The Tomb of Terror: Race with the Devil (1975)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from horror films, it’s that I should never go anywhere or do anything. Looking for a nice vacation getaway? Better think again. Jaws and its myriad of rip-offs taught us to stay away from the beach. Every slasher film of the 80s taught us to never go in the woods. There was even a film entitled Don’t Go in the House! Most horror films are about people traveling somewhere and running into an unexpected sidetrack. In the 1975 action/horror hybrid Race with the Devil, two married couples get sidetracked on their way to Aspen by a witch coven. They should’ve known better than to do anything, anywhere!
The couples are Roger (Peter Fonda, Easy Rider) and Kelly Marsh (Lara Parker, TV’s Dark Shadows) and Frank (Warren Oates, Badlands) and Alice Stewart (Loretta Swit, TV’s M*A*S*H). Since Roger is played by Peter Fonda, he has to be a gearhead or racer of some sort. This time he’s a successful motorcycle racer. Frank is Roger’s best friend and designs the bikes he races on. Frank also owns a bike shop that is doing well for itself. After years of hard work, the two decide to take their wives on a vacation and relax for once.
Instead of flying to their Aspen destination, the couples decide to take a road trip in Frank’s brand new $36,000 RV. I never understood the appeal of this kind of vacation. If I’m going to Aspen, I’ll just fly to Aspen and spend more time at my vacation spot. Plus, outside of Final Destination, nothing bad ever happens in movies when you fly somewhere. But Frank wants to avoid people like the plague. That’s why he decided to go on a vacation in January, spend the entire time in an RV, and not stop for the night at a mobile home park. This last bit of social isolation was his biggest mistake. The couples stop for the night in an isolated field. They chose the spot because no one would be around. It turns out that’s what the Satanists were thinking too.
As Roger and Frank have a late night drink, they see something strange across the field. A large bonfire has gone up, and a group of people are chanting around it. The men grab some binoculars and try to get a closer look. At first they get excited; the group has dropped their robes and are dancing around the fire. “Maybe it’s an orgy,” Frank happily exclaims. But their tom peepery is spoiled when the leader of the cult, a large man wearing an ornamental mask, jams a knife into a woman’s chest. At this point, things go from midnight to six fast. As the boys scramble to get back into the safety of their RV, the cult members spot them and the chase is on.
This sacrifice scene is a solid piece of horror filmmaking. After this point, though, the film turns into much more of an action picture. As the RV speeds off, it gets stuck in a shallow riverbed. With cult members hot on their trail, Roger and Frank try to push it free, while Alice drives. They manage to get the wheel free, but not before some cult members jump onto the vehicle. Since it’s only the beginning of the movie, these hitchers are quickly disposed of. Then the characters do something very smart: they go to the cops. There are too many horror films out there where bad things happen and no one bothers to even tell the cops that something’s up. The only problem is, in this film, anyone could be a bad guy. The police could be in on it and lying to them, as could the mechanic who fixes their broken RV window or the people at the motor home park they eventually stop in.
This intelligence by the characters is soon done away with in favor of keeping them on the road. Instead of heading home, they decide that they don’t trust the small town cops and will be bringing some evidence of their own to the nearest big city. Since it seems the cult is only interested in scaring them off, there isn’t any reason to do this. Just go home and forget about it. But instead they keep pressing on and telling everyone they run into what happened to them. This makes it so the cult keeps upping the stakes, first by killing Kelly’s dog, and then by planting rattlesnakes in the RV.