Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Film Appreciation - Circle of Fire

Film Appreciation goes down the deadliest stretch of road in the country as Cody Hamman writes about 1975's Race with the Devil.

Race with the Devil is a much more recent discovery for me than the previous films that I've written Appreciation articles about. While I had heard of the film, and had even read the announcement of a remake (which still hasn't been made) in early 2005, I didn't actually see the movie until Anchor Bay released it on DVD in June 2005, the month that marked the 30th anniversary of its initial release. But once I had seen it, it quickly became a favorite.

The film tells the story of two couples - Frank and Alice (Warren Oates and Loretta Swit), Roger and Kelly (Peter Fonda and Lara Parker) - who set off on vacation in Frank's pride and joy, his new RV. "Thirty-two feet and gleaming", as he describes it, the RV has all the luxuries they'll need on their trip. "We are self-contained." (Quentin Tarantino later had Harvey Keitel and family repeat this line about their own RV in From Dusk Till Dawn.)

Their first night out, Frank parks on a secluded path in the countryside and he and Roger go ripping around dusty trails on their dirt bikes. Everything seems pleasant at first, but Kelly and her little dog Ginger start to get a funny feeling about the location they're in... When darkness falls, there turns out to be a good reason for their unease. Frank and Roger spot a fire in the night, across a small creek from where they've parked. A group of dancing, chanting people in robes form a circle around the fire while Frank and Roger watch them through binoculars and crack jokes. The women around the fire get naked. "An orgy, maybe?" But when the masked leader of the gathering plunges a dagger into the chest of a smiling, willing blonde, they realize that this is no laughing matter.

The cult is alerted to the vacationers' presence when Alice calls for Frank to come in for the night. The cultists give chase as the RV speeds away, and the film is off and running. The local Sheriff doesn't do much for them - he's no fan of the drugged up hippies who have moved into his town, but he tries to convince Frank and Roger that they actually witnessed the killing of a dog after a canine corpse is found near the smouldering bonfire. The Sheriff, played by legendary character actor R.G. Armstrong, is only the first of many questionable people the beleaguered group encounters.

A note from the cultists is found that warns them to keep quiet about what they saw and an air of dread hangs over the film as the couples try to continue on their trip. Trucks seem to follow them, bystanders seem to watch their every move. In one of my favorite shots, we watch the women as they walk down the side of the road and as the camera pans over, we end up looking at them through the windows of a parked truck with a rifle in the gun rack on its back window. Are they surrounded by cult members, or are they just paranoid?

A lot of this is witnessed through the (beautiful) eyes of Kelly, who continues to be particularly sensitive to the strangeness around them.

Strangeness escalates to violent acts, an RV full of rattlesnakes, and finally, in third act awesomeness, some great slam-bang vehicular assaults/car chases, the sort they did so well in the '70s.

The script was written by Wes Bishop (who appears in the film as Deputy Dave) and Lee Frost, who was also a director. Frost was set to direct this film, and did so for a few days, but was replaced by Jack Starrett when the dailies weren't up to snuff. Starrett was also an actor, appearing in this as a gas station attendant, and seven years later he played the role that he's probably most well-known for; the mustachioed jackass cop who helps drive Rambo over the edge in First Blood, and who is that film's one confirmed casualty.

Race with the Devil was filmed in Texas, and has a few ties to the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. Paul A. Partain, who was Franklin in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), appears very early on as a guy who's timing Frank's dirt bike run around a race track. When the couples stop by a bar with "country music, probably the best in the whole world" during their attempt to return to normalcy, the live band playing a catchy tune about having "to live on credit" is Arkey Blue, who had a couple songs on the TCM '74 soundtrack. They start to play a second song in Race and it's one of the songs that was featured in TCM, but it's quickly interrupted by a bar fight. Later, when a fed up Roger buys a .12 gauge shotgun, the gun store owner is James N. Harrell, the same man who sells chainsaws to Dennis Hopper in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Race with the Devil is great, a very cool movie that gets some recognition but still not nearly as much as I feel that it deserves. It has gotten more attention in recent years, Kevin Smith has riffed on it and referenced it as a favorite, and has said that it was an inspiration for his upcoming film Red State. Quentin Tarantino mentioned it in interviews for Death Proof and might have even used a snippet of its score. I'm not sure, it sounds similar. Drive Angry writer Todd Farmer also recently cited it as an influence on that film.

The 2005 Anchor Bay DVD had some good special features, a 17 minute interview with Peter Fonda and a very informative audio commentary with Lara Parker and executive producer Paul Maslansky. One thing they mention is that they considered titling the film Circle of Fire before coming up with Race with the Devil. Unfortunately, the Anchor Bay disc has since gone out of print. On April 12th, Shout Factory is bringing Race with the Devil back to DVD, in a double feature with another great Peter Fonda film: Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. That's an awesome double feature, I almost want to get it myself and I already own both of the movies, so I highly recommend buying that when it comes out.


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