles, Frank leads Alice to the dance floor.
Kelly catches one of the men in the band staring at her and it makes her uncomfortable. It's getting late and the four of them leave as soon as a bar fight breaks out.
When they get back to the motor home, a dreadful sight greets them. Ginger has been killed and is hanging from the door. Kelly holds the dog in her arms and is inconsolable, while Alice is in tears as well.
A small crowd gathers and Roger and Frank ask if anyone saw or heard anything. There's no response, despite the fact that the door was pried open with a chisel. They board the motor home and leave the park at once.
Kelly believes the vacationers in the park were the same people who terrorized them the night before. She says they were followed. Alice opens one of the compartments to make coffee and a huge rattlesnake leaps out. With all the screaming and everyone in a panic, Frank crashes the vehicle into a tree. To the group's horror, they find a second snake.
Frank and Roger are nearly bitten but they manage to kill the creatures. (Frank disposes of one with a ski pole, while Roger grabs the other and bashes it against a wall.) Kelly wonders what other surprises might be hidden and the men check out the RV to be sure it's safe.
As they're about to take off for Amarillo, they discover something is wrong with the engine. Roger offers to go out with a flashlight but Kelly is terrified that the cult members might be outside. The group decides to spend the night in that spot.
The next morning, Roger buries the dog and Frank attempts to fix the RV. They realize that the tires on their bikes, which are attached to the back of the motor home, have been slashed. They go to a gun store, where Roger tries to use the phone. The owner (James N. Horrell) tells them it's broken (of course). They leave after purchasing a shotgun and some ammunition.
Next, they stop to get the tank filled and the gas station attendant (Jack Starrett) wonders what happened to the back window. Franks tells him he fell asleep while driving.
Again, Roger tries to call the highway patrol but the operator tells him the phone is out of order. The attendant says it's been busted for a month and gives them directions to Amarillo.
They get back on the road but a couple of trucks soon try to drive them off it. Frank manages to shoot at one of them, causing it to overturn. Eventually, they elude the other two and even succeed in knocking one off a bridge - where it explodes in a fireball.
Alice and Kelly are in hysterics and exhausted from their ordeal. Frank continues driving but is forced to stop at the scene of an accident which is blocking the road. As they get closer to it, they realize a school bus is involved and Frank senses that it's a trick. Why? Because it's Sunday!
He steps on the gas and a few of the men in the crowd take off after them. One of them is the mechanic who serviced the motor home some miles back. Roger knocks him off the vehicle and shoots another guy in the chest.
A third man gets on top of the RV and stars pouring gasoline through the sunroof. He's killed by an overpass but others follow. By using everything at his disposal
(gasoline, the shotgun, the bikes attached to the back of the RV), Frank is able to thwart their attackers.
Finally, it seems as if the four are safe from harm. With the headlights broken, they turn off the road and find a good spot to rest for the night. The sun sets and they break out some martinis to toast their survival. "Hey everybody, lighten up, it's all over," Roger says.
Outside the motor home, a tree goes up in flames and loud chanting is audible. The couples look out the window and see a crowd of people in robes walking quickly towards them. Among them are the "nice" Henderson couple and Sheriff Taylor. Soon, the fire spreads around the RV and this time, there's no way out...
Wes Bishop scripted this film with Lee Frost. The two had previously teamed up in 1972 for the camp classic The Thing With Two Heads. Frost directed that one from a story they wrote together, about a bigot (Ray Milland) who wakes up to find his head transplanted onto a black man's body. See it at your own risk!
But we digress. Race With the Devil is a strong film that never fails to entertain. It still packs a whopper and some of the sequences are chill-inducing.
Jack Starrett keeps the pace going nicely with his taut direction. He puts the two couples through the ringer and the chase sequences he devised are hair raising.
The main cast of four is superb - as the travelling vacationers who simply saw something they shouldn't have. Luscious lipped Swit, Mary Jane Wana-smoking hippie Fonda, a kick ass RV replete with all the trimmings and, to keep it all cooking, a devil cult who knows not the meaning of "let it go." If only they didn't mess with the fucking cute dog...damn.
A great setting and non-stop action enhance this "RV in the desert" thriller. The dark and moody climax becomes more powerful and original with each passing year, as Hollywood shies away from endings where the protagonists lose.
Race With the Devil is fun, fun, fun in the '70s.