A quintessential B-movie of the seventies and the perfect drive-in feature, Race with the Devil (1975) has all the necessary ingredients to please fans of exploitation cinema. A non-stop chase thriller in essence, the movie serves up car crashes, action stunts, female nudity, scary sequences involving Satanists and rattlesnakes, screaming women (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit) and the cult presence of Peter Fonda and Warren Oates as the male leads. Designed as a follow-up to 20th Century Fox's highly successful drive-in smash, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), which also starred Peter Fonda, Race with the Devil was a much more profitable venture for the actor, who encouraged his friend Oates to join him for this Deliverance (1972)-inspired road movie. Oates had previously worked well with Fonda on The Hired Hand (1971) and 92 in the Shade (1975) but withheld his decision about this project until his fifteen-year-old daughter Jennifer read the script and gave it her approval. Although the working title of the movie changed constantly - Race with the Dickens, Driving Witchcraft, Mobile Madness and So Mote It Be were among the titles - the official release title was the most descriptive and the initial cast and crew lineup were all seasoned professionals, many of them specialists in genre B-movies. The one A-list exception was music composer Leonard Rosenman; he had been nominated for Best Original Score four times (he won for Barry Lyndon  and Bound for Glory ) but also composed the iconic music for East of Eden , Rebel Without a Cause  and many more.
Scriptwriter/director Lee Frost had a strong background in exploitation cinema, having written the screenplays for Hot Spur (1968) and Chain Gang Women (1971) and helming such infamous soft-core items as House on Bare Mountain (1962) and Love Camp 7 (1969). Frost often partnered with producer/screenwriter Wes Bishop (Weekend with the Babysitter ) and the two of them had collaborated on such bad taste classics as The Thing with Two Heads (1972) and The Black Gestapo (1975). Together, Frost and Bishop wrote the screenplay for Race with the Devil while Frost was assigned to direct it. With the Fonda-Oates casting firmly in place, Lara Parker was assigned to play Fonda's wife (she had previously appeared in the popular daytime TV soap opera Dark Shadows) and Loretta Swit, who at the time was starring in the television series M*A*S*H*, was cast as Oates' wife. For the prominent supporting role of Sheriff Taylor, Jack Starrett was chosen. A B-movie actor and occasional director (The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie ) with a resume full of motorcycle films like Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and The Born Losers (1967), Starrett was particularly skilled in playing menacing screen heavies.
Shot in rural locations near San Antonio, Texas, Race with the Devil proceeded smoothly at first but Fox executives became nervous after a week of shooting when they learned that most of the dialogue was being improvised on set. Quickly they made a change, firing Frost as director and replacing him with Jack Starrett. R.G. Armstrong, an imposing character actor and veteran of several Sam Peckinpah films, was given Starrett's role instead though the new director still appeared in a bit part as a gas station attendant. Then the studio sent producer Paul Maslansky to the location to meet with the cast and crew and complete the picture with Starrett as director. This news was NOT taken lightly by Fonda and Oates who were friends with Frost and Bishop; at first, they barricaded themselves in their hotel room, refusing to come out. According to Susan A. Compo in Warren Oates: A Wild Life, the two stars "finally agreed to meet with the new team, but not before Oates had told Fonda, "Now listen, Flyer, I don't want you to get mad now. We go down for this meeting, I want you to keep your mouth shut, and don't say anything dirty. Let me do the talking." In the meeting room were a couch, a glass coffee table, and an air conditioner, on which Fonda perched. "Maybe you shouldn't just fire a director," Oates told Maslansky and Starrett. "Maybe you should consider what's going on and see if you can help the director instead of just..." Having run out of words, he picked up the coffee table and flipped it in the air, where it did a complete somersault and landed on its feet. Its contents were flying, but the glass table performed like an Olympic gymnast. Maslansky was not rattled "We had a couple of drinks," he said, "and the next thing you know, they were saying, "Well, okay, let's give it hell."
According to Fonda in his memoirs, "Most of the shoot was at night, and night shoots are always difficult. But Warren and I loved working together so much, we hardly noticed. We did have to tape signs on our doors that said, in Spanish and English, do not disturb before 4:30 p.m. during the night shooting. We would wrap by 5:00 a.m. or so, and take the drive back to the motel." Fonda would later say about the filming of Race with the Devil that "it was like going to camp with your friends and getting paid for it." Not only did he perform most of his own stunts, including the dirt bike racing which he insisted be worked into the film, but also provided his own shotgun for one attack sequence. While many of the stunts in the movie were dangerous and risky, the scene where the foursome are attacked by rattlesnakes in their R.V. was the most unnerving. "The snakes were Texas rattlers," Fonda said, "but in the crazy illogic of the movie business, they were imported from California. Naturally they had a handler with them. But when it came down to the nitty, Warren, Loretta, Lara and I were pretty much on our own while the cameras were turning and we weren't too happy about that at all." Oates was particularly upset and noticed that the snakes were agitated "because they didn't know they couldn't bite, so they just keep striking anyway, and if they hit your hand or arm, it just about scared you to death. Those weren't easy scenes. I think everybody had nightmares after that." It certainly wasn't easy for the snakes either and one of them became so frantic, it urinated on Fonda during the scene.
Once the cast and crew prepared to shoot the last scene in Race with the Devil, they realized it just wasn't going to work on screen so they improvised a new ending which is more in accordance with the downbeat endings of many horror films in the seventies such as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Mephisto Waltz (1971). Fonda later wrote that "The wrap shot came with us in The Ring of Fire [his name for their R.V.]. Starrett was acting the part of a gas station attendant pumping gas into the Ring's gaping tank. We had hidden many pies and water balloons on board. Starrett didn't see it coming. I pied him as I ran around the back of the Ring and Oates pied him when he turned around to look at the camera. Somehow, the crew had their own plan...The fight ended with all of us throwing pies, water balloons, and anything we could find at the Ring. We never wanted to see that damned thing again."
Race with the Devil turned out to a profitable film for Fox and became a minor drive-in classic of sorts playing continually on the circuit long after its original release date. The critics weren't particularly impressed though, with Jay Cocks of Time magazine writing, "AAA might use Race with the Devil to illustrate the perils of driving off the interstate. It seems of little use for any other purpose." And Joseph McBride in his Variety review reported that "Oates does his usual believably gritty job with the meager character material here. Fonda is less dreary than usual." Still, in terms of a low-budget genre film, Race with the Devil delivers the goods and holds up well after more than 35 years. TimeOut film critic Andrew Nickolds called it "A wittily efficient quickie, the film is a winner all the way - a surprise, since Starrett's career thus far had been the movie director's equivalent of a criminal record."
Producer: Paul Maslansky, Lee Frost, Wes Bishop
Director: Jack Starrett
Screenplay: Wes Bishop, Lee Frost
Cinematography: Robert C. Jessup
Special Effects: Richard O. Helmer
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: John F. Link
Cast: Peter Fonda (Roger Marsh), Warren Oates (Frank Stewart), Loretta Swit (Alice Stewart), Lara Parker (Kelly Marsh), R.G. Armstrong (Sheriff Taylor), Clay Tanner (Delbert), Carol Blodgett (Ethel Henderson), Phil Hoover (mechanic).
by Jeff Stafford
Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir by Peter Fonda (Hyperion)
Warren Oates: A Wild Life by Susan A. Compo (University Press of Kentucky)
Race With the Devil DVD commentary by Lara Parker & Paul Maslansky; featurette with Peter Fonda